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2018 'March Madness' audience off 3% on Turner/CBS entering Final Four

As the 2018 March Madness reaches its on-court denouement in San Antonio’s Alamodome, Turner Broadcasting System Inc.'s Turner Sports and CBS Corp. head into the Final Four with a 3% total audience deficit versus last year’s tourney.

In a tournament featuring a slew of upsets that has laid claim to a number of the sport’s top teams, the 2018 Men’s Division I Basketball Championship through the first 64 games scored an average minute audience of 9.5 million viewers across TBS (US), CBS (US), TNT (US) and truTV (US) and the varied platforms tied to streaming service NCAA March Madness Live, according to data from Nielsen Holdings and Conviva. That compares with 9.8 million watchers at the same stage of the 2017 event, which ranked as the most-watched tourney in 24 years and was up 10% over the 8.9 million average in 2016.

NCAA March Madness Live has generated over 17 million live hours of consumption through the regional finals, the second-most in its history, according to data from Conviva, a video measurement and analytics firm. Through the completion of the Elite 8 round, official March Madness social accounts across Twitter, Facebook and Instagram have tallied a record 6.1 million engagements, a 54% increase over last year’s tournament, according to Turner Sports.

Heading into the Sweet 16, the 2018 tournament had been pacing ahead of its 2017 counterpart, but upsets resulted in a record nine teams seeded fifth or higher reaching that round, versus four in 2017, which featured such marquee programs as North Carolina, UCLA, Arizona, Florida and Wisconsin.

Moreover, three of the eight teams in regional finals action were seeded 9 or above, compared to one in 2017. The Elite 8 coverage across TBS and CBS averaged 10.5 million viewers, up 3% from 10.2 million in the corresponding round in 2017, topped by 15.4 million watchers for Kansas’ OT win over Duke on the broadcast network.

Loyola-Chicago, this year’s Cinderella hoops story as the 11th-seed from the South region, has produced strong viewership, with three of its four games to date registering double-digit audience advances, versus the same windows in 2017.

The Ramblers, whose favorite fan Sister Jean has become a national phenomenon, will square off against Michigan in the first Final Four battle on March 31 on TBS, followed by Kansas-Villanova.

The main telecasts will be flanked by TeamCasts, with announce-teams presenting the action from the perspective of the participating club. Viewers can watch Michigan’s home crew on TNT, while truTV features Loyola loyalists. The Kansas and Villanova TeamCasts will air on TNT and truTV, respectively.

Last year’s Final Four matchups — Gonzaga-South Carolina garnered 14.7 million viewers, while the nightcap of North Carolina-Oregon tallied 18.8 million averaged 16.8 million watchers on CBS, a 44% jump from 2016, when both national semifinals were blowouts and aired on TBS, and the flanking team-centric presentations on TNT and truTV. The 2017 Final Four ranked as the second-most-watched since 1998, trailing only the 2015 games, which included then-undefeated Kentucky's quest for the first perfect season in men's college basketball since 1976.

Last year’s championship game North Carolina beat Gonzaga averaged almost 23 million viewers, a 30% increase from the 17.8 million across TBS, TNT, and truTV, who saw Villanova beat UNC at the buzzer, in what was the first ever national championship game that aired on cable.

This year's title game is set for April 2, with TBS transmitting the main feed and truTV and TNT providing the TeamCast assists.