This year's NCAA Final Four was different that usual, and not just because a 7-seed played an 8-seed for the national title. As the Associated Press reports, TV viewership of both semifinal games fell significantly, by an estimated 11% from 2013. With arguably the most unpredictable tournament ever, why did ratings drop?
The switch to cable
The most likely culprit is the Final Four's move to Time Warner's (NYSE: TWX ) TBS from traditional host CBS (NYSE: CBS ) . Both stations are in the midst of a 14-year contract with the NCAA. Under the deal, TBS gained airing rights to both semifinal games this year, and will have similar access next year. In 2016, the cable network will air the national championship, before handing it back to CBS in 2017.
This game of hot potato initially confused some fans, but it's a win for the NCAA -- the TV deal is worth $10.8 billion through 2024. Fans without cable are feeling less cheery, though. While CBS reaches approximately 112.1 million households in the U.S., just 99.2 million have access to TBS. And according to the AP, 2014's semifinals -- Connecticut's win over Florida, and Kentucky's win over Wisconsin -- averaged 14 million viewers. That's nearly 2 million less than in 2013.
Although the games were "TeamCast" (that is, home-team announcers calling the game for that team's fans, a concept that has been dubbed HomerCast; video below) on Time Warner's truTV and TNT, it appears the innovative concept didn't add a significant number of viewers. In fact, it confused viewers who wondered why the broadcast they clicked on had such biased announcers.
How can TBS improve Final Four ratings next year?
Still, by those numbers, an 11% ratings decline isn't too surprising, considering TBS reaches about 11% fewer households. I expect this shortfall to continue into 2015 unless changes are made.
Assuming most viewers with access to truTV and TNT also have TBS, Time Warner will need to improve "TeamCast" if it hopes to broaden its base. Ken Fang at Awful Announcing put together a few suggestions that the network should consider for next year.
Among the most important, he says, are "more promotion" to avoid confusion over the team-specific telecasts, and "separate channel listings," to drive this point home. As Fang writes, "If Turner plans to do the TeamCast again in 2015 and 2016, it might be best to make separate listings for each channel so fans will know TNT and truTV are team channels." Fang also suggests moving the Final Four to TNT, though this probably won't happen -- TBS reaches slightly more viewers than its sister network.
The bottom line
Another trend worth watching is live streaming. Nielsen reports March Madness Live, the NCAA's digital streaming service, had nearly 4 million viewers during both semifinals. That's up over 75% from a year earlier. And while it's a boon to TBS, I'll bet the network is still searching for ways to boost ratings next year. It certainly won't be easy on cable, but if "TeamCast" can be refined, improvement is possible.
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