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CBS, Turner unsure how coronavirus will impact coverage of NCAA men's basketball tournament

Head coach Tony Bennett of the Virginia Cavaliers

Head coach Tony Bennett of the Virginia Cavaliers is interviewed by Jim Nantz after his team's 85-77 win over the Texas Tech Red Raiders to win the 2019 NCAA men's basketball championship at U.S. Bank Stadium on April 8, 2019 in Minneapolis. Credit: Getty Images/Streeter Lecka

CBS and Turner are not sure how the NCAA men’s basketball tournament will look when they turn on their cameras next week, including the possibility of fan-free arenas.

But the people behind both networks’ coverage hope the biggest event on the early spring sports calendar will provide a public service of sorts as the nation deals with the fallout over the coronavirus’ spread.

“We had a webinar (Monday) and the common theme throughout was that this comes at a time when the country needs more than ever some joy to their lives and some escapism,” play-by-play man Jim Nantz said.

Said Jeff Zucker, chairman of WarnerMedia News and Sports, “Notwithstanding the incredibly serious nature of what’s going on with the virus, I think the tournament can hopefully be an outlet of emotional and psychological relief for most of the country, and I think we’re hopefully all looking forward to that,.”

It was a sign of the times that Zucker, Nantz and other CBS/Turner personnel spoke Tuesday on a conference call with reporters rather than at the traditional, pre-NCAA media breakfast, which was cancelled.

But Zucker and CBS Sports chairman Sean McManus made it clear that while they speak to NCAA officials on a regular basis, in the end they have no control over whether games will be played with fans in attendance – or played at all.

“Right now, all plans are to go forward,” McManus said.

Executives said games without spectators would not affect the game production itself but certainly would affect the atmosphere. Fans (and bands) tend to be a big part of NCAA telecasts.

Nantz said the only comparable experience he could think of was calling practice games or games for auditioning analysts inside a production studio.

“I’m sure this would be another generation beyond that in terms of trying to stay focused on the game and at the same time push yourself to be excited over plays,” Nantz said.

Studio analyst Charles Barkley said it is fair to ask whether banning fans is an overreaction unless those same people are restricted from other activities.

“It’s a very serious thing, obviously, but if these people are going to play these games with no people, what are those people going to do?” he said. “Are they just going to stay in the house? Are they not going to be going to work and moving around the world?”

There are no plans to scale down TV network personnel, but Zucker said if any employee is not comfortable with the assignment, he or she can ask out without repercussion.

“If the context of the game changes, clearly that will be part of the story line and we’ll tell that story,” Zucker said of the notion of a fan-less production. “But the game will continue, and the game will be the primary thing.”

The NCAA will decide whether to follow the lead of the major pro leagues and ban reporters from locker rooms, but CBS and Turner expect to have their customary access.

Among new wrinkles for this year’s tournament, there will be in-game coach interviews at TV timeouts.

Wally Szczerbiak, who is from Cold Spring Harbor, will serve as a game analyst the first weekend. Dwyane Wade will join the studio coverage for the Final Four, which this year will be carried by TBS.

Nantz noted that if not for curiosity over the coronavirus story, fans and media members “would be talking about this being the wackiest year in college basketball in the modern era.”

Barkley added, “This is going to be the craziest tournament ever.”

Minutes later, the virus found its way back into the conversation, when a reporter broke the news to the analysts that the Ivy League had moments earlier announced the cancellation of its men’s and women’s tournaments.

Said Clark Kellogg, “That’s disappointing if that is, in fact, the case.”

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