Thursday, March 29, 2012

The Disaster CBS/Turner Has Made Of March Madness


On Friday, March 16, I went to the Hooters at the Mall of America.  Why?

1.       I printed out a coupon that gave me a free appetizer.

2.       I wanted to see hooters.

3.       I wanted to see that afternoon’s tournament games.

I got lucky.  I told the manager I wanted to sit at a spot where I can see as many TVs as possible.  He plopped me down at the first table directly straight ahead from the front door.  From this vantage point you are able to see an arc of seven television sets (of the 15-20 that are hung all around the restaurant) perfectly positioned for your viewing pleasure.  Moreover, four of them, specifically the second through the fifth TV sets from the left, were showing each of the four games going on at that time.  I could orient my ass a certain way, drink my beer, and just bask in March Madness.

Unfortunately, what my persnickety eyes and mindset saw the two hours I spent watching hooters TV just pissed me off.  This was not the tournament I grew up with.  What I’m getting instead is a crass bastardization of what used to be the most crisply produced sports event of the year.

I hate how they show March Madness now.  And I know I am the only guy in the universe who feels this way because ratings are up for this year’s four-network coverage of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament.  Still, I stand alone against the ugliness and idiocy of how we see the games now.  (It’s the same way with the Minnesota North Stars; I’m the only one who’s still pissed Dallas stole our team.)

We hadn’t had a buzzer-beater yet this tournament, but on the second full/real day of the tourney we finally got some close finishes.  The first one was Creighton coming back to take a late lead on Alabama.  None of the games playing at the same time were even close to finishing, let alone close.

The Bluejays-Crimson Tide game was on TBS.  Did the other three networks, CBS, TNT and trüTV, switch to it?  Hell no!  They continued either airing their boring games or commercial breaks that seem to go longer and longer.  Meanwhile, Alabama’s last shot was a brick, and Creighton registered the first legitimate case of March Madness.

This refusal to switch over happened with the next thrilling game, Florida St. coming from behind to defeat pesky St. Bonaventure.  Apparently TNT had to show every minute of Florida shredding Virginia’s defense and viewers on TBS couldn’t go for even a second without airing North Carolina pummel Vermont.  At least that game was on CBS.  Behold the endangered species called sports on free TV.

That’s the thing that pisses me off the most about the new deal.  You remember in the past, up till two years ago?  The Big Dance was only on CBS (although you could see it on special satellite packages and online), but if there was a game that was going down to the wire, everybody – the entire bleeping nation – would be taken from their game, which probably wasn’t even close to being decided, to see a game that was really, really close.

Exciting finishes, shots with no time left on the clock, David potentially defeating Goliath – the ending of close games is the hallmark of the tournament, and the reason so many people love the event so much.  Screw the ratings; is it so damn hard to leave a game in the middle of the first half so we can see the end of a good one?  Is there a huge audience that needs to see minutes 8 through 4 of the first half of Vanderbilt-Harvard no matter what?  If they do, they’re idiots and they should be shot.

The announcers repeatedly state that if you want to watch another game, just pick up your remote and change the channel.  Ashley, my hot waitress at Hooters on this afternoon, said the same thing.  But what if you can’t afford cable?  What happens if you’re at a public place with a television set with no remote, like an emergency room, an airline gate, or the gym?  To hell with us, right?

I grew up not needing to move a finger during March Madness.  If there was something exciting going down somewhere else, CBS would make sure you saw it.  It was a couch potato’s dream.  But you can’t just veg out anymore.  You now have to, you know, do something.  I don’t care if the physical task is something infinitesimal like pressing down on a button.  I don’t like that.  That is too much for me.

They say you’re being “empowered.”  I say they’re sending us out in the cold.  They say you can watch every game in their entirety.  I say that’s physically impossible because the games start at the same time and you can only watch one game at a time.  Unless you have four TVs on at once and put them together, which means you’re richer than 99% of us.

This new four-way coverage is greed, let’s face it.  And the fact that you can no longer watch any game online for free is yet another gauntlet thrown in the class war CBS/Turner is waging.  They tout that you can watch on any mobile device … so long as you have a cable or satellite account, or if you’re willing to shell out $3.50 or something.  No, it’s not much, but it’s more than free.  I grew up having the ends of the best games shown on my TV, and I grew up watching the Big Dance for free.

So, if you’re stuck only watching CBS, the Big Dance has become a lot more stultifying and a hell of a lot less exciting than before.  Years prior, once you reach the halftime of the game you’re watching, CBS would provide generous live look-ins of the games still going on.  Once your game was over, the network would take you to another game in short order.  And if the game you’re on was a blowout and you’re not a home market of one of the teams involved, you would get moved to a better game even sooner.

I miss when the first four games of the tournament are under way on the first day and Greg Gumbel would come back from break presenting all four games on my screen.  We would get a quick dollop of each as Clark Kellogg gives us a small appetizer, a tapas, of analysis for each game.  That showed me the breadth of March Madness at its mad finest, and once again contextualized the tournament in its appropriately massive proportions.  Seeing that whiparound showed that this was a national event, and anyone swept up in its spell could feel for the first time the enormity of the Madness, and it felt great.

Contrast that with what I saw Thursday night, March 22, and what you get if you aren’t able to change channels.  About a quarter after 6 Central time the first game of the Sweet 16, Syracuse and Wisconsin, came on.  At halftime, even though there was the Michigan St.-Louisville matchup on TBS, the halftime show consisted of Greg Gumbel, Greg Anthony, Kenny Smith and Charles Barkley talking.  And talking.  And talking and talking and talking.

I’m not saying these guys are airheads blabbering gibberish (although there has been a lot of gibberish during these studio segments, which I’ll complain about some other time).  This isn’t First Take.  In an earlier column I criticized Barkley for being uncharacteristically bitchy while asking questions to two members of the NCAA selection committee on the post-announcement afterparty Hardcore Brackets.  But he, and the rest of the guys, provide succinct yet very clear analysis of the games going on.  Their insight is very valuable and deepens my understanding of why the teams are winning or losing.

But that is all I see.  Well, they did provide “Live Look-Ins” of the Cardinals hog-tying the Spartans on their way to the upset.  But this is another irksome thing CBS/Turner does now: Instead of just showing us the game and letting us hear the announcers and, you know, the game, Gumbel and co. talked about it.  Once again their commentary was cogent, but completely intrusive.  You know those people in the movie theater who talk throughout a movie?  That’s the feeling I get when seeing these “Live Look-Ins,” which actually are more like “Live Natterings-Over.”

Now, I could be feeling this negativity because I went 1-3 on the games that night, including losing Final Four pick Michigan St.  But being stuck watching only one network’s basketball coverage is a stifling, deflating enterprise, because the network thinks seeing talking heads inform, argue and rip on each other is 1) more important than the games and 2) a way to schedule more commercial breaks in order to get a return on the huge investment CBS and Turner made in order to air the tournament.

There are long-lasting implications with this “too much talk, not enough rock” mentality.  You now get a hermetically sealed portion of March Madness, not the whole orgy.  And keeping each network to its own track of games separated by all this talking-talking-talking is a disservice to the whirling Mardi Gras of sports the tourney really is, even if CBS/Turner “gave” you the power to change the channel and follow the party on your own.

I remember attending the first weekend games when the Metrodome was a site in the 2009 tournament.  During and after the sessions, I went out to the cramped concourse where the TVs mounted on the ceiling were showing the other tournament contests.  And the concourse was even more cramped because there were so many people standing still, looking up at the TVs.  I was one of those craned necks until I looked at the sea of sports fans behind me, riveted at the end of the first round game between Ohio St. and Siena.  It was seeing this image of all these strangers who nonetheless are bound together by their love of sports, and by this sporting event (it reminded me of the famous picture of a packed theater, spectators all wearing 3-D glasses, watching the movie Bwana Devil), that amazed me more than the game itself.  (It went to double overtime before Siena won.)  I was so transfixed I had to turn around, take out my camera, and take a photo not of the game, but of the people watching the game.

And that’s the thing CBS/Turner has taken from us.  When the nation is swept into the final minute of a game that’s knotted up, or the last seconds of a 14-seed university from Bumble-Bleep, USA, taking out a powerhouse 3-seed, you become part of a communal experience.  We all have just seen something memorable, another chapter of a yearly rite of passage that is bigger and better than any one of us.  And when we see it together, we can talk, maybe just afterward, maybe that night, maybe the next year, maybe the next time the tourney comes to the Dome, maybe a decade from now, and we can go, “Hey, remember that game where so-and-so got knocked on his ass, gathered the ball and made the shot at the end?” and the stranger we’re talking to knows exactly what game you’re talking about.  You shared a moment that is bigger and better than any one of us, and so you know that you become a member of this growing national sports event that was here before you and will be here after you go.

By customizing your March Madness experience – actually, by allowing you to customize your March Madness experience – CBS/Turner takes away the ability to unite College Basketball Nation in a game that might go down as an all-time tournament classic.  I’m not a fan of dictatorships, but no one would be stupid enough to turn down a game that might be won at the gun.  But now we’re told, “Oh, there’s a close game on somewhere else.  Move your ass and change the channel!”  And then we can retire to our man caves, or our actual caves, and change the channel to see the exciting finish or be stupid and not change the channel to see the exciting finish, your choice!  And so, from now on, no two college basketball fans will see the Big Dance in the same way, and thus we lose a shared bond. 

And on top of not being shown the end of great games, a lot of times we don’t even get to see games, period.  Seeing this on CBS last Thursday night really infuriated me.  At halftime of the Syracuse-Wisconsin game they talked about it, then talked about the first half of the Louisville-Michigan St. game, then threw to a long commercial break, then had an interview with VCU head coach Shaka Smart, then aired another long commercial break.  Before, there would be, like, a minute of first-half highlights, then maybe some ads, then an uninterrupted “Live Look-In” of the Cardinals-Spartans game.  I understand the need to justify taking away Barkley and Smith from Inside the NBA by letting them hog time that would be better spent taking us to another basketball game, but could you at least give me three minutes of another game without them talking?  Two?  Hell, I’ll settle for one!

I can take solace that there is still one medium that hasn’t whored out this beautiful event, that still understands that access is more important than the almighty dollar, that hates the “too much talk, not enough rock” motto CBS/Turner now takes as its mission statement: radio.  The Dial Global Radio Network – I didn’t know the soap manufacturer was branching out – has the radio rights to the men’s basketball tournament now that it bought out Westwood One late last year.  Since only one station per market is affiliated with Dial Global, the format for radio still is where TV was up till a couple years ago: They had to make a decision on which game they would give the most time to, but if there was an exciting finish somewhere else, they would cover that game till its completion.

KFAN, the radio station I used to work for, broadcasts Dial Global.  And I don’t know if this was the specific intention of the program director, Chad Abbott, but it looks like they were going to air one of the games that was not being shown on CBS.  That variety became a blissful alternative for the Elite 8; the game that wasn’t on free TV could be heard on the Fan.  Finally, once that game was over, Dial Global quickly recapped the game, had one post-game interview, provided some analysis, had a commercial break and then swept you into the next game.

Wall-to-wall action.  A welcome paucity of talking heads.  My salvation from March Madness broadcast madness is the radio.  Alone again, naturally.

Posted by WilliamSou at 12:17 AM

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