In Memory of Mega March Madness


Another NCAA Tournament begins tomorrow, marking Year 8 of the marriage between CBS and the Turner Broadcasting family. It’s a partnership that sparks some entirely justified lamentations, like the insistence on screwing with the Selection Show formula, and the continued use of NBA on TNT talent like Reggie Miller and Charles Barkley, who would be more comfortable broadcasting a convention on nuclear physics than they are breaking down college basketball.

And let’s not get started on the raft of links from aggregate factories, pumping out Google News-gaming SEO content that asks, “What channel is truTV,” without providing a clear answer.

For its faults, however, the CBS/Turner partnership for the NCAA Tournament is a tremendous boon for Tournament watchers. A basic cable package and most streaming services like SlingTV grants viewers access to every game in its entirety. With the online platform, one can spend all day Thursday and Friday glued to various screens and never miss a play.

But binging on the NCAA Tournament wasn’t always so easy. Gather ’round, readers of The Open Man, and let Old Man Kyle regale you with stories of yesteryear, at a time when audiences were at the mercy of their local CBS affiliate.

NCAA Tournament opening weekend games of my childhood and early adulthood aired similarly to a typical NFL Sunday slate. Starts occurred within a few minutes of each other during a few designated windows, with a late-afternoon break of about an hour built in before the prime-time tips.

And, like the archaic NFL continues to do almost a quarter of the way into the 21st Century, games aired by regional designation. Say you wanted to see Iowa State-Florida in its entirety in 1995, but lived in the West, as I did. Too bad: You were getting the local game, something like UCLA-FIU, instead. You were at the mercy of studio directors to cut into the regional action and feed you nuggets from around the Tournament.

Such was life in the 1990s. But even as the internet began to become ubiquitous, and cable modems replaced 28.8K in most homes, the NCAA Tournament didn’t immediately catch up. Instead, a portion of the audience was bestowed the option of seeing the entire NCAA Tournament, while the rest of us were teased, with Mega March Madness.

The proliferation of cable in late 1980s led to a boom for pay-per-view in the early half of the 1990s. Boxing and professional wrestling were forerunners, the early incarnation of the UFC latched onto that model, and other avenues of entertainment sought to get in on the action. There were comedy specials, like Howard Stern’s U.S. Open Sores, and more mainstream forms of sports put events on PPV. One of the first I remember was the 1992 Summer Olympics’ Red, White & Blue channels, offering the entire Barcelona Games live, roughly for the price of a used car back in those days.

Mega March Madness was late to the PPV game, debuting a full decade after the Olympics version. Better late than never, though, right? Well…

The same frustration football fans experience every autumn, as the NFL relegates TV viewers to local broadcasts with a perfectly good PPV package available to only a portion of its audience, Mega March Madness was the exclusive property of DirecTV.

The service debuted in 2002, my freshman year of college. Needless to say, my dorm did not come equipped with a DirecTV dish.

Throughout college, I never lived anywhere that was DirecTV accessible. Ditto my first apartment after graduating. Seeing the advertisements gain steam heading into Tournament time would infuriate me. Such a tease.

It wasn’t until I began working at CBS Sports, where the company office offered the package — though in that instance, it was more a tool of the trade than a luxury. Binging on the Tournament isn’t really binging on the Tournament when it involves waiting on copy to cross the wire, downloading and editing photos, and updating websites. What’s more, the Mega March Madness once went out during heavy rain — as DirecTV was want to do.

I left that job shortly after the CBS/Turner deal completely changed the complexion of Tournament coverage. The way in which we consume March Madness has evolved for the better — even if an untold multitude of us have to Google “what channel is truTV” every spring.