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Greg Gumbel is set to host the NCAA Tournament "Selection Show" on Sunday. (Michele Crowe/CBS)

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“Selection Sunday” looms, and some of the selections the television networks that cover the unveiling of the NCAA Tournament field have made in formatting the program have created their own version of “March Madness.”

What once was a crisp, popular 30-minute show that evolved into a quick-moving one-hour production has turned into an experimental proving grounds in recent years. And the only thing proven is that viewers disdain jarring changes to the traditional format.

So CBS is returning this year to its fan-friendly formula, a one-hour program that will feature the customary revealing of the four regional brackets. They will be announced one by one instead of by an unpopular change last year in which teams in the field were rolled out mostly in alphabetical order.

“No bells and whistles,” Sean McManus, chairman of CBS Sports, said this week at a media session in New York to promote the television coverage of the tournament. “Were going to release brackets at the top of the show as fast as we can while still giving some texture” to the proceedings that get underway at 5 p.m. Sunday on KMOV (Channel 4).

In 2016, CBS turned the show into a cumbersome marathon.

It took 20 minutes for the first regional bracket to be shown and it was a whopping hour and 17 minutes before the last matchup in the field appeared. But a lot of fans already knew the parings, because a leaked copy of the bracket was posted on Twitter about 20 minutes into the two-hour broadcast.

After a massive outcry of displeasure with CBS’ production, the network returned to its roots the following year. It had the first pairing 13 minutes into the program and reached the final one after just 38 minutes. That soothed many who had been agitated by the plodding of the previous version.

But that wasn’t good enough to keep officials of CBS and Turner Broadcasting, who are entering the ninth year of their partnership to televise the tournament, from tinkering again. Last year’s “Selection Show” was carried on a Turner outlet (TBS) for the first time and the format was changed drastically. The result led to more uproar from fans, for the opposite reason of 2016 — this time the pace was too fast.

All the schools that had made the field were announced at the start of the show. It took less than a minute for TBS to begin breezing through the automatic qualifiers (schools already known to be in the field). Then the attention rapidly turned to teams that received at-large berths — usually the real intrigue of the program. They were revealed quickly, mostly in alphabetical order other than a couple flubs. It was breakneck pace compared to the norm, as it took less than 15 minutes for the entire field to be listed.

That zapped the suspense from a program that in the past was fueled by the unveiling of regional brackets individually. Fans of “bubble” teams had to sweat it out if their school still hadn’t been listed by the time the announcement began for matchups in the last of the four regions.

“Being very honest, we tried something new and we were not serving the viewer as well as we could,” McManus said. “It was an honest effort on our part and on Turner’s part to do that. But the feedback we got was, ‘Give us the brackets as quickly as you can.’ It’s as simple as that. I think it’s the right thing to do.”

So “we’re going to basically do what we used to do, which is understand that the fan really wants to see the brackets. He and she want information and inside stuff on how to fill out their brackets.”

Turner is agreeable with the change.

“I don’t think there’s ever any harm in trying (something different), and if you don’t try things you’ll never evolve,” said Jeff Zucker, the new head of news and sports for Turner parent company WarnerMedia and who was not involved in last year’s tournament. “But I think it’s a sign of understanding when things don’t necessarily go as well as you would hope you change it. So there’s no shame in that.”

Greg Gumbel will be host of the show, and be joined by analysts Clark Kellogg and Seth Davis.

Out are gimmicks used last year such as Charles Barkley fumbling with a touch-screen device and a studio audience eating pizza.

For those who want more, Turner and CBS will show “Inside the Bracket” at 6 p.m. on several social media outlets that have March Madness affiliations — YouTube, Twitter and Facebook, as well as NCAA.com and Bleacherreport.com.

And ESPN, ESPN2, SEC Network and Big Ten Network will have tourney-related previews at varying times Sunday night.

BIG PICTURE

The “Selection Show” once was a key day on the calendar of many basketball fans, but the growth of social media and other programming options has eroded the relevance of the program — just like many other forms of not only television but mainstream media in general.

The program’s rating has declined in each of the past five seasons and bottomed out last year.

Nielsen, which tabulates viewership, reports that just 1.5 percent of homes nationwide with a TV tuned in — a whopping loss of half the audience from the previous year. Some of that can be attributed to the proceedings being on TBS, a cable outlet seen in fewer homes than over-the-air’s CBS. Also contributing is that the quick listing of all the teams undoubtedly led to viewers leaving a show that went on for more than another hour and a half.

Look for a ratings rise this year with the return to CBS and a format that keeps intrigue alive.

LOCAL LINE

The program’s ratings have been relatively good in St. Louis in recent years despite a poor showing by the major and mid-major teams in the region, all of which likely will be tourney no-shows again.

Missouri and St. Louis University each have made it to the NCAA Tournament just once in the last five years, a span in which Illinois has been shut out.

This will be the 12th consecutive year Southern Illinois University Carbondale has failed to get in, and the 20th in a row for Missouri State. Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, which just completed its 11th season in Division I, hasn’t even had a winning season at that level and this week fired coach Jon Harris after he compiled a 31–88 record in four years.

Despite this malaise, the rating in St. Louis for the “Selection Show” has been above the national average in seven of the last eight years, peaking in 2012 at No. 12 nationally. That’s out of the 56 markets in which viewership is tabulated electronically.

BY THE NUMBERS

How the “Selection Show” has fared in the ratings nationally and in St. Louis, as well as where St. Louis ranked nationally:

YEAR / NAT. / STL / RANK

2011 ... 4.0 ... 5.0 ... 24

2012 ... 3.6 ... 6.7 ... 12

2013 ... 4.2 ... 5.7 ...  T21

2014 ... 4.1 ... 5.4 ... 20

2015 ... 3.5 ... 2.8 ... 36

2016 ... 3.3 ... 4.4 ... T23

2017 ... 3.0 ... 3.2 ... 26

2018 ... 1.5 ... 1.6 ... T26

Notes • Last year’s telecast on TBS, others on CBS (KMOV, Channel 4 locally). The rating is the percentage of homes with a TV tuning in.

Source • Nielsen

GETTING GOING

The tournament tips off with two games each on Tuesday and Wednesday, in Dayton, Ohio, which will be shown on truTV. Kevin Harlan (play-by-play) broadcasts the Tuesday contests, with commentary from Reggie Miller and Dan Bonner. Spero Dedes has the play-by-play on Wednesday with Jim Jackson and Steve Smith the analysts.

The event swings into full gear Thursday and next Friday, with 12 hours of games each day.

During the tourney, which runs over three weekends and concludes with the title game on April 8, Turner will carry 43 contests spread over TBS, TNT and truTV. CBS will have 24, including the national semifinals and championship.

The networks’ top broadcast team again will consist of Jim Nantz on play-by-play alongside analysts Bill Raftery and Grant Hill, with Tracy Wolfson handling the reporting duties. They’ll call the national semifinals and championship matchups.

Dan Caesar • 314-340-8175

@caesardan on Twitter

dcaesar@post-dispatch.com

This article originally ran on stltoday.com.

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