March gladness: CBS, Turner a slam dunk for NCAA Tournament coverage

The Kentucky Wildcats celebrate defeating the Kansas Jayhawks The Kentucky Wildcats celebrate defeating the Kansas Jayhawks 67-59 in the National Championship Game of the 2012 NCAA Division I Men's Basketball Tournament at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. (April 2, 2012) Photo Credit: Getty Images

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Neil Best Newsday columnist Neil Best

Neil Best first worked at Newsday in 1982, then returned in 1985. His SportsWatch column debuted on Sept. ...

This will be difficult to believe for those among you under age 10 or so, but it's true:

There was a time when fans of the NCAA Tournament could watch only one game at a time on television, forced to rely on mysterious men in a dark control room in Manhattan to make game-switching decisions for them.

So it was as recently as 2010, an era that now seems impossibly archaic.

"That's the beauty of it," Turner Sports president David Levy said. "When within two years people don't remember what happened before, you know you've been successful."

It is not quite true that people don't remember. But it is true that most people cannot imagine living that way again. Such has been life since the groundbreaking partnership between CBS and Turner to cover the NCAA Tournament took effect in 2011.

The business sense behind it was to provide CBS the money it needed from Turner to make its bid competitive -- and to keep the event away from ESPN -- while giving Turner a marquee property to improve its own programming value.

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The fan sense behind it was evident: every game shown in its entirety, at least for those who get TNT, TBS and truTV, which is most of us.

On Monday, Levy and CBS Sports chairman Sean McManus opened an event to promote this year's NCAAs by taking turns gushing over their happy marriage, one that meant compromises on both sides of disparate corporate cultures.

The next step in the relationship could be a doozy. Turner is not scheduled to carry its first Final Four until 2016, but Sports Business Journal reported the networks are negotiating to place the event on Turner next season, two years early. It would alternate between the two thereafter.

All this has taken some getting used to for CBS, a tradition-rich, buttoned-down outfit. McManus joked that he never has heard Jim Nantz enunciate as deliberately as when he had to promote the truTV show "Hardcore Pawn" during the NCAAs.

The logistical challenge for Turner has been deploying its big-name NBA announcers to college duty in the middle of the pros' stretch run.

Marv Albert said the Thunder-Knicks game March 7 would be his last until after his NCAA duties are through. He will call the First Four in Dayton after arriving two days early to watch Sunday's selection show -- and study.

"I'll have my trusty iPad with me," he said. "I want to be in position to do all my charts and do all the practices Monday. It's like studying for a history exam."

TNT's Reggie Miller and Steve Kerr said they watch so much college basketball that getting caught up in March is not difficult, at least for high-profile teams.

Charles Barkley said he spends two months watching only the NBA, then integrates college games starting in January. "There are so many services out there now, you can keep up with it, and we get papers and emails and tapes [from Turner] all the time, so it's pretty easy, to be honest with you," he said.

Barkley said he must fight the temptation to analyze college players through an NBA prism.

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"That to me is probably my toughest job," he said, "because there are kids who are terrific college players who have no chance of playing in the NBA. I have to make sure that I don't confuse the two."

McManus used to be one of those middle-aged wizards pulling the game-switching levers behind the curtain. It is a task no one was sad to see go -- especially now that we live in a world of endless Twitter posts.

"The microanalysis would have been very intense," McManus said, laughing -- a bit nervously -- at the thought. "The overwhelming response on Twitter to any switch we made, I think, would have been highly distracting and discouraging for us."

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