RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK – The ratings and reviews are in, and CBS Sports did quite well with its free online coverage of “March Madness” last week.

Its costs underwritten by advertisers, CBS offered Internet users access to every game of the men’s NCAA basketball tournament. The NCAA and CBS have both been crowing about the response.

According to CBS, more than 1 million PC viewers tuned in the first four days of the men’s tournament, producing more than 14 million video streams. CBS believes the tournament generated more “live” Internet viewers than any previous event.

Steve Johnson, writing in the “Hypertext” blog for the Chicago Tribune, gave the March Madness show generally high praise.

“After a couple of days monkeying around with CBS’s March Madness on Demand, the network’s experiment in offering live video streams of early round games in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, I’ve got to say I’m impressed,” he wrote.

In order to control demand and prevent any network crashes, CBS and its partners required viewers to register in advance. A “waiting room” was set up for fans once capacity had been reached.

Some 1.15 million users signed up to view the games, including 530,000 on March 16, the day the tournament opened. That late rush helps explain why the waiting room filled with 150,000 people as the first games began. According to Reuters, CBS was serving some 268,000 simultaneous streams on opening day.

The number of online users is impressive when compared to over-the-air viewership. March Madness drew a 5.9 rating, or more than 4 million viewers, and a 12 share (12 percent of all TVs turned on) in the nation’s top 55 markets. Those were the best ratings since 1994 .

Understandably, CBS execs were smiling.

“What we’ve done is complement the biggest college sports event of the year with the largest known simultaneous live viewing audience in the history of the Internet for an event of this kind,” Larry Kramer, president of CBS Digital Media, told MediaWeek. “While television will always be the centerpiece of the March Madness experience, the numbers and positive feedback we have seen from our users today are extremely encouraging.”

Kramer, in an interview with iMedia Connection, stressed that a convergence of sorts had taken place between a sports event, a large audience, and a large number of advertisers whose support enabled CBS to offer the online package free of charge unlike in previous years.

“This is the moment that a major sporting event, a large audience and major advertisers came together on the web. The timing was perfect as broadband acceptance has shot up this year, and the advertising world has embraced web video.

“March Madness represents the perfect event for the web because it supports and supplements broadcast coverage. And it adds value by matching audiences spread out around the country to events spread out across the country.

“A major media company showed it could extend its successful broadcast content into new media without hurting the core business.”

March Madness helped drive up net traffic at other online sports sites as well, according to Nielsen/Net Ratings.

Jon Gibs, senior director of media at Nielsen/NetRatings, added that CBS was able to capitalize on a large number of viewers on Thursday and Friday who still had to work. They just simply tuned in while still on the corporate clock.

“CBS had a great opportunity to stream out-of- market content to office workers during a high point of the college sports year, and managed to take advantage of the confluence of high consumer interest, great content and the inability of office workers to leave their desks,” he said.

Did worker productivity take a hit? The numbers compiled by comScore Networks and reported by might generate some concern. The firm reported than more than 70 percent of the CBS online audience tuned in from the workplace.

“College basketball fans were abuzz at the prospect of watching live broadcasts of NCAA tournament games during the workday, and they were not shy about tuning in as the first round games kicked into action,” said Andrew Lipsman of comScore Networks. “The ability to watch all games online without charge fueled additional interest among fans at work.”