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  • The ratings have declined for the NCAA Selection Show on CBS over the past few years. How will TBS fare in its debut airing the March Madness brackets?
By Richard Deitsch
March 04, 2018

CBS Sports was rightfully excoriated two years ago for committing the cardinal television sin of alienating its audience during the NCAA Selection Show. The first bracket was revealed 20 minutes in and more than one hour into the show, at the 62-minute mark, viewers finally began to learn the second half of the bracket. When host Greg Gumbel read off the final teams in the tournament, Seton Hall and Gonzaga, viewers had waited 77 minutes for the completed bracket. The final viewership was equally ugly: It was the least-viewed Selection Show ever with 5.245 million viewers.

Last year the network changed course—as it said it would following intense negative viewer feedback—and the show moved along at a great pace. The first bracket was revealed two minutes into the show, the first half of the bracket was completed in a little over 20 minutes and viewers had 75% of the bracket by the 30-minute mark. The entire bracket was revealed by 6:07 p.m, when Maryland and Xavier were announced. That was 37 minutes in.

Produced smartly by Tim Weinkauf, analysts Clark Kellogg and Seth Davis were able to get thoughts on each bracket and you didn’t feel like you had somehow missed out because there was not a long discussion. The show still declined in viewers—it fell to an all-time low of 4.883 million—but CBS was rewarded with something important: The goodwill of viewers who praised the show repeatedly on social media and other mediums.

That’s the backdrop to TBS taking over the Selection Show this year, the first time in 36 years that the show will not air on CBS. This year’s Selection Show airs on TBS next Sunday at 6 p.m. ET as part of the NCAA Tournament rights deal with CBS and Turner that stipulates the network that carries the Final Four and Championship Game has the option to air the Selection Show. Turner opted not to pick up that option in 2016, but will do so this year. It will return to CBS in 2019.

Next Sunday’s show is scheduled for two hours and will air from Turner Studios in Atlanta. Gumbel and Ernie Johnson will host the show, along with analysts Kellogg, Charles Barkley, Davis and Kenny Smith. The show will also stream on March Madness Live. A network source said all 68 teams and full brackets are expected to be unveiled over the first half of the show.

This would be wise. Such a move will afford TBS viewer goodwill in what is sure to be the least-watched Selection Show ever. The Selection Show has lost viewers since 2014 and is down 31% since 2009 when it drew 7.079 million. There appears to be no changing that trend.

“Setting aside the pervasive macro-level factors that continue to disrupt the traditional TV model, ratings for this year's Selection Show are all but guaranteed to fall to a new low by virtue of the fact that it's been remanded to a basic-cable network,” said Ad Age’s Anthony Crupi, one of the country’s leading sports ratings experts. “TBS is available in 91.5 million households, which works out to 76% of the country's TV footprint; as a legacy broadcast network, CBS reaches roughly 23 million more homes than TBS. As any Nielsen obsessive will tell you, distribution makes all the difference in the world as far as deliveries are concerned. (Strength of schedule aside, there's a reason why NBC's Sunday Night Football outdraws ESPN's Monday Night Football by a margin of anywhere between 7.5 million and 9.5 million viewers per week.). Expect the TV turnout to fall around 25% versus last year's low; look for TBS to draw around 3.7 million viewers and a 2.3 rating on Sunday evening.”

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Sports Business Daily ratings editor Austin Karp agreed with Crupi.

“I imagine it’s going to be another all-time low viewership figure for the telecast,” Karp said. “First, it’s moving to TBS for the first time. People have expected it on CBS for decades. Second, the show has set a record low the last two years on CBS anyway—strong headwinds there for Turner. I’m just not sure the Selection Show has as much appeal to the casual fan as it did years ago. The avidity for the actual tournament is still there, but casual fans don’t necessarily need a long reveal show in this day and age. People just want to start filling out brackets.”

While the viewership story is unlikely to be a positive one for Turner Sports, there’s a real opportunity for them on the content side. If they get the brackets out in short order, viewers were really appreciate it.

The NCAA Women’s Basketball Selection Special rolls along at a quicker pace than the men—it’s an hour long. This year’s show airs on ESPN on March 12 at 7:00 p.m. ET, featuring host Maria Taylor and analysts Andy Landers, Kara Lawson, Rebecca Lobo and Charlie Crème. In 2015 the show averaged 906,000 viewers, the most-viewed women’s selection show since 2011. That number fell to 674,000 in 2016 and 652,000 last year. You might see an uptick this year given the competitive balance in the top 10 along with UConn’s upset loss last year to Mississippi State in the national semifinals.

THE NOISE REPORT

(SI.com examines some of the week’s most notable sports media stories)

1. On Feb. 25, ESPN college sports reporter Mark Schlabach dropped a bombshell report involving Arizona coach Sean Miller, claiming that as part of the FBI’s ongoing college basketball corruption investigation, Miller had been heard on a wiretap arranging with a representative of a sports agency a $100,000 payment to five-star recruit Deandre Ayton.

That report set off a week of examination on ESPN’s reporting, including this worthwhile timeline from Nick Martin. The website 247Sports called into question the timeline of ESPN’s report and Miller himself responded a week later with a forceful denial. "Let me be very, very clear: I have never discussed with Christian Dawkins paying Deandre Ayton to attend the University of Arizona," Miller said. "In fact, I never even met or spoke to Christian Dawkins until after Deandre publicly announced that he was coming to our school. Any reporting to the contrary is inaccurate, false and defamatory."

On Thursday, Michael McCann, the legal reporter for SI, reported that a source familiar with the college hoops corruption investigation confirmed that the details of a wiretapped phone call involving Miller were inaccurately reported in a story by ESPN. That report is here.

On Friday, an ESPN spokesperson told SI the network had no additional statement beyond standing by its reporting.

So here we are.

I asked McCann how he would evaluate the potential for litigation given both ESPN and Miller have been resolute on this issue. His thoughts are below:

It was a week ago today when ESPN reported that an intercepted phone call between University of Arizona basketball coach Sean Miller and former ASM Sports employee Christian Dawkins revealed Miller as discussing arrangements to pay Deandre Ayton $100,000. The call, ESPN reported, came as part of the FBI’s on-going investigation into college basketball corruption and payments to recruits.

The revelation sparked a furious aftermath. Miller temporarily stepped aside from coaching. The contractual consequences of Arizona potentially firing Miller became a curious side topic. Meanwhile, the family of Ayton, who is projected to be one of the top picks in the 2018 NBA Draft, expressed disgust at any insinuation that Ayton received or sought money as part of his college recruitment. Amidst the turmoil and mindful of its potential NCAA ramifications, Arizona’s two recruits—Shareef O’Neal and Brandon Williams—de-committed. O’Neal then chose Arizona rival UCLA while Williams continues to explore his options.

It was, to put it mildly, a disastrous week for Wildcats basketball.

But as the week progressed, other media outlets, including SI, disputed portions of the ESPN report. Our reporting indicates that although the FBI indeed intercepted a phone call between Miller and Dawkins, the player whom they discussed was not Ayton. Also, the demanded monetary figure may have been significantly more than $100,000 and Miller may have rebuffed—rather than welcomed—an attempt by Dawkins to secure payment. Backed by his university’s leadership, Miller on Thursday defiantly rejected ESPN’s story and described it as defamatory. ESPN has stood by the story’s basic premise that Miller discussed paying Ayton, though the company has also issued multiple corrections.

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What happens next? As I discussed earlier in the week, FBI wiretaps and accompanying transcripts in the college basketball corruption investigation are subject to a protective order. They will not become public anytime soon and in fact might never become known. If the defendants charged with crimes reach plea deals before trial, there’s a good chance recordings and transcripts avoid public scrutiny. And if these materials do appear, the leaker of them—if caught—would face serious legal consequences.

Miller, Ayton and leadership at the University of Arizona—particularly with the loss of prized recruits—could conceivably sue ESPN for defamation, but high hurdles would surface.

For one, ESPN would need to be proven wrong. The mere fact that ESPN and other media disagree about what took place doesn’t establish that ESPN is wrong. Also, while sworn statements by Miller, Ayton and Arizona leadership would help to advance their perspective of facts, none has been criminally charged in the basketball corruption case and thus none has access to the sealed wiretaps and transcripts. Lack of available evidence, then, could make a successful defamation case impossible.

Even if Miller, Ayton and Arizona leadership could prove that ESPN published a false report, they would likely then face the additional hurdle of being classified as public figures. As public figures, they would need to show that ESPN acted with “actual malice,” meaning that ESPN either knowingly published false and defaming information or had reckless disregard for the information’s truth or falsity. While ESPN, like other media companies, has its fair share of critics (something I know well from teaching a college course on Deflategate, few would seriously argue that it knowingly publishes false information.

The alternative way of proving actual malice—reckless disregard for the information’s truth or falsity—is slightly lower to establish but nonetheless challenging in the context of news reporting. ESPN presumably published the Miller report based on a credible tip. Further, ESPN editors likely vetted the source and tried to corroborate the accusation with other reporting. If ESPN adopted these and other industry-standard editorial steps, it would be difficult to show ESPN didn’t care about whether the information about Miller, Ayton and Arizona was true or false.

Aside from the difficulty of proving defamation, filing a defamation lawsuit might unwittingly create a new set of problems for Miller and his school. Plaintiffs in defamation lawsuits are often required to answer difficult questions under oath about a wide-range of topics ostensibly related to their claims. If Miller is concerned in any way about his program’s recruiting tactics—note that one of his former assistant coaches, Emanuel "Book" Richardson, was among those federally charged—filing a lawsuit to rebut one specific allegation might not be the soundest strategy, particularly with the NCAA watching.

2. Doris Burke, to HBO Real Sports correspondent Andrea Kremer: “I promise you I'm not having plastic surgery. I'm 52. I've earned every wrinkle on my face. I actually like my wrinkles. And guess what? There are a lotta 60-year-old men who have wrinkles, no hair, glasses, and nobody gives a damn. It's about time that a woman my age or above, if she chooses to go into her 60s as an announcer, she should be allowed to do just that.”

3. Episode 167 of The Sports Illustrated Media Podcast features guests ESPN host and play by play announcer Adnan Virk and Big Ten Network lead host Dave Resvine. In this episode, Virk discusses the most well-known Canadians in American sports broadcasting; his passion for film and his work as an Oscars red carpet host and interviewer; working in multiple roles for ESPN including on college football, college basketball, baseball play by play broadcaster, ESPN Radio, and as the host of the Cinephile: The Adnan Virk Movie Podcast; how Oscars viewers should feel about the show in the #MeToo era; his surprise over Matt Vasgersian and Alex Rodriguez getting hired by ESPN for baseball; his comfort level in talking publicly about his Muslim faith; how he navigates discussing Islam with ESPN’s social media policies; how he would assess the coverage of Muslim athletes in terms of frequency, depth, and tone; why he likes calling the MLB Celebrity All-Star Game and much more. Resvine discusses his role as the lead host of the Big Ten Network and his move from ESPN a decade ago; why it was important to be the lead anchor at a place; his recent medical issue with Bell’s Palsy, a temporary nerve condition that paralyzes one side of the face; how his network navigates covering the Big Ten with the Conference owning 49 percent of the network; his must-attend Big Ten Game Day environments a fan should partake in; the success of his book, The Opening Kickoff: The Tumultuous Birth of a Football Nation, and potential future projects, and much more. To listen to the podcast in full, check it out on Apple Podcasts and Stitcher.

 

PODCAST BREAKDOWN:

• 1:30: Adnan asks who canceled so he could be a guest this week.

• 7:00: Virk discusses his obsession with film and working for Oscars.com and the process of ESPN allowing him to do this.

• 17:10: Revering the Oscars in an era of #MeToo.

• 21:00: Virk predicts who will win the Best Picture.

• 25:00: His reaction to ESPN’s hiring of Rodriguez and Vasgersian.

• 32:00: The most well-known Canadian working in American sports broadcasting.

• 38:00: Virk’s comfort level in talking publicly about his Muslim faith and being Muslim in the era of Trump.

• 45:45: The calculation of discussing his faith on social media and dealing with anti-Muslim trolls.

• 49:00: Assessing the coverage of Muslim athletes and the tone of the coverage. 

• 52:00: Calling the MLB celebrity All-Star Game.

• 1:00:00: Revsine discusses his recent medical issue with Bell’s Palsy, a temporary nerve condition that paralyzes one side of the face.

• 1:06:00: Revsine’s decision in 2007 to leave ESPN for The Big Ten Network.

• 1:13:00: Navigating the Big Ten Network’s financial agreement with the conference while discussing and covering challenging stories and controversial issues about Big Ten teams.

• 1:16:45: The Big Ten men’s basketball Tournament in New York City.

• 1:19:00: The best Game Day experiences in the Big Ten.

• 1:23:00: How Revsine’s keeps his job fresh including outside projects.

• 1:26:00: The success of his book, he success of his book, The Opening Kickoff: The Tumultuous Birth of a Football Nation.

4. Something for NBA watchers to keep an eye on: Multiple sources say ESPN has an interest in Chris Bosh for a broadcasting position should he opt for broadcasting as opposed to a basketball comeback. Bosh, 33, has not played professional basketball since the 2015-16 season, but the 11-time All-Star told ESPN in February that he was working out and did not think his career was over. In 2015, Bosh was first diagnosed with potentially life-threatening blood clots. As I wrote last year on Bosh’s broadcasting potential, his basketball IQ is super high, he’s a great interview, genuinely funny and he brings significant currency having played with LeBron James for four seasons. Turner has had ongoing conversations with Bosh over the years about his interest in broadcasting and he was part of TNT’s Players Only franchise last year. He was not part of Turner’s coverage this year.

5. Non-sports pieces of note:

• This is stunning work by Ben Weiser of NYT. I promise you will not regret reading this.

• From The Marshall Project: How a landmark report on the 1960s race riots fell short on police reform.

• Brilliant work from Jesmyn Ward for The Atlantic, on how racism is “built into the bones” of Mississippi, the state where she grew up.

• From Zane Schwartz of Maclean’s: Canadian universities are failing students on sexual assault.

• Steve Almond, writing for Southwest Air Magazine, on the resurgence of pinball.

• From Monica Hesse of The Washington Post: Six teenagers are running for governor in Kansas, and suddenly this doesn’t seem so preposterous.

• From The New York Times Magazine: What is the perfect color worth.

• Great piece from Jason Fagone of Huffington Post High Line: Gaming the lottery seemed as good a retirement plan as any.

• From The Guardian’s Andrew Dickson: Inside the OED: can the world’s biggest dictionary survive the internet?

Monica Lewinsky, for Vanity Fair.

• From Scott Feinberg of The Hollywood Reporter: They Got the Wrong Envelope!": The Oral History of Oscar's Epic Best Picture Fiasco.

The Moscow Times crossed the country to profile Generation P—a generation that has lived a lifetime under Putin—to document their memories of the past, their impressions of the present and hopes for the future.

•From Dave Doyle: Death, life, and lessons learned: Cycling the road to redemption.

Sports pieces of note

• Bleacher Report’s Mirin Fader wrote a terrific profile of LaMelo and LaVar Ball in Prienai, Lithuania.

• A sabermetric primer: Understanding advanced baseball metrics. Great service piece by The Athletic’s Ben Harris.

• From Jason Gay of The Wall Street Journal: What Were MIT, ESPN and Obama Hiding.

• Lizandro Claros Saravia was headed to college in North Carolina on a soccer scholarship. Instead, he was deported and is starting all over again in a country he doesn't know. This is his story. From SI Video’s Ben Teitelbaum and Priya Desai. 

• From The MMQB’s Tim Rohan: Jonathan Martin’s Life in the Shadows.

• ESPN’s Arash Markzai went behind the curtain on the UCLA players who stole goods from China.

• Via ESPN’s Zach Lowe: What made Drazen Petrovic groundbreaking and unforgettable.

• Re-read this fantastic 2015 profile of Sir Roger Bannister by David Epstein. Bannister passed away on Sunday at age 88.

• After you read Epstein, re-read this 1994 piece on Bannister by Gary Smith too.

6. Here is the schedule and commentators for the NBC Olympics coverage of the 2018 Paralympic Games.

7. The MLS broadcast season began Sunday with Fox airing the first of its 41-game MLS schedule and ESPN broadcasting the opener of its 31-game regular-season schedule.The Fox package includes eight matches on over-the-air Fox including five that will be televised immediately after 2018 World Cup Russia matches. FS1 will air 33 matches, with 40 simulcast in Spanish on FOX Deportes. ESPN will air the 2018 MLS All-Star Game on August 1 as part of its package.

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