Sunday, September 17, 2000


NBC is missing the excitement

By John Fay
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        I'm an Olympics guy. I love the Summer Games. I remember watching on a little portable black-and-white TV in friend's living room in 1968 when long jumper Bob Beamon made that incredible leap into history.

        When the 1976 boxing team was whipping up on the world, every eye at Danny's Den was on the big set above the bar.

        When the clock flashed 19.73 after Michael Johnson's 200-meter run in the 1996, it was a great TV moment.

        But, during prime time coverage of the current games, you won't find me in front of the set very often. If I am, it will be with clicker in hand, ready to switch to the goofiness of the Survivor reruns or HBO or ESPN.


        When you know the ending, it's hard to stay interested in the plot.

        Take Saturday, for example. I was in my car at 8 a.m. The man on NPR told me Ian Thorpe, the Aussie swimming sensation, already had won two gold medals — one in the 400 freestyle and one in the 4x100 free relay. Austra lia's victory in the relay was the first loss ever by the U.S. in that event.

        You don't have to be a TV wizard to know those two stories were sure to be the focus of NBC's prime time coverage from 7:30 p.m. to midnight.

        Another big part of it was sure to be the first women's triathlon. But, again, I know the outcome. In fact, the triathlon ended as NBC was showing Bulgaria or Belgium marching in as part of the Opening Ceremony.

        NBC is in a tough spot. Sydney is 15 hours ahead of the Eastern time zone, so the top events will be going off between 4:30 and 7 a.m. EDT. But the decision to show only taped results is a flawed one. Why not break into the Opening Ceremony broadcast and show a snippet of the triathlon? Or a little of shooting, where the first American gold medal was won?

        To NBC's credit, they've been upfront from the beginning about showing tape-delayed coverage.

        “It was really important for us to come 100 percent clean and say what we're going to do,” said Dick Ebersol, chairman of NBC Sports.

        Ebersol's rationale is the typical American viewer doesn't care who won or lost. They're interested in the personalities who play the game.

        “It's been shown time and time again that the average American viewer who comes to the Olympics comes with the attitude, "Tell me a story,' not, "Who won?'”

        That may be true, but when you know who won, the story is not as compelling.

        NBC has the numbers to back up it's theory. The network went with its much-criticized “plausibly live” coverage in 1996 and drew a 21.6 rating. That was up from 16.8 in 1992.

        Plausibly live involved using live footage with tape to weave a story. That great moment when Kerri Strug made the gutsy vault to seal the gold medal for the U.S. in gymnastics actually happened a few moments before the American viewing public saw it.

        But it's safe to say that few people knew the result before they saw it. Because Atlanta is in the Eastern time zone, it was easy to fudge the broadcast a bit.

        With Sydney, that's not possible. It's also impossible to avoid hearing about the results of the big events. The drama of Marion Jones' run at a record five track gold medals will lose a lot of its drama if you know the results ahead of time.


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