March Madness Won’t Be Free

March Madness Won’t Be Free

March Madness is hectic month for college basketball fans, but online services are debuting a paid service to reap profits from the 67 games this year.

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Last year, CBS and Turner Sports offered each game of the NCAA Division 1 Men’s Basketball Tournament — the one with all the brackets so popular in office pools — free for live streaming to PCs and Apple devices. But this year the cable networks will require viewers to subscribe to an affiliated TV provider, so users will need to log into the TNT, TBS or TruTV website and authenticate their subscription to livestream the complete action.

In addition, organizers will offer a suite of live products, presented across multiple screens, including online and mobile iOS and Android devices over Wi-Fi and 3G, for $4. Viewers can buy the “NCAA March Madness Live” app, expanding the platforms of viewing and providing multiple ways to get in on the hoopla. Beginning on March 7, the app will offer schedules, stats, live content, highlights, game alerts and live radio broadcast, including the National Championship Game from New Orleans.

All games airing on CBS will be available free on CBSSports.com, but those tournament games on the Turner Networks will need authentication, an extension of the company’s TV Everywhere initiative, which is available to over 75 million households.

The move reflects a wider trend by cable companies to recapture fees for their content and aims to counter “cord cutters,” those who receive only basic broadcast television and pay for broadband Internet service. Live sports is one of the biggest advantages networks have over services like Netflix, and doling out paid access to March Madness online and through apps seeks to adapt to growing streaming among consumers while retaining profits.

Cord cutters are moving away from traditional television viewing in growing numbers, a trend that presents challenges for the sports and entertainment industries, who shell out big bucks for content and programming, only to see viewers pay streaming services like Netflix and online media hubs like Hulu to view the material.

In addition to dodging higher monthly cable bills, the movement also provides consumers a means to choose the shows and media they like best, with minimal commercial interruption and no local advertising. As the move away from traditional viewing gains momentum, cable television could become a thing of the past, as laptops, tablets and mobile devices replace the television set.

Other cable companies, like HBO, are promoting apps to recapture a growing streaming media audience. Last spring, HBO’s “Go” application reached one million downloads in one week, as the cable provider bit back at market share increasingly migrating to competition like Netflix. The millions of users with HBO Go, free to the company’s cable subscribers on their iOS and Android devices, have access to more than 1,500 HBO titles, including hit shows such as “Game of Thrones,” and “Boardwalk Empire.”

Like Turner subscribers who want to view March Madness, HBO Go requires users to type in an authentication code from their cable service provider to log in.

HBO’s fiercely competitive moves include refusing to offer its content on Netflix and other services, to keep its products at a premium. The company believes selling content to video streaming services devalues the licensing revenue to cable and broadcasting channels that pay higher fees for rights to their TV shows and movies, a reasoning Turner, who doled out big bucks for its share of tournament games, can surely understand.

And the stakes are high. According to Turner Broadcasting, which manages digital distribution for the National Basketball Association, NBA-affiliated sites attracted 401 million visitors during the NBA playoffs last year, which concluded with the Dallas Mavericks defeating the Miami Heat in game six of the NBA finals.

In total, the league reported more than 2.7 billion total video streams throughout the course of the season, up 133 percent from the 2009-10 season.

The NBA has been a trail-blazer in terms of online video content and mobile applications. Its “NBA GameTime” app, which saw an increase of 90 percent from the previous year, was available on iPhone, iPad, BlackBerry and Android mobile devices, as well as connected devices like Apple TV, Google TV and Roku boxes, which stream to televisions and computers, demonstrating the professional league’s mobile acumen.

Increasing numbers of sporting events, entertainment productions and television content migrating to online and streaming services will continue to chip away at traditional TV viewing, which will likely continue to carve out niche offerings to stay competitive.

The NCAA March Madness will play at 14 venues around the country, beginning March 13.

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