Broadcasters not worried about surfers

When the NCAA Tournament switched to the TV format inaugurated a year ago – with every game shown simultaneously by CBS and a trio of Turner Broadcasting networks – I suggested no self-respecting guy would be caught dead watching a commercial during games.

Clearly, I gave many of you too much credit.

In a conference call last week, CBS and Turner executives acknowledged mild surprise – and no doubt relief – over the relative lack of channel-surfing during the early rounds of last year’s tournament.

According to research provided by Turner, roughly two-thirds of viewers didn’t surf the airwaves, but rather stuck pretty exclusively with a single contest – “one game per window,” they called it. In addition, overlapping games on four channels (instead of just CBS) attracted more viewers, resulting in a 7 percent ratings increase overall.

Turner Sports president David Levy was “very surprised” by the relative lack of zapping. “People weren’t jumping around as much as we thought they would. They stayed with the games they were on,” he said. CBS Sports Chairman Sean McManus added viewers “almost instantaneously figured out how to navigate” the new approach, which lets fans decide when to jump from one game to another instead of wizards in the network’s control room.

Granted, the two companies are paying $770 million annually for rights to televise the Big Dance, and it’s not like they’re going to leave a lot to chance. As has become status quo, ads will be squeezed into every spare moment, from halftime shows to key stat breakdowns, all sponsored by somebody.

Assuming the data can be trusted, though, I have to ask: What’s the matter with you “one game a window” people?

According to Levy, fans watch their favorite teams, so even if the hometown squad is winning by 20, loyalists stay tuned. Fine, I get that.

But what about the losing team that’s down by 20, or the millions watching who – in most games – don’t have a dog in the fight? Why wouldn’t you start flipping around to see what’s happening elsewhere when games are running on CBS, TNT, TBS and TruTV?

Let’s face it, there’s a tremendous amount of down time in a televised basketball game, from the TV-dictated breaks every four minutes to coaches’ habit of saving timeouts to burn in the closing moments. And one would think sports fans would be fairly well practiced – have an internal clock in their heads – at knowing how long they can stray without missing anything vital.

Frankly, it’s hard to believe anybody would prefer listening to Bill Raftery or Clark Kellogg drone on, much less watch Budweiser commercials, then flip to see some kid hoist up a potential game-winner. And even if you’re a rabid fan, isn’t there an impulse to monitor your bracket, check for upsets and scout possible opponents?

Perhaps reassured by 2011 data, CBS and Turner executives sounded kind of cocky about the whole issue. In fact, the biggest worry they cited about this year’s coverage was an interest deficit in the West thanks to an outbreak of horrible basketball throughout the Pacific 12 conference, which barely eked out a second tourney bid.

Having expanded to 68 teams, the tournament will also again feature an opening round of Tuesday and Wednesday play-in games, televised on TruTV.

Be sure to wake me when that’s over. Leave it to Charles Barkley – during a special for the first time revealing No. 1-68 rankings, including the closest contenders that didn’t make the cut – to quip “bubble” teams don’t merit much sympathy when they gripe about being No. 70.

In his stand-up days, Jerry Seinfeld joked about the differences between men and women when it comes to watching television. The former exhibit their primal hunter instinct by constantly grazing, wondering what they might be missing on other channels. As he put it, “Men don’t care what’s on TV. They only care what else is on TV.”

CBS, Turner and the NCAA are setting out a college-basketball buffet. You mean to say two-thirds of viewers are content to sit there noshing strictly on chicken – and dare to call themselves men? How unevolved is that?