McCall: How TV hijacked March Madness

Jeffrey McCall

The NCAA’s basketball March Madness tournament wraps up again this year on the first weekend of a different month. It’s just another example of how a fun college basketball tournament can be spun out of proportion by television.

Given how much money CBS and Turner Broadcasting pay the NCAA to broadcast the games, it is no wonder television’s interests reach far into the competition. TV outlets pay approximately $770 million a year for the rights. The current deal is responsible for the expansion of the tournament from 65 to 68 teams, thus giving TV three more games in the week leading up to the Round 1 regionals.

The influence of television doesn’t end with bracket expansion. Many decisions in the tournament process are done with a nod to television. Bracket decisions are made to create as many made-for-TV matchups as possible and to make sure high-profile teams don’t knock each other out of the tournament too early.

The tournament committee asserts that seeding decisions are driven by complex, mathematically driven, MIT-like calculations. But the calculations that matter most are projected television ratings that can be pushed on advertisers. The committee’s interest in setting up a ratings-rich second round matchup between Indiana and Kentucky surely never figured into the seeding decisions.

And it was surely just coincidence that Texas and Texas A&M were set up for a second round matchup. Northern Iowa messed up that plan with a first-round upset of the Longhorns.

In an era of supposed cultural sensitivity, Notre Dame, a Catholic university, was scheduled to play on Good Friday and Easter. That’s no big deal to the networks or the NCAA, which value the ratings delivered by the television-friendly Irish.

The CBS show that announces the tournament brackets now runs a full two hours, dragging out the process in order to sell more commercials. A shot clock is needed to rein in the ceaseless yammering and overanalysis.

Thankfully, some benevolent soul leaked the brackets into social media before the two-hour show was concluded.

And by the way, many won’t be able to watch this year’s Final Four or championship games on free, over-the-air television. That’s because the current rights contract gives these games to TBS on alternating years with CBS. TBS, of course, is available to people who pay for cable or satellite television packages.

The television exposure of college basketball has contributed greatly to the sport’s popularity. The 1979 title matchup between Larry Bird’s Indiana State and Magic Johnson’s Michigan State sparked a surge of fan interest that carried for two decades.

But the 10 highest-rated title games of the last 40 years were all played before 1995. The huge money and television ballyhoo now surrounding the tournament might actually be diminishing it.

Jeffrey McCall, author of “Viewer Discretion Advised: Taking Control of Mass Media Influences,” is professor of communication at DePauw University.