Nothing but Net

NOTE TO EMPLOYERS: Expect workers to show an unusual degree of interest in their computers this week, starting Thursday morning. Your corporate network is likely to slow, and productivity among younger employees may drop to levels normally associated with Friday afternoons.

March Madness is upon us again, a rite of spring featuring 64 of the top college basketball teams competing for the NCAA title. The seedings for the men's tournament were announced Sunday, the women's seedings today; first-round games begin Thursday for men, Saturday for women.

What's different this time is that CBS, which owns the broadcasting rights to the men's tournament, is putting free, live video of the first three rounds of games online. It's treating the Internet as a backup channel, a way to reach fans who don't have access to a TV or who want to watch a game different from the one being broadcast.

In other words, it's aiming at a cubicle near you.

Showing a sporting event live online isn't novel; doing a big-name event for free is. The NCAA tournament is one of the most popular sports events on TV, with even the early-round games drawing an average of nearly 10 million viewers last year. For the last three years, people who wanted to tune in those games online had to pay CBS a fee. This year, the network is making advertisers pay.

That's a sign of how large the audience has become for online video. Instead of worrying about how many people will forsake the local TV broadcasts in favor of their computer screens, CBS is trying to capitalize on the Net to generate a second mass market for the tournament.

Regrettably, the network is not letting online viewers watch the games that are being shown on their local TV stations. The restriction may be unavoidable because of the network's deals with its affiliates, but it's irrational. Given the choice between watching a game on TV or on a computer monitor, no one would choose the latter. Instead, the limit merely cuts off fans who want to watch the local games but can't reach a TV set.

Still, the arrival of advertiser-supported games online is another sign that network executives are starting to take advantage of the Net's unique capabilities for distribution. The format of the early rounds is ideal for the Net, with multiple games being played simultaneously and each one attracting a separate, passionate fan base. Rather than having someone in New York decide what everyone in Southern California watches, why not let each viewer decide? That's the power of the Net, and it's good to see CBS trying to harness it.

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