When Time Warner’s Turner Broadcasting unit puts on its annual upfront event in New York Wednesday morning, they’ll do so with one sure revenue draw they didn’t expect to tout so soon… until last week.
Their sure draw, in this case, subtracts one sure draw from CBS and its broadcast affiliates, whose mothership hits its upfront stage late Wednesday. We’re talking about the Final Four semifinal games of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament. Under the current TV rights contract CBS and Turner instigated three years ago, Turner networks TBS or TNT would alternate those games, and the championship game, every other year starting in 2016, Turner going first.
Now, under a decision announced last week with a press release and hastily-conducted reporter conference call, those national semifinal games come to TBS next year and stay there in 2015. What’s more, the four regional final (or “Elite Eight”) games, now exclusively with CBS, will be split in half between the two channels, again for 2014-15. Final score here: TBS gets a quartet of big college basketball games it can make the max of the next two years, while CBS affiliates lose that quartet with all the local ad and promotional opportunities in them. The deal from 2016 on stays as is.
The news came with platitudes from both parties on how “win-win” this new pre-2016 wrinkle will be. Yet you have to believe there’s no champagne popping among those CBS affiliates about this. More than a few people in that crowd must wonder why their network pulled these games away from them. What’s more, CBS didn’t offer any explanation over why, when all seemed so fine with their status quo, such a move was necessary. Nor is anyone saying if the affiliates had any input in offering more late-round games to TBS.
That leaves observers like to me to make a guess, so here’s mine: CBS is losing a ton of money on this NCAA contract, which runs until 2024, much more than they anticipated. While the four-network total audience for this year’s tournament (CBS/TBS/TNT/TruTV) was 11 percent higher than last year (averaging 10.7 million viewers), CBS’ solo ratings were down in the early rounds, not rebounding upward until the Final Four games. That’s on top of down ratings in 2012. Put the two together–steep loss and mixed ratings–and for CBS, something had to give. Or for this matter, give way.
We’ll see for ourselves how much those affiliates lose in return next March. For now, TBS celebrates landing one chunk of the NCAA Final Four in its lap, en route to landing the whole deal in 2016.