Peter Kafka

Recent Posts by Peter Kafka

Blocked! March Madness Heads Farther Behind the Cable Pay Wall.

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Heads up, cord-cutters: If you want to watch March Madness next year, you’re going to have to pay up.

The last two rounds of next year’s college basketball tournament, including the championship game, are likely to be broadcast on one of Time Warner’s Turner network channels — TBS or TNT — instead of CBS, according to Sports Business Daily and the New York Times.

CBS and Turner share coverage of the tournament, and the switch for the final games was already scheduled for 2016. No one has explained why the two companies are moving the date up by two years, but it fits a pattern we’ve seen for several years: Big-time sports events migrating from free TV to pay TV.

In 2006, Monday Night Football moved from ABC to Disney’s ESPN. If you wanted to watch much of last summer’s Olympics, you needed a pay TV subscription that gave you access to NBC Universal’s cable channels. And as SBJ’s John Ourand notes, the BCS college championships, the NBA conference finals and some baseball playoff games have all moved over to cable, as well.

The free-to-pay move serves the interests of the TV Industrial Complex in several ways: The cable networks, flush with cash from subscriber fees, can afford to pay big bucks for the rights to what is must-see TV for many people. And because it’s must-see TV for many people, it helps raise the overall value of the cable networks (Rupert Murdoch used the same strategy to turn Fox into a legitimate broadcast operation two decades ago).

And moving big-time sports to pay TV helps pay TV, period. Nielsen figures there are five million cord-cutters, or cord-nevers, and that number would presumably be much bigger if you could get sports online without paying for TV.

Which is why I’ve been waiting for Google, or Apple, or Intel, or some other TV outsider to pony up for the rights to a slate of NFL games, or some other sports franchise that millions of people have to watch, no matter where they are. Hasn’t happened yet.

(Note that if Aereo, which distributes broadcast TV over the Web without paying programmers a penny, wins its court case, then expect just about every big broadcast show — not just sports, but everything — to move from broadcast to cable networks owned by the broadcasters. Big if, though.)

Meantime, if you’re serious about college hoops and you’re serious about not paying for TV, you might still have a legal option next year.

Last year, CBS and Turner offered a $4 package that let you watch the games live on Android and iOS devices, and that option has gone away this year. This time around, you can only stream the Turner games if you’re an “authenticated” pay TV subscriber, though you can still stream the CBS games to your PC without registration.

But Turner/CBS are offering app users a free four-hour “preview” this time around. So if you’re willing to do a little planning — and if the option is still available — you could save up your preview time for the championship game, and at least watch that one for free.

That sounds like a lot of work, right? That’s what the pay TV guys are hoping you think …

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