Finding March Madness basketball games online is easier this year, but watching them isn't if you've ditched your cable or satellite TV service.
This is good news for most Americans — those who pay for cable or satellite service. If you already get the Turner channels — TNT, TBS and TruTV — on television, you should be able to watch live video of every game for free on computers and mobile devices.
But last year, Turner gave those who don't have cable or satellite — the so-called cord-cutters — an option to view all 67 games online for a one-time fee of $4. So if you didn't want to pay $70 or more each month for cable service, you could just pay $4 once for the games.
That was quite a deal. In fact, it was too good to last.
Turner says the plan all along has been to eliminate that option once people got more comfortable with signing in with their pay-TV accounts to watch online. NBC and its sister cable channels have been doing that every other year with the Olympics. HBO, which like Turner is owned by Time Warner Inc., makes you sign in to watch its shows online. There's no online-only option with either.
It's a concept the television industry calls TV Everywhere. The catch is you still need a TV subscription to watch online.
In doing so, the networks are discouraging cord-cutting, which is still uncommon, but growing fast. Networks want to preserve the fees that cable and satellite companies pay them for every subscriber who gets those channels on television.
The good news here is that to compensate for the disappearing online-only option, Turner has made it very easy for online viewers to access live games of the NCAA men's college basketball tournament. That's crucial when games are during the workday, when access to a TV is limited.
For starters, Turner and its broadcasting partner, CBS Corp., have centralized where you can find the games.
Just go to http://www.ncaa.com/march-madness on a Windows or Mac computer or download the free NCAA March Madness Live app on an iPad, iPhone or Android device. You'll see a schedule of games. Just choose any already in progress.
Last year, as a Time Warner Cable subscriber, I had to first figure out which network was carrying a particular game and then go to that network's website to enter my Time Warner password. Watching on a mobile device required yet another password after paying the $4 fee. That made March Madness maddening.
This time, it's one site (or app) and one password.
I expected I'd need to enter my password right away. Instead, both the website and the app let me start watching live games first.
CBS is broadcasting about a quarter of the early-round games and most of the later ones. You can watch as much as you want of those games online.
The Turner games are limited to four hours without a password. You don't have to use that all at once. The idea is that you'd use that time to figure out your account information. In my case, it's the same one I use to access cable bills online.
But unless you know you're limited to four hours, you wouldn't know to look for your password. In making it easy to start watching, Turner is also making it easy to overlook the limit. You're promised warnings along the way, though I never noticed any in my multitasking.
The timer appears tied to Adobe's video player, so clearing the cookie data files on my browser didn't reset it. But after my four hours ran out on a MacBook, I was still able to watch on an iMac, an iPad and an Android phone.
That's good because my pay-TV password doesn't work. A few months ago, I downgraded to a barebones TV service that excludes the Turner channels. Time Warner Cable knows that and won't let me through.
Once your four-hour allotment runs out, you are still able to watch CBS games live and listen to live audio of every game. You also have access to replays on computers and recaps on mobile apps shortly after a game concludes. In addition, you get play-by-play updates and the latest stats on players and the teams. A few highlight clips are also available for free, even before the game ends.
Live video — when you do get it — is sharp. I encountered stuttering only when I tried to watch three or four streams on the same Wi-Fi network.
One drawback: You do have to watch a short ad when you start a video, on top of regular ads during breaks in game play. If the game is close, you could miss a key shot. My other complaint is the lack of controls for pausing and replaying live video. You're stuck with the replays chosen by the networks.
I understand why Turner is requiring a pay-TV subscription, even if I don't like it. It does need to make money. I only wish that it would offer the option to pay for just the NCAA games, as it did last year, for those who don't want to pay for hundreds of TV channels that go unwatched.
It is true that Turner is now conforming to industry norms in tying online access to TV subscriptions. But in retrenching and following the pack, it is missing out on an opportunity to become a digital pioneer.