Americans less mad for March Madness

Declining TV ratings may be bad news for CBS and Time Warner.

By Jonathan Berr Mar 16, 2012 11:50AM
TV viewers are not so mad about March Madness this year, at least not so far.

Ratings for the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament, which is being shown on CBS (CBS) and Time Warner's (TWX) Turner Networks, have been lackluster.   

The NCAA Tournament Selection Show, which was shown on CBS, had its lowest ratings since at least 1989, according to Sports Media Watch. Nielsen data provided to Top Stocks shows that 984,000 people watched the first four games, down from 1.1 million a year ago. Though the tournament is still in its early stages -- and a Cinderella story that could capture the imagination of casual sports fans may yet emerge -- ratings for regular college basketball games were flat on CBS and Walt Disney's (DIS) ESPN versus a year ago.

If the tournament doesn't rebound -- pun intended -- this could spell trouble for CBS and Time Warner, which signed a 14-year, $10.8 billion deal to secure the tournament's television and Internet rights in 2010. Much of the commercial time for the games is sold in advance, as with most TV shows, based on guarantees that networks provide advertisers for a certain minimum audience. If a show fails to meet the thresholds, advertisers are entitled to "make-goods" -- essentially, free commercials. Spokesmen for the networks couldn't be reached for comment.

For most broadcast TV networks, business continues to be tougher than making a winning three-point shot with the game clock set to expire. According to Kantar Media data cited by Advertising Age, News Corp's (NWS) Fox was the only major English-language broadcaster to increase advertising revenue in 2011, and that was because the network aired the Super Bowl. Ad revenue declined 2% overall despite record football ratings and the World Series going to seven games. The figures mark a change from 2010, when revenue of all broadcast networks was up.

"At the time, advertisers were untying their purse strings and rushing to get back into the market after suffering from consumer ennui during a severe recession," the publication says. "In 2011, it would seem, marketers felt less certain about increasing their ad commitments."
The 2012 U.S. presidential election and Olympics will bolster the networks' bottom lines, though it is likely that this good news is already priced into media stocks.

Jonathan Berr is more of a baseball fan. He doesn't own shares of the companies listed here.
Mar 16, 2012 12:02PM
I'm sure the remarkable weather across much of the country isn't helping the ratings.
Mar 16, 2012 4:44PM
Does this include any of the viewers for  TNT or truTV's games?  If it is just looking at CBS, then the ratings will be lower as games are on more than one channel now.  I saw a report that the overall ratings for Thursday were up quite a bit when other networks were included.  There could be overlap as a lot of people are watching multiple channels and probably switching back and forth during commercials, which wouldn't really please the advertisers.  Personally, I don't like the new format as I don't have cable and now I'm locked into whatever game is on, instead of CBS switching around to the best game like they used to
Mar 16, 2012 12:01PM
I'm sure the remarkable weather over most of the country isn't helping the ratings.
Mar 16, 2012 12:47PM
Boring.  It's just a lot of basket ball at once.  
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