Why Is Turner Ruining the Moment of National Unity that Is the NCAA Final Four?

Louisville basketball players celebrating after they defeated Michigan in the 2013 NCAA championship game in Atlanta Photograph by David J. Phillip/AP Photo

When Turner joined CBS in carrying the NCAA’s Men’s Basketball Tournament in 2011, it was a win for college basketball fans. Every March, Turner devotes hours of programming on TBS, TNT, and TruTV to ensure that viewers in every market can see every game live. No more living at the mercy of CBS regional coverage.

This year, for the first time, the semifinal games of the Final Four are moving to cable. What we’ve come to think of as the national broadcast will air on TBS. At the same time, Turner will offer alternate telecasts of the semifinals tailored to fans of each team on TNT and TruTV, as Sports Business Journal reported on Monday.

The move makes sense for many reasons. It offers consumers new choices without taking away anything. And while Turner will have to bear the cost of four additional productions—including distinct half-time shows—across the two games, it already has a small army of commentators and producers working on the tournament, so the expense should be marginal. The studio and staff capacity is there, as are the slots on the cable dial.

The alternate telecasts probably won’t add many total viewers, since team-specific fans presumably would have tuned in, anyway. Ad sales, which are bundled across the channels, similarly aren’t likely to gain. But at least a few viewers will tune in or switch over for the sake of the novelty. Even if that doesn’t help stem the ratings losses that go with moving programming from broadcast to cable, it should encourage viewers to get more familiar with the range of Turner’s offerings. Every viewer who bothers to find TruTV on their channel guide for the first time is a win for Turner. Some will probably be deliriously happy to avoid the horrible people who don’t know and love their team.

Yet I wish Turner wouldn’t. March Madness is one of the few pieces of mass culture, or something close to it, remaining in the United States. Millions of people, many of whom don’t otherwise follow college basketball, fill out brackets every year. President Obama has made a tradition of it in the White House. Last April, as SBJ reports, CBS averaged 15.7 million viewers for the Final Four—a number even the NFL could respect.

Part of what makes the Final Four a mass experience is the uniform coverage. We are all watching the same replays and hearing the same comments, no matter how inept. Grumbling about this is part of the fun. I know I am spitting into the wind, but I’d rather wince at a saccharine bit of coach worship and groan at dumbed-down analysis with countless strangers across the country than watch a telecast tailored just for me.

The majority of viewers will still watch the semifinal games together on TBS. And the final is still only on CBS. But Turner is taking another small step away from the rare ritual of mass viewing. Soon there will be no one left to laugh when I crack wise about Jim Nantz.

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