Nothing in life worth having is free -- and now that applies to March Madness Live, one of the most popular TV-on-the-web offerings every year.
CBS and Time Warner said Thursday that noncable subscribers who want to watch select parts of the NCAA's March Madness tourney digitally will have to pay a one-time fee of $3.99. Cable and satellite subscribers can "authenticate" themselves to get digital access without paying it.
"The models around digital media and the models around sports media are continuing to evolve, and so we are evolving that along the way," said Matthew Hong, senior VP-general manager of sports operations for Turner Sports, in an interview.
And so a popular touchstone of modern American sports -- having most of "March Madness" available for free, whether or not you pay for cable or satellite TV -- nears an end. (Games broadcast on CBS will be available for free to everyone via CBSSports.com.)
Now that the tournament is partially broadcast by a large cable programmer, fans should not be completely surprised by the change. In 2010, CBS -- the longtime broadcaster of the event -- formed a partnership with Time Warner to share the costs of the games, which, like many sports-rights packages, had grown significantly. Starting in 2011, CBS shared coverage of the NCAA tourney with Time Warner 's TBS, TNT and TruTV, ensuring that every match-up of the tournament had a national audience on TV.
Time Warner , however, has been a vocal advocate of "TV Everywhere," under which TV is available on all kinds of platforms but only for people who pay a cable, satellite or telco company. A good portion of Time Warner 's revenue comes from cable and satellite distributors who don't want their customers cutting the cord in favor of free online viewing.
Although Turner chose not to force the issue with consumers last year, Mr. Hong said, a paywall was under consideration.
"It's definitely something that was discussed, and even last year, there was a thought of how to make March Madness On Demand become consistent with the larger business model," he said.
Longtime aficionados of the event may recall that "March Madness On Demand" -- now called "March Madness Live" -- was not always free. A fee was involved when the product was introduced. CBS later decided to make it free and to rely entirely on ads for revenue, and the lack of barriers to viewing has produced impressive results.
In 2011, CBS and Time Warner said free digital viewing resulted in an average of 2.4 million daily unique visitors on broadband and 702,000 average daily unique users on the mobile app. In total, there were 26.7 million visits across online and mobile from the start of the First Four on March 15 to the completion of the third round on March 20.
While the games broadcast by CBS this year will still be free online, one could envision that policy changing as well. CBS has been aggressively seeking so-called retransmission fees from big cable operators and as a result could come under more pressure to reduce the amount of content it makes available via new media for free.
Of course, some traditions remain the same. Digital viewers of March Madness will have access to a "boss button" that transforms their computer screens at work from a telecast of the game to a facsimile of a business worksheet. That aspect of the experience, said Mr. Hong, isn't going away.