NCAA tourney ratings up 16 percent

Updated: March 18, 2011, 6:34 PM ET
ESPN.com news services

NEW YORK -- For two days running, the nation's First Basketball Fan forced CBS into difficult decisions about covering him or sticking with the NCAA men's basketball tournament.

President Barack Obama held news conferences during the first two full days of the NCAA tournament, a lucrative event for CBS. On Friday, Obama talked to the nation about possible military action in Libya, and on Thursday, he sought to assure Americans that harmful levels of radiation were not expected to reach the country from Japan.

CBS took different approaches each day. The network did not cover the president live on Thursday, instead summarizing his speech in a one-minute report aired during a break in NCAA coverage within a half-hour of his appearance.

On Friday, Obama was due to talk about Libya at 2 p.m. ET during the network's coverage of the Texas-Oakland game. CBS ran a crawl at the bottom of the screen saying the game would shift to broadcast partner TNT when the president's address began.

Obama appeared about 20 minutes late, when the game was largely decided. CBS ran a split screen, with audio of Obama and his picture on the top, and a silent broadcast of the game on the bottom. Obama filled the screen when the game concluded.

The tournament's new television format, with each game televised nationally in its entirety on CBS, TNT, TBS or truTV, drew more viewers to the first full day of March Madness. Thursday's games across four networks averaged 7.4 million viewers. That's up 16 percent from last year, when games were only on CBS.

Ratings were up big for the afternoon games, when most of the matchups went down to the final seconds. Ratings were up only slightly for the less-dramatic night games.

Obama's Friday speech, about the possibility of U.S. military involvement, was more newsworthy than Thursday's and compelled the live coverage, said CBS News President David Rhodes.

"You've got a large audience for the game; you don't want to alienate them," Rhodes said. "You also want them to see the news."

CBS executives discussed a range of options, including pulling away from the game entirely or not airing the live report, he said. One thing that may have avoided an internal battle between news and sports: CBS Sports chief Sean McManus was, up until a month ago, also CBS News president.

CBS and partner Turner Sports are in the first year of a 14-year, $10.8 billion contract to air the NCAA men's basketball tournament.

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.