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Eye on the Eye

Interviews with CBS Sports executives and broadcasters about the network’s NCAA Tournament coverage

NEW YORK - Sometimes, you go to "media availability" events and they feel really canned, and you leave thinking you haven't learned anything.

This afternon's luncheon with CBS Sports executives and broadcasters previewing the network's NCAA Tournament coverage was the complete opposite. In addition to giving me the chance to interview the famous names who will be in front of the cameras later this month, I learned a lot about CBS' philosophy of extending coverage of live sports into online in all kinds of interesting ways.

The event started with a roundtable discussion that included CBS announcers and executives, and CBS Sports president Sean McManus kicked things off with a statement rather befitting his position.

"I can't remember a time when America needs and deserves the NCAA basketball tournament more than this year," said McManus, who also oversees CBS News.

Hyperbole though it may be, what is respect-worthy is that the network is not having trouble selling ads for NCAA Tournament broadcast.

"In a really tough ad marketplace, there is nothing like sports to attract advertisers," McManus said. "If there is an impenetrable sector in our business, it certainly is live sports, and the one sport that I would is say the most immune - no sport is [completely] immune - but is the most immune, is the basketball tournament."

I'm not an advertising or sales expert, but you don't have to be one to know how bad the market is right now - and how much it's battering media companies nationwide, especially newspapers.

My question to the suits was about how CBS has turned the NCAA Tournament into an interactive event in recent years, using Facebook and other social networking tools to generate web traffic in recent years.

We all know about March Madness on Demand, which got 4.8 million unique viewers last year. But CBS' web strategy is far deeper than that. This year, they're expanding their offerings to include a set of widgets for bloggers. You might see some of them on here soon.

Jason Kint, senior vice president and general manager at CBS Interactive, is overseeing the deployment of all those tools and toys. I particularly wanted to know from him whether the online initiative is meant to complement or substitute for the TV broadcasts.

"Nothing substitutes the TV coverage - I'm always up front" about that, he said. "We're reaching a lot of people at the office who don't have a nice TV nearby, and the numbers back that up. So this is additive, not cannibalistic."

Then came what I thought was Kint's most significant statement.

"Let's take premium content to the audience where they are," he said. "Let's not force them to go to a walled, guarded, destination website. If they're consuming sports on MySpace, Facebook, Yahoo!, YouTube, you name it, we'll link them straight into March Madness On Demand and make it as easy as possible."

McManus also offered his thoughts on the matter.

"All of our research really does show that none of these extra platforms cannibalize our broadcast television ratings, which are still quantumly the most important product we have," he said. "It is the dominant revenue stream and it always will be.

McManus continued:

"What we've found is, from all the research we've done is that it builds interest," he said of using multiple platforms. "Nobody is going to look at a basketball game on their computer if they have access to a television set. We've found that a lot of people, increasingly more, will watch both."

Many bloggers, mainstream writers and consumers of media out there have been saying that for a long time about a range of sports. But to hear a television executive say it is something else entirely, and to me it's quite welcome.

Okay, now for the fun part. In addition to the roundtable discussion, I got one-on-ones with a number of CBS' top basketball analysts. Click on the player below to hear my interviews with Bill Raftery, Jim Nantz, Jay Bilas, Greg Gumbel and Seth Davis. There's also more from McManus and Kint.

Note that the roundtable track is over 30 minutes long. But as always, you can click on any line in the player to hear that track without having to play them in order.