NEW YORK — Turner Sports chief David Levy had dinner with his new partners at CBS before last year’s NCAA tournament and wondered why they kept predicting lots of calls from upset viewers.
CBS was accustomed to hearing complaints from fans frustrated by its decisions in switching among games. Sure, executives at both companies were confident their 14-year, $10.8 billion deal to televise every tournament game in its entirety across four networks would better serve viewers. But even at their most optimistic, they didn’t expect the reaction to be so positive so quickly.
“We have not helped the economy because the freelance employees we hired to man the phones are no longer being hired,” CBS Sports Chair Sean McManus said Tuesday.
A survey commissioned by CBS and Turner found that 91 percent of respondents preferred the new format to the old one. Even taking that with a grain of salt, other numbers back it up.
Average viewership for the tournament was up 7 percent from a year earlier, when games were only on CBS. The tourney averaged its highest rating since 2005.
Games were watched by 12 million new in-home viewers, and returning viewers increased their time spent by 24 percent. And a figure advertisers like to see: The median age of the audience dropped from 49 to 46 and viewership increased 21 percent among adults ages 18-34.
Levy said the most surprising stat might have been how many fans stuck with a game from start to finish, even if it was a blowout. That was always the dilemma CBS faced — whether it stayed with a rout or switched to a closer contest, somebody was always unhappy.
Network executives were heartened to see corresponding shifts in viewership immediately after an announcer with a lopsided score informed viewers of a tight finish on another channel.
“For those in the truck and for the announcers, it’s very unnatural to be in the middle of your game that you’re producing and directing and announcing and having someone … saying, ‘You need to tell the viewers to leave your game to go to this game,’” said Jeff Behnke, senior vice president and executive producer for Turner Sports.
But they quickly grew comfortable with it, and this year flashing colors and subtle audio in the graphic showing other scores will further encourage viewers to pick up the remote.
The biggest change in 2012 is that some fans will no longer be able to watch every game for free online.
Most, but not all, viewers who get TBS, TNT and truTV on their cable or satellite systems will be able to watch games aired on those channels online at no cost. Fans can also pay $3.99 to see every game on multiple platforms — online, mobile and tablet. Games on CBS will still be free online.
Levy said he was confident fans would quickly learn how to “authenticate” so they can watch the Turner networks online just as they rapidly figured out how to find truTV last year.