March Madness Goes Free to Boost TV Everywhere


Hoping to drive TV Everywhere acceptance to a larger audience in a year with few extra-large, live-streamed events, Turner Sports has eliminated the one-time $3.99 price charged to fans last year to stream March Madness basketball tournament games, which are televised on its channels to online and mobile devices.

Last year, Turner required the charge and for users to authenticate with their pay-TV service providers. But CBS, which has and still does share coverage of the multi-week tournament, did not and will not this year either.

The dueling approaches may make it tougher for TV Everywhere to gain maximum necessary traction.

Perhaps with that in mind, Turner has added a free preview option this year that enables viewers that don’t/can’t authenticate with a service provider to watch up to four hours of live action without registering. During this window, they can sign up for a pay-TV subscription. If they don’t, they won’t be able to view the live-streamed games through the websites or on mobile devices, according to a company spokesperson.

March Madness Live allows viewers to watch all 67 games, many of which are played during normal work hours and commute times on laptops, as well as a wide array of mobile devices using a free application. Just last year, most viewers had to fork over $3.99 for same viewing opportunity.

In 2011, viewing across all platforms (albeit fewer than this year) was free.

Free for All?

The new, free and unlimited option from Turner has clearly been implemented to help stem the rising tide of subscriber defections from its pay-TV service to alternative viewing options. TV Everywhere is an evolving customer retention strategy for service providers, whereby current subscribers can also view the same content streamed to their laptops and mobile devices.

Turner is owned by the parent company, Time Warner Cable.

The stakes with the all-free TV Everywhere model couldn’t be higher at this point. Operators and content providers have launched attractive offerings to keep current customers in place, yet quarterly numbers show viewers are still leaving the services for alternatives, or to cut seemingly rising costs.

Concurrently, fees for top sports events and content channels continue to rise, forcing numerous service providers to pass along some of the increases by way of new monthly fees and/or sports programming packages.

This reality puts pay-TV providers between a rock and a very hard place, business-wise.

It’s unclear what size fan group will sign up for pay-TV service to view March Madness beyond the four-hour mark on laptops and mobile devices. It could reinforce the value of TV Everywhere and keep current pay-TV subscribers in place, which is likely the preferred result.

Upping the TVE Ante

This year’s approach puts some much-needed muscle and value (and urgency) into TV Everywhere efforts by enabling viewers to embrace them to view some of the most coveted live coverage in the sports world.

The list of viewing devices (beyond traditional TVs) includes laptops, cell phones, smartphones and tablets.

March Madness is but the latest appearance of TV Everywhere. The Summer Olympics in London last year required authentication with pay-TV subscribers to watch elsewhere and followed efforts to authenticate viewers for parts of prior sporting events. Nonetheless, it had a big impact on Turner, which is again sharing the coverage with CBS Sports for March Madness 2013.

“After what we saw in London with the Olympics, we decided this was the best business model,” said the Turner spokesperson, when asked for the reason for the elimination of the $3.99 charge from last year and all other charges. Service providers either liked or didn’t like what they saw after that multi-week event and decided to press forward with their TV Everywhere strategies. We may never know which was the case.

To provide context, 2013, unlike last year, is without huge live-streaming events (especially domestic) lacking a presidential race, conventions and election as well as an Olympics. With the Super Bowl in the rearview, March Madness remains the marque planned live streaming event by many metrics, and hence the largest opportunity to spotlight TV Everywhere.

Advertising Madness?

March Madness Live (previously called March Madness on Demand – MMOD) brought in an estimated $32 million in advertising in 2009 – a figure that rose to roughly $60 million four years later in 2012.

When asked how this year’s live streamed event is faring on the ad revenue front, Turner replied:

“March Madness Live (MML) had 10 new advertisers in 2013, and approximately 40 overall. The story though is more about the demand and less about new advertisers – a large majority of last year’s advertisers returned, and there was very limited inventory remaining for new advertisers. The product is sold out for 2013, which is something we also experienced in 2012.”

Turner may or may not put a number or range on the advertising data it provided. We’ll have to stay tuned. One thing is certain: eliminating the $3.99 viewing charge per consumer will thin out the overall revenue river for March Madness live. But that could be seen by service providers as a relatively small price to pay to evolve TV Everywhere efforts forward while keeping subscribers in place.

Edited by Braden Becker
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