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No March Madness for Cord Cutters

It's going to be very hard to watch this year's tournament without a pay-TV subscription.

Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images
Peter Kafka covers media and technology, and their intersection, at Vox. Many of his stories can be found in his Kafka on Media newsletter, and he also hosts the Recode Media podcast.

It’s March Madness time, which means it’s time to fill out brackets, repeat bogus claims about lost productivity and watch a lot of college basketball.

It’s also time to make sure that your pay-TV subscription is up to date. A good chunk of the tournament’s 67 games will only be available to people who have access to Turner-owned cable channels TNT, TBS and TruTV. And for the first time ever, that includes the two semifinal games on Saturday, April 5: If you don’t have pay TV, or a friend who does, and you don’t want to watch the Final Four games at a bar, you’re going to be out of luck.

The (legal) Internet won’t help you, either: There are official tournament apps available for iOS, Android, Windows Phone, Kindle, etc., which will stream all the games, but the only way to get the ones that are on cable channels are by “authenticating” — proving that you have a pay-TV subscription. The CBS games — including the April 7 final — will stream for free, though.

Keeping giant sports events with national audiences restricted to pay TV is obviously a controversial move. So expect to see a flood of righteous anger on the Internet, coupled with calls for Congressional action.

Just like we saw in January, when the college football championship game was restricted to ESPN.

Oh. What’s that? You didn’t hear a peep?

And, come to think of it, you didn’t hear much grousing last month, when a good chunk of the Sochi Olympics was only available to people with access to NBCUniversal’s* cable channels?

Hrmmmm. Maybe this time is the time that changes. But right now most Americans who like sports have made some sort of peace with the fact that liking sports on TV often requires a pay-TV subscription. Increasingly so, actually: Big-time sports have been migrating from free broadcast channels to pay channels for some time.

As I wrote a year ago:

The free-to-pay move serves the interests of the TV Industrial Complex in several ways: The cable networks, flush with cash from subscriber fees, can afford to pay big bucks for the rights to what is must-see TV for many people. And because it’s must-see TV for many people, it helps raise the overall value of the cable networks (Rupert Murdoch used the same strategy to turn Fox into a legitimate broadcast operation two decades ago).

And moving big-time sports to pay TV helps pay TV, period. Nielsen figures there are five million cord-cutters, or cord-nevers, and that number would presumably be much bigger if you could get sports online without paying for TV.

I don’t see this trend reversing, either. If anything, it could accelerate — particularly if Aereo wins its court case, and either CBS or Fox makes good on their threat/pledge to move their best programming off of broadcast TV.

Meanwhile, I’ve got three days to figure out how find TruTV on my cable grid. Wisconsin/American tips off Thursday at 12:40.

* NBCUniversal is an investor in Re/code.

This article originally appeared on

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