Peter Kafka

Recent Posts by Peter Kafka

More Free Web TV Disappears: Some March Madness Games Will Go Behind Paywall

If you’ve gotten used to the idea that you can watch March Madness on the Web, for free, without breaking the law, you may be in for a surprise next month.

Some of the college basketball tourney’s games will only be available to Web users whose cable providers have deals with Turner Sports, or those who pay a $3.99 one-time fee to access the games on PCs, Google/Android and Apple/iOS devices.

Games that CBS broadcasts, though, will still be available to anyone with a Web browser, through the network’s own site.

Here’s the practical breakdown, nicely summarized by BTIG’s Rich Greenfield (registration required):

  • CBS will stream the games airing on the CBS Network throughout the country live on CBSSports.com for free. Consumers will only be able to watch on PCs/Macs, with no tablet/smartphone access.
  • TBS, TNT and TruTV will stream the games airing on each network live at TBS.com, TNT.tv and truTV.com for consumers who authenticate their respective MVPD service provider (currently all major MVPDs authenticate these network Web sites, except Time Warner Cable). As with CBS, the games will only be available via PC/Mac (no portability).
  • Complete access to March Madness on Demand via PC/Mac, smartphone and tablets with interactive features, regardless of whether you have subscribed to MVPD service, will cost a consumer $3.99 (one-time fee for the whole tournament). Streaming online and across portable devices will be available from the selection show through the championship game.

A few more notes: CBS and Turner split the games, so you won’t run into the paywall every time you want to watch — Turner will have 41 of the games. And as Greenfield notes, most pay-TV operators have deals with Turner, which says that means about 75 million homes will have Web access via “authentication.” That said, if you’re planning on watching the games that way, better prepare now, by hunting down your subscriber info, etc. — the process isn’t nearly as easy as it ought to be.

Big picture: This is a switch from the precedent CBS established in 2006, when it started streaming all of the tournament’s games on the Web for free (for three years before that, it had charged around $15 to watch online).

Each year, the network loudly trumpeted the number of eyeballs and ad dollars that Web streams attracted, while arguing that it didn’t hurt traditional TV ratings at all. Last year, you could even watch the tournament on an iPad for free.

But it’s in keeping with the broader move we’ve seen from big media companies, who are pulling back on free Web video. Back when Hulu launched in 2008, it seemed that most big TV networks were going to put all their shows online, but in the last couple of years, we’ve seen the pendulum swing the other way, as networks tie “free” Web TV to pay-TV subscriptions.


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