CBS in jam: Cover Obama or stick with NCAA games?

Posted March 18, 2011, at 6:12 p.m.
Last modified March 18, 2011, at 8:26 p.m.

NEW YORK — For two days running, the nation’s First Basketball Fan forced CBS into difficult decisions about covering him or sticking with the NCAA men’s basketball tournament.

President Barack Obama held news conferences during the first two full days of the NCAA tournament, a lucrative event that CBS covers for more than nine hours each day and is something of a national holiday for sports fans. On Friday, Obama talked to the nation about possible military action in Libya, and on Thursday, he sought to assure Americans that harmful levels of radiation were not expected to reach the country from Japan.

The president is a big basketball fan who unveiled his NCAA brackets to ESPN before the tournament (picking Kansas as the men’s champion and Connecticut as the women’s).

CBS took different approaches each day. The network did not cover the president live on Thursday, instead summarizing his speech in a one-minute report aired during a break in NCAA coverage within a half-hour of his appearance.

On Friday, Obama was due to talk about Libya at 2 p.m. EDT during the network’s coverage of the Texas-Oakland game. CBS ran a crawl at the bottom of the screen saying the game would shift to broadcast partner TNT when the president’s address began.

Obama appeared about 20 minutes late, when the game was largely decided. CBS ran a split screen, with audio of Obama and his picture on the top, and a silent broadcast of the game on the bottom. Obama filled the screen when the game concluded.

Friday’s speech, about the possibility of U.S. military involvement, was more newsworthy than Thursday’s and compelled the live coverage, said CBS News President David Rhodes.

“You’ve got a large audience for the game; you don’t want to alienate them,” Rhodes said. “You also want them to see the news.”

CBS executives discussed a range of options, including pulling away from the game entirely or not airing the live report, he said. One thing that may have avoided an internal battle between news and sports: CBS Sports chief Sean McManus was, up until a month ago, also CBS News president.

CBS and partner Turner Sports are in the first year of a 14-year, $10.8 billion contract to air the NCAA men’s basketball tournament.

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