In Depth

CBS’ March Madness Ratings Down

Television ratings for the 2008 NCAA March Madness college basketball tournament have taken a tumble this year, as marquee schools such asMichigan, Ohio State, Illinois and Florida dropped out early, damping fan interest in the annual ritual. Web viewership surged as more fans tuned in from computers at work and at home.

According to Nielsen Media Research, the 15 first- and second-round windows of the tournament, which ran March 20-23, averaged a 4.8 rating/11 share, with 7.5 million total viewers tuning in to check on the office pools. That number, however, represents a 9% decline from last year's 5.3/12, making this year’s the lowest-rated opening weekend of the NCAA basketball tournament since 2003.

The good news, however, is that the teams remaining in the tournament as of Friday, including North Carolina, Louisville, UCLA and Kansas, all bring flocks of loyal fans from across the country to television screens. The bad news, from a programming point of view, is that the Xavier and Davidson teams do not.

“We expected a ratings decline going in,” said Mike Aresco, senior VP of programming and CBS Sports. “We did not have a lot of marquee teams playing, plus Easter drove overall viewing down 11%. We do, however, anticipate some pretty good numbers as the tournament goes on because of the big-name teams that are still around and we would make up for those early shortfalls with a good Final Four.”

While television ratings have dipped, advertising and online viewing continue to trend sharply up. This year’s tournament, which culminates in a championship game April 7, is expected to draw $545 million in network television advertising sales, according to TNS Media intelligence, not including revenue from online sponsors that are expected to put another $21 million into the pot.

CBS is paying the NCAA a license fee of $529 million for the 2008 tournament games as part of the company’s $6 billion, 11-year deal that runs through 2014 and includes Internet rights.

By comparison, 2007 brought in TV ad revenue of $519 million, 2006 pulled in $500 million and 2005 scored $475 million in the category.

Online, March Madness On-Demand from CBSSports.com attracted more than 3.3 million unique visitors in the first four days of the tournament, marking an increase of 129% over 2007. Much of the reason for the spike was due to CBS’ decision to drop registration requirements as well as its distribution of links to a network of more than 200 sites across the Internet, including Facebook, ESPN and Yahoo.

“This year has been a good story for us, and success now goes way beyond simply getting a game rating,” Mr. Aresco said. “We’re quite happy, as are our advertisers, with the way things are going and expect that to continue.”