How truTV will set you free

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Maybe the true test of this CBS-Turner mega-March merger that promises to broadcast every single second of the 68-team NCAA men’s basketball tournament ultimately come down to one thing.

Who can flip, fumble, find and fixate on truTV before the Gus Johnson hyperventilates?

This otherwise off-the-sports-radar reality channel — home to such ratings-busters as “Hardcore Pawn,” “Lizard Lick Towing,” and “World’s Dumbest …” — will test our remote-control aptitude when the first four games of the new abbreviated first round are dumped into its programming lineup Tuesday and Wednesday.

True enough, truTV is reputed to be available in some 93 million homes. And if was still named CourtTV, it would probably make more sense these days. But since it has kidnapped 13 of the 67 games during the three-week long event, and has extended studio shows planned for the final weekend, doesn’t that create some unnecessary consternation with channel-challenged viewers that at least know the buttons related to where CBS (26 games), TBS (16) and TNT (12) belong?

Think of when NBC expanded its Olympics coverage on cable to MSNBC or CNBC. Or ESPN told you to find ESPNU for a special event.

Change can be as challenging as simply changing a channel sometimes.

“Basically, it came down to needing four channels do be able to do all these games on a national basis, and when you have 16 games on some days, there’s no way that just CBS, TNT and TBS can do it,” said David Levy, Turner’s president of sales, distribution and sports.

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So the choice was this – DirecTV Channel 246 (right between TBS and TNT), Dish Network Channel 204, Time Warner Cable Channel 74 — instead of CBS College Sports, which has been stuck with less than 50 million cable homes for some time.

With a 14-year, $10.8 billion agreement done, CBS and Turner folks say that most time-consuming challenge for all involved at this point isn’t so much integrating networks, broadcasters, production teams, schedule makers and ad salesmen. It has to do with the consumer education process.

No more CBS lording over everything, switching games at its whim. You’re in charge.

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“We’ve empowered the viewer,” says CBS Sports chief Sean McManus. “He’s got the control in his hands and doesn’t have to rely on a CBS executive to switch the games. We’ll still do some look-ins and some buzzer-beaters, but the concept is: If you’re watching a game on TNT, that’s the one you’re watching and that’s our obligation to show that game in its entirety.

“We’ll help navigate viewers with graphics and point to games on other channels that might be closer if the one they’re watching gets out of hand, but really there’s no flexing here. For better or for worse. And that can take some time (to get used to).”

As forward thinking as all this may be, there will be those who can’t resist knocking a concept that’s long overdue.

Like, Billy Packer.

The former lead CBS college basketball analyst told USA Today recently that he’s been a longtime fan of truTV, “and people who watch it aren’t going to be happy they’re missing their cops and robbers shows” when it switches over to basketball.

“If truTV viewers liked basketball,” he said, “they’d already be watching ESPN.”

True enough.

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