Over the weekend, CBS boasted about the NCAA Tournament semifinals being up 13% versus the games last year, omitting the crucial fact that in 2018 the games were on cable on TBS. CBS is in about 20 million more homes than TBS, and the Final Four ratings were down about 15% from 2017, an apples-to-apples comparison from the last time the games were on CBS’s broadcast network.
They’re at it again. The press release CBS sent Tuesday morning brags that Virginia-Texas Tech was up 20% in TV ratings versus last year’s final matchup of Villanova vs. Michigan. Once again, that game was on TBS. Sports TV Ratings’ Bob Seidman notes that Monday’s finals were down about 14% from UNC-Gonzaga on CBS in 2017; Bloomberg reporter Eben Novy-Williams says these were the lowest ratings for a final on CBS since 2012.
Nowhere in CBS’s press release does it disclose that last year’s Final Four games were on cable, and this year’s were on broadcast. It makes a big difference.
Here’s the thing: It all seems like such a needless projection of strength! If they contextualized the news, it would appear more intellectually honest to its audience. Furthermore, as former Fox Sports executive Patrick Crakes has been pointing out on Twitter, a bulk of the money from CBS and Turner’s NCAA Tournament rights is a) earned in the earlier rounds, and b) via monetizing subscription fees for the networks with cable and satellite distributors.
Virginia-Texas Tech was a very fun game to watch, surpassing all reasonable expectations, but the general public audience gravitates toward identifiable stars and brand name programs. Die hard basketball fans will watch the game no matter what airs, and the incremental ratings from there will rise or fall with whether casual viewers tune in.