The Loop

TBS almost got the new selection show format right. Here's where they goofed

March 11, 2018
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When CBS/Turner originally announced that they were changing their NCAA selection show, I reacted as many of you likely reacted: With total, near-thoughtless rage that something so precious and nostalgic was about to be corrupted. The idea was simple—the show would start with the hosts announcing the entire 68-team field, alphabetically, and release the brackets later. What's the point? I thought. Doesn't that just detract from the drama when the brackets are revealed? And won't it just delay the good part? WHY MUST THEY TINKER WITH PERFECTION? It felt like they were about to flub an unflubbable concept. TBS was going to make a bad chocolate chip cookie.

I was wrong. The backlash was wrong. They had a really good idea, and they almost nailed it.

What I failed to realize is that there are two distinct dramatic reveals that happen on the selection show: The brackets, and the bubble. What TBS was actually attempting to do was to double down on the drama by separating those reveals into two separate segments, where before they had always been jumbled together such that the bracket dominated, and the bubble got lost in the shuffle. In the abstract, at least, their concept was terrific.

Let's lay the groundwork here. There are 32 teams who make the NCAA tournament by virtue of winning their conference tournaments, and these are called the "automatic bids." Nobody can keep them out once they earn that berth. The rest of the field is comprised of 36 "at-large" bids, and those teams depend on the selection committee to be chosen for the tournament. Some of them, like Duke and North Carolina this year, are basically automatic bids—everybody knows they're making the tournament, and they're secure beyond even an egregious snub. Below that safe tier of at-large schools, there are a large chunk of so-called bubble teams whose fates are uncertain heading into the selection show. And what I failed to understand (hence my knee-jerk negative reaction) is that the previous selection show format didn't do a very good job of milking the bubble drama. By releasing one bracket at a time, they were acknowledging the bubble teams that did make the field (complete with the iconic video feeds of the teams cheering), but when it was all over, the viewer had to figure out which teams had been excluded by process of elimination. It was a little sloppy.

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In that sense, TBS' choice to put the bubble drama up top, and then follow it with the bracket drama minutes later, makes total sense and is even kind of brilliant. The problem—and it was a major problem—came in their execution. For some reason, they chose to handle the bubble drama by announcing the at-large bids alphabetically. That was a dumb decision, because it led to the same problem as before—when it was over, you had to guess by process of elimination which bubble teams failed to make the cut. At one point, just before Ohio State was announced, Ernie Johnson had the presence of mind to say (I'm paraphrasing), "Will Notre Dame be announced now? (pause) No they won't!" That was an example of the kind of "in or out" drama the bubble segment needed, but it was the exception rather than the rule, and it depended on following their alphabetical logic. For the most part, Johnson and Greg Gumbel just read out the teams that made the field, making no reference to the unlucky omissions.

In short, TBS made it halfway to a great concept, then collapsed before the finish line. But it's a very simple fix. First off, they need to list the obvious at-large bids that everyone knows will make the field—the top-25 teams that didn't win their conference tournaments. Viewers don't need a huge build-up before confirmation that the likes of Duke, UNC, Michigan State, Arizona, etc. have made the field. Get that out of the way in 60 seconds. By my inexpert count, the shoe-in at-larges account for about 20 teams, which leaves roughly 25 others competing for 16 spots. Those are the true bubble teams, and all the drama lies with them. Stop leaving that drama on the table!

There are a thousand ways to handle the logistics of what comes next, but the underlying solution is simple—go team by team, and tell us whether they're in or out. Not hard, right? I imagine if they adopt a relatively brisk pace, it would take about five-to-seven minutes max to go through them all (analysis comes later), and the tension would be off the charts. Imagine the live video feeds of the teams as their tournament fate was decided! The agony! The ecstasy! You could have giant red x's appear over the teams that didn't make it, like in that old whammy game show. You could feature two teams side by side, with the knowledge that only one was making it, and the screen could go dark on the losing team! You could have both mascots standing on trap doors above a lion pit, and when the lever is pulled, only one door swings open, and...

OK, you get the idea. There are a lot of fun potential ways to play out that string, because the premise is rock-solid. And to TBS' credit, they understood this on some level when they made the interesting and creative choice to separate the bubble drama and from the bracket reveal. They just failed to take the good idea to its logical conclusion, and got stuck in the swamp of good intentions. Next year, let's hope they take the next step and figure out how to produce a TV spectacle worthy of the tournament that follows.