Get ready to self-program the tourney

Get those thumbs ready. With a little bit of ingenuity and a functioning remote control, you can soak in early rounds of the NCAA tournament without being bothered by pesky commercials.

What’s that, you say? Did they move the games to an ad-free channel, like HBO? No. But thanks to a new multibillion-dollar rights deal in which CBS shares the tournament with Turner Networks – making every game available in every market, to those with cable or a dish anyway – viewers are being empowered, in essence, to program their own non-stop coverage.

In the past, CBS Sports Chairman Sean McManus noted during a conference call, it was up to CBS to play Mr. Wizard in the control room, switching at key moments to close games near the end. Now, he said, the viewer is “going to be playing the role that CBS used to play.”

Turner Sports President David Levy added that announcers will be “telling viewers to go from one network to another” at critical junctures, without as many cut-ins interrupting coverage on whatever channel you’re watching.

Executives at CBS and Turner sounded a bit uncomfortable, frankly, when a journalist raised the question of ad-avoidance in this context. McManus mumbled something about the advantages of having more people watch the games overall, but from a network’s perspective, that’s a lot of hooey: CBS gets paid based on how many people see the ads, not how many drift by in the course of a day. And if viewers are enterprising enough to realize they can skip commercials, then either the networks are going to take it in the shorts financially, or their sponsors are.

The bottom line is if you’re really going to present four games simultaneously starting at staggered intervals – not just on CBS, but TNT, TBS and TruTV (formerly Court TV, which most people couldn’t find on a bet) – then won’t people just flip from one game to another at every break in the action?

Although this represents good news for diehard fans (or degenerate gamblers fretting about their brackets), from TV’s perspective, that question is more than just an academic exercise. One of the major advantages of televising sports is they remain among the few zap-free commodities on television: People like to watch games live, not on a 20-minute delay so viewers can use digital video recorders like TiVo to whisk past ads, as many do with primetime dramas or sitcoms.

Notably, ratings service Nielsen Media’s most recent data on time-shifted programming showed a sharp increase of more than 15 percent in the second half of 2010 compared to the prior year. The average person in a DVR home (now about 40 percent of the U.S.) watches more than 26 hours a month on a time-shifted basis.

This DVR demon is imperiling TV’s traditional business model – and has forced skittish networks to become more creative (and irritating), as any sports fan knows, about integrated commercial plugs into every part of the actual programming. Pretty soon, potential game-winning free-throws will be brought to you by throat lozenges, because after all, who wants to risk choking under pressure?

CBS and Turner are nevertheless acting thrilled about their partnership, which was largely a marriage of convenience, designed to fend off ESPN’s bid to steal away tournament rights. TNT and CBS analysts somewhat awkwardly shared the spotlight during Sunday’s bracket-announcement show, even though Charles Barkley has freely admitted he doesn’t know all the players on Wofford.

Across the dial, meanwhile, ESPN’s analysts trashed the NCAA selection committee over its choice of bubble teams, and Jay Bilas dismissed this year’s tourney as “the weakest field ever.” Of course, that didn’t stop the network from devoting two salivating hours to dissecting the brackets, which only helped remind us that it’s worth rooting for CBS and Turner to succeed if only to keep Dick Vitale away from calling these games.

At some point, it seems inevitable TV will become an entirely pay-to-view proposition, and avid tech users will evolve until our Blackberry and remote control-pushing thumbs are roughly the size of forearms. Until then, sit back and enjoy your own self-programmed, ad-free NCAA tourney, brought to you by – hey, who cares?

Recommended viewing: If you get tired of college hoops on TNT, NBA TV actually has a pretty good Texas-sized matchup – the Spurs vs. Mavericks – on March 18. Twitter: blowryontv.