(click thumbnail)CBS Sports is enlisting CBS College Sports Network, CBSSports.com and NCAA.com to cover the tournament.An increasing number of viewing options has whipped college basketball fans into a frenzy this season. In addition to coverage from the broadcast networks, there are more regional sports networks and new media technologies to help stoke the audience for this month’s March Madness, (March 16-April 7 for Men’s Division I; March 22-April 6 for Women’s Division I).
The NCAA’s big dance will be dominated by CBS, which has exclusive rights to the men’s tournament from the first round to the final game. ESPN will broadcast the Men’s Division I Play-In game (March 18) between the 64th and 65th contenders, and has rights to the women’s competition.
“Getting as many people involved in March Madness in as many different ways as possible is obviously an important goal for the NCAA,” said Greg Shaheen, the association’s senior vice president for basketball and business strategies.
“Championship week is where we take advantage,” said John Zehr, ESPN senior vice president for digital media production, alluding to the men’s playoffs that end before the 64-team brackets are determined. “On the championship side, we’ll be doing about 30 different games—maybe more—across all of our mobile video platforms.”
The agenda for this and the women’s series includes the MVP downloadable application bundled with Verizon’s VCast service; streamed broadcast video to the VCast Mobile TV channel (on Verizon’s MediaFLO service) and to MobiTV (distributed on AT&T and Sprint); and new products taking advantage of ESPN’s improved mobile wireless application protocol.
“We’re in the process of launching new versions of our WAP and Blackberry sites, as well as rolling out an iPhone-specific site,” said Zehr, insisting these will be ready for March. “It will be a richer experience, with more graphics and easier navigation, [and] will even have opportunities to link off to clip-casted video.”
(click thumbnail)ESPN360.com is now free of charge for anyone in the .edu or .mil domains, and for those using certain ISPs.Last fall, ESPN relaunched its broadband-based ESPN360.com as a live event-driven service, offering 225 college basketball games in January alone. In February, the sports network announced that it would open access to its live programming on ESPN360.com at no charge to anyone in the .edu or .mil domains.
ESPN projected that these college- and military-oriented fans would more than double the site’s user base, estimated at 20 million by ISPs that signed agreements with ESPN to give them exclusive access, according to ESPN spokesmen Paul Melvin. So, at press time, the new recruits and, for example, subscribers to AT&T, Verizon or Charter can get in, whereas Comcast and Time Warner Cable subscribers cannot.
This year, CBSSports.com—in partnership with CBS Sports, the CBS College Sports Network (formerly CSTV) and the NCAA—has expanded game coverage of the Men’s Division I playoffs on its NCAA March Madness on Demand service from 56 to 63 games.
This year’s options include a wider screen (640x360) video player, as well as live scoreboards and the infamous “Boss Button” (for viewers at work). VIP status guarantees instant access to the MMOD video player; fans entering gratis (thanks to Coca-Cola, Pontiac, AT&T and other sponsors) will be waylaid in general admission if the player is full.
CBSSports.com has also introduced an official NCAA March Madness Brackets application on Facebook, making it available to an estimated 63 million-plus active users online and via CBS Sports Mobile. In 2007, more than 2.6 million Facebook users joined at least one bracket group in a similar tournament feature run by the site, according to CBS Sports.
The new feature lets users fill out brackets with their picks for each round of the tournament and compare their picks with others, while having access to tournament coverage from CBS Sports, the CBS College Sports Network, CBSSports.com and NCAA.com, with live-action links to NCAA’s March Madness on-demand service. Fans can also participate in the app’s “Smack Talk Wall” and rank their favorite/despised teams, right from their phone via the CBS Sports Mobile Web site.
Behind the scenes, CBS upgraded its facilities for the main feed, completing its sixth production room revamp in February from standard definition to high definition, (a total of eight network coordination rooms will be used for the event). Moreover, a new policy will be implemented by the start of the tournament that requires ad agencies to supply HD commercials that are “4:3 safe.”
“What’s different this year is that we’re not trying to do it in hi-def and standard def,” said John McCrae, director of field operations for CBS Sports. “Last year we had to do as many feeds in HD as we could, and then we had to do a whole standard-def layer below it. [This year] our standard def will be downconverted off of the HD networks.”
As a result of the procedural and policy revamps, all feeds of all games going out to the network and to DirecTV will be HD from the first week of the tournament—an improvement on last year, said McCrae. The revamp will also allow CBS to coordinate and commercialize eight feeds simultaneously, improving the menu of “flex” (sampled games) and “constant” (uninterrupted local-interest) feeds to fans, he said.
Using previously untapped functions on the Harris NetVX SYS-200 video networking system allowed CBS to multiplex, which saved money on transmission this year, McCrae said. Utah Scientific HD/SD-2020 master control processors better tailor commercials by region, thanks to the new DVE in its switcher and other added features.
“A lot of work went into getting them to modify their design to get the features we need, [like] dual keyable sources so that we could key things over: promos, billboards, squeezebacks [scoring and sponsor information on the lower part of the screen],” McCrae said.
Omneon Spectrum media servers, which the network began using for commercials at the tail end of the NFL season, also improved throughput.
The Final Four games will be captured by F&F Production’s new GTX-15 truck (which CBS debuted at last year’s US Open Tennis tournament). The other seven trucks used during the three-week competition will be supplied by F&F, NEP (two, including the SS24 used by CBS for NFL games), NMT (two, including the HD12 CBS uses for PGA events), NCT and Chicago-based Corplex. CBS will use Ikegami HDK-79 EC cameras to capture all the action.