Viewer Finds Hoops Package Maddening

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My name is Staci and I'm a DirecTV sports junkie: "NHL Center Ice," "MLB Extra Innings," the regional sports tier and the NCAA "Mega March Madness" package.

That puts me in good company-more than one-fourth of DirecTV's 9.5 million subscribers sign up for at least one of the satellite operator's sports packages. The reasons vary, but choice and the lure of out-of-market games rank chief among them.

The kind of work I do helps me justify (and support) my sports habit. Yet, it adds up. I'm considering a change in service that would tack on another monthly charge and it suddenly hit me that I might have to make a cut: I'll probably put an end to my own form of pay-per-view madness next March.

Though the thrill of college hoops is still there, the satisfaction level with the service from rights holder CBS is a lot lower than it should be.

For $49, DirecTV Inc. subscribers get exclusive access to out-of-market games, relieving us of the need to be a slave to the network's over-the-air choices and, ostensibly, offering the chance to view full games just like the other packages. (Single games also can be purchased for $19.95.)

But, as much fun as the games have been, so far this year all I seem to see-and remember-are the package's flaws. Among them: far too many times when the feed was the same across the board and CBS' controversial decision to skip the initial nine minutes of the Georgia-Missouri first round game. (OK, it was blocked in my home market of St. Louis anyway, but folks in other areas had reason to be irked, especially if that's the only game they wanted.)

A DirecTV spokesman explained that the identical feeds are placeholders for games that have just ended or are set to tip off. Back-channel measures are in place when CBS dumps a game for a different contest in mid-broadcast, but the system is not foolproof. And DirecTV can't do anything at all if CBS doesn't even offer the broadcast, or when commercials roll simultaneously on each channel.

If you subscribe to any of the other sports packages you know you're going to see the full broadcast, subject to the usual perils of commercial cutaways. But with Mega March Madness, DirecTV has to walk a fine line between promoting don't-miss-a-play coverage and ensuring that subscribers know it's only supplemental to CBS' coverage.

"We follow CBS' lead on just about every aspect of this," spokesman Marc Altieri told me.

Every year, Mega March Madness grows even bigger for the partners. CBS released pre-tournament projections of 55,000 subscriptions and DirecTV says that target has already been exceeded both from a subscriber and revenue point of view, although it won't provide details. Meanwhile, folks were still signing up for the package and single games when the "Sweet Sixteen" began.

The package's continued growth gives CBS and DirecTV every incentive to pump up the volume next year. They've signed three one-year contracts in a row. If they go for a fourth, it's time for the two to play as teammates and give subscribers the assist they really want: every minute of every game.

Novelty brings people in. Value brings them back.