CBSSports.com Changes March Madness Game Plan: All Games Through Final Four, No Blackouts; Facebook

In a switch from its previous policy, CBSSports.com and NCAA.com will show all 63 of the NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Championship games from the March 20th kickoff through the Final Four on its ad-supported March Madness On Demand – no blackouts. (That doesn’t include the play-in game.) Until now, the network has protected its affiliates by maintaining roughly the same blackout rules online as it has on air and in its DirectTV out-of-market package, essentially keeping the “local” games TV only. It also has stopped coverage after the first 56 games. Both decisions were meant to protect the TV franchise.

The changes show some growth in the thinking of CBS (NYSE: CBS) Sports, the NCAA and the affiliates, aided by the success of previous years and some proof that most people who have a choice between watching March Madness on TV versus a computer will pick the former. (Then there are those of us who use a combination to watch multiple games at once.) Jason Kint, SVP and GM of CBSSports.com told me: “It’s an across-the-board decision by all the partners that this is additive — not cannibalistic.” Kint said affiliates were part of the discussions. “I think they appreciate that the main consumers watching MMOD are doing it at work.” MMOD 2007 streamed 2,598,889 total hours live to 1,381,875 total unique users; for perspective, 132.7 million viewers tuned in at some point for the televised 2007 tournament. More after the jump.

Upgrade — but no HD: As for the actual experience, Kint says it should be better than last year. The revamped media player (pictured above) is wider (16:9 aspect ratio with 640 X 360 pixels) but still no high definition: “If you had to judge where our focus is right now, it’s on broader distribution. That’s priority over getting a small group of users HD quality.” The scale has been increased “dramatically” and the technology for the waiting room has been upgraded. As has been the case since MMOD switched from subscription to free in 2006, pre-registered VIPs will have preference for wait times; unregistered users go in a general admission queue.

Advertising: The presenting sponsors are Coca-Cola, Pontiac and AT&T (NYSE: T). All three are advertising on the broadcast side but the online sponsorships are standalone. Some ads will the same as those on TV; some are online only. When I asked about providing some local avails, Kint said the technology exists but there’s so much interest from national advertisers, that it hasn’t been an issue. He declined to say whether there is revenue sharing with the affiliates.

Facebook: Last year’s nifty YouTube deal — an official NCAA channel with highlights and more — was hampered by the inability to embed videos, keeping it from ever becoming truly viral. No word yet on whether that will change this year but Kint, who arrived after MMOD 2007, acknowledged the issue: “We’re doing this stuff, like everyone else, as rapidly as we can.” In fitting with the CBS Interactive emphasis on audience, Kint says “pieces of content from March Madness” will be distributed “as widely as we can. … We understand and everything we’re trying to do with the company is embrace disaggregation … We get that, we’re pushing as hard as we can across all fronts. At the same time, we have to manage our partnerships.” But a new deal with Facebook for the official bracket game ($10,000 prize) is the cornerstone of this year’s social media effort: “We want to have the largest bracket game on the web.” (No details about the finances of this deal, either.) Last year, without an official deal, Facebook’s various bracket games drew more than 2.6 million users. This official version wil be integrated with content, including links to live games. What does CBSSports.com hope to get from Facebook? Kint: “Incremental audience and exposure, especially to users who and breath in Facebook all day.” It also will be available via CBS Sports Mobile.

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