March Madness sponsors Coca-Cola, AT&T, Capitol One, and State Farm unexpectedly found themselves in bed with a whole lot of baseball earlier today in a bizarre turn of events involving CBS's on-demand video player for the basketball tourney. During the last half of the afternoon, people who launched the video player were greeted by a testing session that intermittently streamed content being put together by the MLB Network at spring training ballparks in Arizona.
From 3 p.m. to 4 p.m. Eastern Standard Time, people who visited the on-demand site to watch/re-watch last weekend's exciting run of basketball instead saw MLB Network reporter Hazel Mae as she patiently worked with a crew on nailing down a broadcast story. In terms of meeting content expectations, it was like turning on NBC to watch "30 Rock," and getting PBS's "Nova" as your must-see TV. The MLB footage was streamed live and included audio, but did not appear on the network's television channel at the time. It was being shot for a segment about the Cleveland Indians that's scheduled to appear Wednesday night on the cable channel's series, "30 Clubs in 30 Days."
As just one example of how the strange situation evolved, Mae would discuss the broadcast copy about the Indians with production directors in an off-camera fashion as March Madness-themed rich media skyscraper ads blinked in the right-hand-side of the player. Mae was lucky in that she didn't say anything regrettable, as she had no idea that she was being watched around the nation on the CBS media player. All the while, the skyscrapers rotated appearances for Coca-Cola Zero, AT&T, and Capitol One, and the "State Farm Scoreboard" sponsorship appeared for the insurance brand. (See screen-shots below.)
Here's why the incident occurred: CBSSports.com partners with Major League Baseball Advanced Media (MLBAM) for some its March Madness live-streaming needs. The MLBAM team decided to take some incoming footage from MLB Network to work out a few kinks. But Alex Riethmiller, spokesperson for CBSSports.com, said on Tuesday evening that the test was never supposed to be public.
"It was an error on our part," he said. "The users shouldn't have been able to see that... It was just a test stream."
CBS charges advertisers a special rate for its online ads - not CPCs or CPMs. Riethmiller explained why on Monday prior to the considerable glitch: "It's because we look at our content for [March Madness] as premium content."
While the testing blunder would have been far worse if there had been live games today, sponsors still got handed something other than the premium exposure they paid for in the on-demand 24/7 ad buy. A black-out with no content followed Mae's appearance for about 45 minutes. Then the March Madness video player began streaming a live game being run on the MLB Network between the Kansas City Royals and Chicago Cubs.
A commercial for 2K's baseball video game ran in between innings at one point. Indeed, a paid advertisement from MLB Network's inventory ran on a CBS online channel in the midst of March Madness sponsors. An inexplicable mash-up of competing media entities, content, and ads, it was.
Jeff Altoff, a sponsorship director for State Farm, said he expects to have a discussion with CBS about "make-goods" - industry slang for media companies owning up for an ad gone bad. "We haven't talked to [CBS] directly about this, but that's our overarching way of how we do business in these situations," he said.
It certainly wasn't all bad news today for CBS's March Madness initiative. CBSSports.com announced that 6 million unique visitors used its on-demand video player over the weekend, putting it on pace to top last year's 7.5 million for all three weekends of the NCAA tourney. The company also said viewers logged 8.7 million hours of live streaming, which represents a 35 percent growth over the same period last year.
Kate Kaye contributed.
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March 19, 2014