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Cable gets the spotlight for the NCAA Final Four this year

CBS and Time Warner's Turner Broadcasting are jointly airing the NCAA men's basketball tournament, as they have done since 2011. It's a unique partnership among companies that would otherwise be competitors.

"I remember when it was announced, ... it didn't seem to make any sense," said Grant Hill, a member of the joint network broadcast team. "But now being a part of this, it really has worked well, and you look at it not as two separate companies, but as family."

And this year marks a first with the semifinals and finals airing on TBS, a cable network as opposed to the broadcast network CBS. The championship game is April 4, two days after the Final Four.

David Levy, president of Turner, called the the CBS-Turner tandem "the poster child in this business around partnerships with different media companies."

"We wanted to be equal partners," he said. "Here we are today where we are going to carry the finals and semifinals on TBS."

The concept of media competitors partnering will probably continue, especially as sports rights fees have gotten increasingly expensive and media outlets look to share those costs. The CBS-Turner NCAA deal extends through 2024.

"We've talked about similar partnerships," said Sean McManus, chairman of CBS Sports. "I do think you could see more partnerships down the road. ... It wouldn't surprise me if certain partnerships develop in the future involving a cable company and a network."

A big effect of the partnership is that every single tournament game will be shown live on broadcast or cable television. That's a big improvement from the past. "It used to suck for fans because you could only watch one game at a time," said Charles Barkley, a commentator for the tourney. "This thing has been the best thing to ever happen to college basketball. You have a little school, now you can watch your team play."

Mobile, streaming and new tech

Another big effect of the CBS-Turner deal is the huge impact on streaming the games to computers and mobile devices. Ernie Johnson, a lead broadcaster for the tournament, is in awe by how far the technology has come. And he wonders how science fiction it will get in the future. "I''m afraid of what it's going to be like in 10 years," he said. "In 10 years, you may just be thinking something and the game will pop up in your mind."

What's more, giving fans the ability to stream games online solves a conundrum by having the finals on TBS. The cable channel is in about 94 million TV homes, while CBS, as a broadcast network, can reach all of the U.S.'s 116 million TV homes. So those 20 million or so households without cable or satellite can stream the finals if they want to see the games.

Going forward, streaming is becoming even more important. "We have new deals with Apple and Roku," said McManus, pointing to the future of streaming and mobile. "The idea is to give fans the opportunity to watch games however they want to watch them." He also said it's a way of getting new viewers. "People who haven't considered consuming the tournament on a different kind of platform, go and check it out." Last year, tournament ratings were the highest for CBS in 22 years.

Levy and McManus agreed that tech competitors like Facebook and Google could start to directly broadcast games by bidding for rights. "But TV still has an amazing reach and massive time to collect," said Levy.

"What I have learned is TV generates the revenue and ad sales," said Hill. "There is a long-term contract with the NCAA, Turner, and CBS, and I wouldn't be surprised if they make it longer for many years."