The Madness Doesn’t Draw As Many Eyes These Days

So sayeth CBS’ media folk, according to the Hollywood Reporter. You and I, being sports-addicted and particularly so come midway through March, on tall dudes playing two 20-minute halves in single-elimination tournaments, might think otherwise. The ratings have dropped 12% in the past three years, with last year holding a 6.1 rating, which is the second-to-lowest in the 25 years the Eye has broadcast the tournament.

Generally, I believe ratings tell you much more about the casual fan than the die hards, and are responsible for most of the abominations dressed up as concepts that we are subject to in many live broadcasts (example: Monday Night Football’s guests.) But when networks pay hundreds of millions of dollars to broadcast sports, this ish concerns them. What do the networks hope for when the tourney comes around?

When the Big Ten and ACC have strong tournaments, the numbers go through the roof. In 2005, when the tournament had its highest ratings of the past 10 years, four teams from those conferences made the Elite Eight, and both of the finals teams came from those conferences. Last year’s record-low numbers? Only two teams from those conferences made the Elite Eight.

This year, CBS executives could be biting their nails nervously when the brackets are announced Sunday. The number of potential ACC teams could double — or stay at a relatively paltry number. Three teams (Duke, Clemson and North Carolina) are expected to get in. But Miami, Virginia Tech and Maryland are perceived to be on the bubble; whether they get in could have a significant impact on viewership.

And while the majority of us get a kick out of Cinderella teams, there’s apparently such a thing as too many upsets:

Last year’s low ratings were for a tournament marked by just four upsets, the fewest in a long time. But in 2006, when average ratings were at a 6.3 and almost as low, the tournament saw the other extreme: 14 upsets.

It turns out there’s a golden mean of upsets; if they’re too low or too high, ratings drop. Fans want Cinderellas, but only a few. “You want enough upsets that it doesn’t get predictable, but not so many that it becomes a jumble,” one TV executive said. Indeed, three years ago, when upsets were at a middle-of-the-curve 10, ratings were strong. Ditto for six years ago, when there were 11 upsets.

My attitude as a viewer is usually “fuck that” because I don’t have enough invested in a team personally, I just want to see really good games on. But casual viewers who watch not a lick of college basketball will tune out when the teams they know about and hear shoved in their ears by the press all the time aren’t in it — and sadly, they’re the majority (well, maybe not sadly; not everyone can be a junkie), and that majority determines a lot of how the telecasts go.

Of course, I’d like to theorize that having a smarmy bum like Billy Packer handling the big games in the tournament could bore a hell of a lot of people — but CBS sees fit to keep the clod, anyway….oh well, if only we could link bad ratings to crap announcing or analysts. However, considering the proliferation of the Internets, I’d say ratings for actual cathode ray and digital set viewing could go down even further, because CBS is expanding its March Madness on Demand package. That’s more folks online watching rather than viewing on TV sets.

Follow the bouncing ball [Hollywood Reporter]

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