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March Madness in the Digital Age hardly without hiccups

Today, the NCAA basketball tournament comes to my backdoor, as Tampa’s St. Pete Times Forum hosts games starting at noon.

But I may barely notice all the local commotion, because my attention is focused in a different spot: CBS and Turner Sports’ March Madness on Demand programming for mobile customers.

When the companies first announced this feature, which basically brings streaming video of the championship games to the iPad, iPhone and iPod Touch, I wondered what might happen to U.S. productivity levels.

Sure, employers are on the lookout for saps crazy enough to try watching daytime games on their office TVs. They’re wise to the sick days which magically materialize during March Madness, and they’re even hip to the computer nerds who call up games via the networks’ free online streaming through the web.

But an Apple app, now offered free, allowing access to streaming video and social networking stuff from your cellphone or tablet computer? Now that’s downright diabolical.

After an evening using the app on my iPod Touch, however, I’m wondering if the diabolical part of this equation might not lie elsewhere.

I’ll drop a huge caveat here; it’s tough to tell sometimes whether hiccups in streaming video or problems with accessing app features aren’t the result of specific connectivity problems. So I’ll allow that maybe my home wifi setup may have let me down in some way.

But while test driving the on demand app during the USC/Virginia Commonwealth game Wednesday evening I noticed some troubling issues.

My biggest problem was hiccups in the video streaming. At times the picture might freeze, sometimes during important plays, and I’d wait long moments for the video to resume.

The streaming also seemed to run several minutes behind the TV broadcast, which made for an odd dissonance while watching the game both on my TV and on the Touch. If connectivity drops to a certain level, the video will drop out and you’ll be relegated to hearing audio from the TV broadcast, which can be annoying and incomplete.

Some of the features seemed tough to access as well. Took me a minute to sign on through my Facebook account – okay, partly because I never remember my password – and when I did sign on, it was still difficult to post messages as the game progressed. All of this could be due to an overburdened local network, however.

The on demand streaming also offers a different analyst team during halftime than we saw on the truTV broadcast Wednesday, with anchors who seemed a little greener than the guys on television.

This time, instead of being relegated to courtside reporting, the only woman appearing on camera here provided social media reports — alerting us to tweets from CBSSports.com columnist Garry Parrish and lots of cheerleading for the on demand features. Hopefully, with a full slate of games underway, she’ll have more interesting bits to report today.

The best part of the on demand features won’t emerge until later today, when all four TV partners begin airing second round games across CBS, TBS, TNT and truTV (last night, only truTv aired games).

Input your zip code and some TV information into the app – like who your cable or satellite TV provider is – and you’ll see a schedule of games complete with times, teams and channel information. If your connectivity is smooth, the true basketball nut could easily call up the West Virginia and Clemson game on their TV (telecast on CBS at noon from Tampa) while monitoring the Butler and Old Dominion game via on demand (airing at 12:30 p.m. on truTV from Washington D.C.)

Though CBS and Turner promise lots of onscreen messages to help fans find the games they’re most interested in watching, the online components of their broadcasts may help more. At a time when the audience is taking more control than ever, the on demand app allows a level of in-the-moment navigation which could prove crucial for hardcore fans.

As the game streaming unfolds, you can surf to a highlights area where crucial game plays are already saved for your perusal. A Box Score area allows quick review of every player’s statistics and you can call up the My Bracket to see how your picks are doing if you entered CBS’s NCAA bracket challenge.

Just be careful who sees you using this in the office. Play your cards right, and you’ll look like the world’s most dedicated worker while feeding your jones for college hoops and modern media in one swoop.

Eric Deggans is TV and Media Critic for the St. Petersburg Times and a 1990 graduate of the Indiana University School of Journalism. His work has also appeared in the Washington Post, Village Voice, VIBE magazine, Chicago Tribune, Detroit Free Press, Chicago Sun-Times and many other publications. He also writes a blog on media, The Feed,  at  blogs.tampabay.com/media.
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