The TV coverage of the early years of the NCAA Tournament was a far cry from the live national coverage of every game that we have today. Here is a summary of my research on NCAA tournament TV coverage for this time period:
Note: The above link takes you to a section of 506sports which contains detailed TV schedules and announcers for these tournaments (free registration required to view).
UPDATE: This is the first of a three-part series. The second installment covers 1982-1990 while the third one covers 1991-present.
NBC started covering the NCAA Tournament in 1969. On the opening day of that tournament (Saturday 3/8) NBC televised a doubleheader. On Saturday 3/15, NBC provided a regional doubleheader of the regional finals with each market getting just two of the four regional final games. The Final Four was on Thursday night 3/20, but each market only got one of the two national semifinals. NBC showed the early game in the eastern half of the USA and the late game in the western half. On Saturday afternoon 3/22, NBC televised the consolation game followed by the championship game.
At the time, the NCAA placed teams into the tournament bracket based on geography so, for example, the West Regional only contained western schools. Also, the Final Four pairings were always locked in as East vs Mideast and Midwest vs West. These factors facilitated NBC in regionalizing its TV coverage essentially by geography and time zone no matter what schools were involved.
NBC used the same scheduling pattern through 1972. Therefore, during these years, each market received only seven games of the entire tournament on NBC (and one of those was the meaningless consolation game). This also meant that many areas of the country never got a chance to see UCLA until the championship game.
Interestingly, in each of these years, CBS televised the NIT championship game head-to-head against the NCAA consolation game on NBC.
Curt Gowdy and Jim Simpson called the Final Four for NBC in 1969 and 1970. Gowdy and Tom Hawkins formed the #1 team starting in 1971.
In 1973, the NCAA moved the Final Four to a Saturday/Monday format. For the first time, NBC televised both national semifinals nationally on Saturday afternoon. NBC aired the championship game in prime time on Monday night and stopped covering the consolation game. For the rest of the tournament, NBC used the same TV schedule pattern as for 1969-1972. The 1974 TV coverage was the same as in 1973.
In 1975, NBC expanded its opening Saturday coverage to a tripleheader. NBC also expanded its regional finals coverage to a tripleheader (with one timeslot featuring regional coverage of two games). So each market got to see three of the four regional finals. Also, in 1975, Billy Packer replaced Hawkins as the lead analyst and called the Final Four with Gowdy.
The 1976 TV coverage was the same as in 1975. From an announcer standpoint, NBC used Dick Enberg and Gowdy essentially as co-#1 play-by-play announcers. Each called one national semi with Packer. For the championship game, NBC put Gowdy and Enberg together (with Curt handling play-by-play) and relegated Packer to the studio.
During the early NBC years, the TVS television network syndicated many NCAA tournament games which NBC did not cover.
In 1977, NBC added Sunday coverage to the opening weekend and went with doubleheaders on both Saturday and Sunday. In a unique change of pace, on Thursday night 3/17, NBC also provided prime time regional coverage of four regional semifinal games with each market getting one game. This was the only year that NBC provided any coverage of this round. NCAA Productions syndicated the other four regional semifinals plus all other tournament games (including the Final Four consolation game) which NBC did not carry. NBC handled the announcer situation for the Final Four similarly to 1976, but this time added Packer to the championship game booth with Gowdy and Enberg.
In 1978, NBC continued to show Saturday and Sunday doubleheaders on the opening weekend, but covered three games regionally in each timeslot. Prior to this season, NBC would either show a national game or just two regional games in each opening weekend timeslot. Also, the NCAA scheduled two of the regional finals on Sunday so, for the first time, NBC televised all four regional finals nationally. NBC dropped the Thursday night regional semifinals coverage, but otherwise used the same schedule pattern as in 1977 for the remainder of the tournament. NCAA Productions carried the entire regional semifinals round and continued to televise all tournament games not picked up by NBC. In 1978, Gowdy called one national semi, but this time NBC assigned Enberg the lead play-by-play role for the championship game. Enberg called that contest with Packer and Al McGuire. That trio called all the Final Four games through 1981.
The NBC schedule for 1979-1981 was essentially the same as in 1978 except that NBC included all 16 games on the opening weekend as part of its regional coverage.
In 1980, six-month old ESPN picked up the NCAA Productions feeds of two games on the opening Thursday night and three on the opening Friday night of the tournament. ESPN also picked up these feeds for the regional semifinals the following Thu/Fri carrying five games live and the other three on tape delay.
In 1981, ESPN aired the NCAA Productions telecasts of all 16 Thu/Fri first round games (four live and the remainder on tape delay). ESPN provided the same regional semis coverage as in 1980.
ESPN also carried the NCAA Productions feed for the Final Four consolation game in both 1980 and 1981.