Initial Viewership Numbers for CBS’ Online March Madness Broadcast Are Very Impressive

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There’s some pretty good evidence coming out today that online viewership of the NCAA March Madness basketball tournament is up from last year—as expected.

On just the first day of the tournament, Thursday of last week, there were 3 million unique visitors.  CBS was hoping to top 10 million total online viewers for the entire run of the tournament, and they got almost a third of the way there in one day.

I suggested in the piece last week that this year would be a major turning point—that it might even be a year we look back at and say, “That was the year March Madness (and video content in general) had a huge leap forward in online viewership.”  So far, it appears they’re on pace to shatter previous years’ records for eyeballs.

Thursday also saw 3.4 million hours of live streaming video served to viewers.  (Notice that this means the average viewer watched more than an hour of game coverage online… pretty impressive “bounce rate” if you will).  Last year, they served 4.8 million hours for the whole tournament.  Yikes.  I’m the guy that wrote the article saying “this is the year it shifts dramatically” but even I am surprised by these first day numbers.  Now, certainly… online viewership, while probably still high on Friday, likely took a dive on Saturday and Sunday—it’s widely believed that most online viewers for March Madness games are people who are at work (and thus unable to be near a television).  But the pace is still blistering.  It’s vaguely reminiscent of the movie Avatar’s early box-office success, as it quickly smashed records long-held as unbreakable.

It probably doesn’t hurt that this is being hailed as one of the best March Madness tournaments in history in terms of upsets and exciting finishes.

This is also a good opportunity for CBS to rub it in NBC’s face—NBC has dealt with a lot of consumer complaints regarding their online viewing options during the recent Winter Olympics in Vancouver.  There were registration issues with NBC’s online offering, as well as the continued bizarre programming decisions the network makes on tape-delaying certain events.  They also limited online video access to the Olympics to people who had cable or satellite subscriptions—something that caught the attention of Congress.  Just an awful lot of hoops for prospective viewers to jump through.

By contrast, CBS’s online offering is easy, free, and all-inclusive.  You can quite literally watch any tournament game you want online… live.  I can’t even get that on the television broadcast, because they are so compelled to keep switching from game to game in a bid to always have the most exciting contest on at any given moment.  That practice is so frustrating to me—I get to rooting for an underdog team just before CBS cuts away to a “more exciting” game—that I actually prefer to watch games online during the tournament whether I’m at work or at home.  The power to be the decision-maker on whether or not to switch games, and when to make the switch, is too much of a draw for me to resist.

The numbers I really want to see from this year’s tournament broadcast are the advertising numbers.  How much total ad revenue will then end up with?  More importantly, how much per viewer will their ads make, and how will that number stack up to the television broadcast?

It’s probably worth a mention that on Thursday, the Boss Button—CBS’ way of removing audio and video in an instant should a viewer’s boss walk up unexpectedly—was utilized a whopping 1.7 million times—that’s half the total viewership, for the math-impaired.

CBS is holding a clinic on how to do live sporting event broadcasts online, and hopefully the other networks will take notice.  They have another chance to remind us how well they’re doing in a couple weeks with The Masters golf tournament (where you can watch the television broadcast online, or switch to a specific hole and just watch that hole… which is awesome). The other networks will catch up.  Some may even innovate on their own, and bring something new and exciting to the table.  But the trends for online video broadcasts, for both viewership and ad revenue, cannot be denied.


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