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CBS, WRAL expand HD and online access to March Madness
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CBS, WRAL expand HD and online access to March Madness

LOS ANGELES

CBS broadcast the last five NCAA basketball tournaments in high definition--but this year the network's going to be a lot more aggressive. Ken Aagard, senior vice president, Operations for CBS Sports, provided this assessment, noting there would be an HD game every single day--four the first week in March, then all games in the second weekend, plus The Final Four and Championship matches. And, for the second year in a row, Harris Communications will sponsor the networks' coverage of 39 games in hi-def and 5.1 audio, up from 12 in 2004.

NEP SuperShooters, New Century Productions and Corplex will supply the HD trucks (National Mobile Television will supply a standard definition truck for Round 1).

BACK TO BASICS

The increase in HD fare will turn the already tricky situation of covering a very fast-paced, multi-game event into an even more high-wire proposition. So CBS has pared down to basics, getting rid of, for instance, SkyCam coverage, which is not optimal on a scoreboard-dissected court.

"You really can't follow the action because it's always in front of your primary cameras," said Aagard. "So it ends up just being something that you use to get some movement of the crowd, and you can do that with a jib."

But CBS has upgraded its super slow motion cameras to the Thomson LDK 6200 high definition model (standard definition LDK23s from Philips were used last year). The cameras are outfitted with Canon HD lenses ranging from the telephoto XJ86X13.5BIE-D to the HJ11ex4.7BIRSE wide-angle for handheld cameras, and may include the Compact Studio XJ22X7.3BIE-D model. The last, introduced at NAB2004, is "one quarter of the size of a standard studio lens and one third the weight," said Gordon Tubbs, assistant director, broadcast and communications for Canon.

Ikegami's HDL-20 is the new "Behind the Backboard" robotic camera, replacing the standard model used last year. It uses a wide angle (4.8 lens) from Fujinon, said James Warden, CEO of Robo-Vision, which is providing the rig.

CBS will continue to use the eight-channel, 5.1 audio setup (Dolby E encoder and decoder) that it has had for more than 18 months.

Unfortunately, getting the upgraded audio signal distributed is still a problem.

"One of the biggest problems we face in our business is proper distribution of our digital audio," said Aagaard. "Headends are upgrading their own equipment at their own pace under their own capital plan for their own reasons--and the training of the people that operate this equipment is really way behind."

Graphics will get a new look, thanks to in-house software.

"We're hoping to implement something similar to the GameTrax used in CBS NFL games that include real-time scores and players statistics," said Mike Bird, graphics manager for CBS Sports.

ANYTIME, ANYWHERE

And the network is pushing broadband. On Jan. 27, CBS Sports, NCAA and College Sports Television (CSTV), a pay-TV and online college sports network, announced a deal that lets Internet users watch every playoff game.

"Anybody who's sitting at a computer will have access to watch full coverage from 56 NCAA Tournament games," said Sean McManus, president of CBS Sports. "All the games that are not being seen in your market will be available on your computer. There will be archival footage available, and there will be streaming video of interviews, pre- and post-game conferences and video highlights."

McManus would not comment on the financial arrangement with CSTV other than to say it was a combination of a guarantee and a revenue share. Elsewhere, reports claimed that CSTV will pay CBS a little more than $3 million for the two-year deal, plus the revenue-sharing component.

The fee for the "March Madness On Demand" online service is $19.95 (though there was an early sign-up special at half that price) and can be accessed at http://cbs.sportsline.com, www.cstv.com and www.ncaasports.com

One of the less-mentioned possible perks may be the ability to see more than one game at once.

"It's a little bit early to say specifically what the interface is going to look like," said CSTV president Brian Bedol, "but it will provide the ability to follow multiple games at the same time."

CSTV, Akamai and a thirdÊpartner were testing the capability of hosting a split-screenÊoption, according to Bedol.

"It's our goal to do it," Bedol said. "We're only going to do it if we're comfortable that we have enough lead time to do it right."

The viewer will also be able to click, scroll and/or toggle back and forth between stats, game action and chat.Ê There also will be three aspects to the video; a free highlights player (most likely a skinned Windows Media Player); more extensive highlights behind a registration wall and longer-form video for subscribers. But theÊview is tied toÊa PC.

"For this year the on-demand will not be going to a cell phone," he said.

CELL PHONE UPDATES

On March 14, WRAL-Raleigh, N.C. planned to debut an NCAA Tournament score update option on its News Over Wireless (NOW) service. Customers with Sprint PCS Vision mobile phones have dialed into NOW since last December.

For $3.99 a month, they can also download up-to-the-minute news stories, pictures, traffic camera images, weather forecasts, Doppler radar, and severe weather warnings to their mobile phones. Designed by WRAL's sister company, DTV Plus, with wireless application expertise from Air2Web, the template- and menu-driven app is designed for use on J2ME-enabled devices.

"We view this as WRAL's third screen," said Sam Matheny, DTV's vice president and general manager.

WRAL declined to discuss revenues from the service other than to state that it gets a percentage of the subscription fee, and that by late January, it got "hundreds of downloads."