Why the NCAA Tournament Is Great TV

Middle Tennessee State’s Perrin Buford drives past Michigan State’s Eron Harris during the first round of the NCAA Tournament on Friday, March 18, 2016, at Scottrade Center in St. Louis. Middle Tennessee State won, 90-81. Photo: Christian Gooden/TNS via Getty Images

Every year, office productivity plummets during the month of March, as America’s workers tune into the NCAA Tournament. Admittedly, some of us are distracted because we’ve got money on the outcomes. But I think there’s another reason why so many of us have trouble turning our eyes away from the screen when an eight-seed faces off against a nine-seed: It’s because college basketball is really riveting television.

Admittedly, I may be a little biased about this. College basketball is my favorite sport to watch, and one I pay attention to during the winter months before everyone else jumps on the March Madness bandwagon. But one of the reasons I love it is that, especially in March, it is great TV: It’s exciting and full of surprises, and never more than in the first weekend of the NCAA tournament, when 60-plus teams get whittled down to a field of 16. In fact, the qualities that make those initial rounds of basketball action so enjoyable echo certain aspects of the current TV landscape.

For starters, there’s the oversaturation factor. As Vulture readers know, there’s never been more of an embarrassment of scripted-television riches than the one that exists right now. There’s a constant stream of episodes of new and ongoing series flowing all year round — on the traditional broadcast networks, PBS, basic-cable channels, HBO, Showtime, other premium-cable channels that keep adding scripted TV to their rosters (’sup, EPIX?), Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, Acorn TV, CBS All Access, Crackle, and it just goes on and on. If you’re paid to be a TV critic — ahem — I’ve just described the reasons every week pushes you closer and closer to having an aneurysm. But if you’re someone who watches TV for pleasure, this is pretty spectacular. So many potentially wonderful things to watch, all at once!

The first two days of the NCAA tournament are like this, in microcosm form. On Thursday and Friday, when March Madness begins in earnest, games are streaming and being broadcast on CBS, TNT, TBS, and TruTV all day long. At most hours of the afternoon or evening, four games are unfolding simultaneously.

During the first two rounds of March Madness, it is theoretically possible to start watching basketball at noon and not stop until sometime after midnight. Because I am not a sports writer, and I do not have to cover any of this for a living, guess what? It. Is. Glorious. I’m not saying I have ever timed a major illness to fall at the beginning of the NCAA Tournament, so I could justify taking a sick day during this magical time. But, I have thought about it. It’s all wonderfully overwhelming in the same way that television content in general is wonderfully overwhelming.

The other great, Peak TV-ish thing about the early days of March Madness is that it functions almost like an anthology series: You can jump into a game without knowing what happened in previous games, or even in the first half, and still get sucked into the narrative. When you flip on a contest in which a 15-seed is beating a two-seed by two points — which was the case during the biggest NCAA upset in history, last year’s defeat of powerhouse Michigan State by Middle Tennessee — you don’t need anyone to explain the stakes or context. It’s all right there in front of you. It’s like a Black Mirror episode, minus the disturbing technology and Bryce Dallas Howard having a nervous breakdown.

“But I don’t like basketball that much,” you say. “I don’t even care for sports, really, unless that delightful Matt Saracen from Friday Night Lights is involved.”

I cannot offer you Matt Saracen. But if you’re looking for TV-related angles in this year’s tournament, consider that Julia Louis-Dreyfus will likely be courtside rooting for the Northwestern Wildcats, who made it into the big dance for the first time ever this year. The Veep star and her husband Brad Hall are both Northwestern alums, and their son Charlie plays for Northwestern. Another option: You could cheer for Michigan, the Big Ten team that walked away unscathed from a scary airplane accident, and then went on to unexpectedly win its conference championship a few days later. Basically, rooting for them is like rooting for Oceanic 815 survivors from Lost to win the NCAA tournament.

Or you could consider this: The NCAA tournament, like the Olympics, is one of the few sporting events that packs so many emotional moments into a concentrated period of time.

Because there are 64 teams in the tournament — 68 if you count the early play-in games — there are a lot of underdog squads whose players will likely never see a minute in the NBA in their lives. For a lot of them, their one or two games may mark the first and last time they compete at such a high level, and certainly while bathed in such a bright, national spotlight. When they lose in games that are often decided by a basket or two, it is heartbreaking to witness; when they win, their joy is blatant and contagious. The camera makes sure we understand all of that by capturing every grimace; every explosion of unexpected delight; and every head hung in sadness, covered by a sweaty towel that acts as a privacy curtain for a big, old, ugly cry. Between snapshots like these and the cheesy “One Shining Moment” montage that traditionally closes the CBS coverage of March Madness, the NCAA tournament is basically the This Is Us of sporting events.

The NCAA tournament is also the This Is Us of sporting events because it is rife with feel-all-the-feels twist endings. Every time there is a buzzer beater — a game decided in the final seconds by a wing-and-a-prayer shot, often taken from well beyond the three-point arc by a player on a team no one thought would win — it results in a visceral jolt of surprise, not unlike the jaw-dropping brought on by a sudden, unexpected turn of events on one of your favorite TV dramas. In a lot of ways, it’s even better. There’s just as much online dissection of college basketball as there is of what’s happening on Westworld or Mr. Robot. But in the case of those scripted shows, there’s a chance — some might even say a good chance — that you’ll figure out what’s going to happen before it actually takes place. Bracketologists, on the other hand, can talk until they run out of air, and type predictions until their fingertips lose their ability to leave prints. They still will not see certain March Madness upsets coming until they actually occur. The best moments in the tournament are like all the best moments on television: You really have to see them to believe them.

Why the NCAA Tournament Is Great TV