Originally created 02/11/02

You'll need a score card for Olympics telecasts

We have big news here about the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics. Big news.

Never mind the world-class athleticism, the celebration of the American spirit or the occasional whiz-bang technical gizmos NBC is trotting out. At these Games, something will be missing.

No matter how much of the 375-1/2 hours of TV coverage you watch, you'll see no - we repeat, no - "undignified" moves at the figure-skating rink. And doesn't that put a crimp in your Olympic rings.

Blame it on the International Skating Union, which decided, I dunno, that all the trash talking and end-zone celebrations were too much for the sport. So now judges will penalize skaters or ice dancers - they're different, you know - for anything undignified, which right off should mean automatic deductions for most of the men skaters because of their costumes.

OK, that was snippy. But isn't that the point of figure skating? Legalized snippiness? Fans get to roll their eyes at the clothes, the makeup and the judges. Yeah, yeah, they're athletes, train hard, incredible talent. Whatever. I say bring on any undignified moves they can muster without falling down.

One thing is certain: NBC will bring on piles of figure skating during the Winter Olympics. The Games, which start Friday night with the Opening Ceremonies (at 7:30 p.m. PST), are going to be so loaded with figure skating - 10 nights' (out of 17) worth of competition, and who knows how many more exhibitions - that analyst Scott Hamilton is going to feel like a member of the family, albeit an odd, sometimes hysterical one.

And all that figure skating will get really, really close to being live. Actually, it will be live everywhere but on the West Coast because, well, it's a long story which we'll get to in a moment. The Opening Ceremonies? Also tape-delayed on the West Coast.

NBC, the Olympics and live coverage seem to have a star-crossed relationship - remember the 441 hours from Sydney, Australia, in 2000, and how a grand total of none of it was live? - but this one isn't entirely the network's fault.

And there will be some actual live TV on NBC's cable channels, most of it during the day, although the highest-octane daytime events such as, say, the downhill or mogul skiing will be tape-delayed - and, sadly, probably packaged - for the prime-time broadcast on NBC that will be tape-delayed anyway in the West.

To make any sense of that, we need to back up.

NBC's bosses have been saying for months that an Olympics on U.S. soil - and especially these Games so close on the heels of the Sept. 11 attacks - "cry out for live coverage," in the words of NBC's sports chairman, Dick Ebersol.

And NBC, like people all over the planet, understands the symbolism, and the hopes, inherent in these Games. Any Olympics carries subthemes of common humanity and peace through sports, but those ideas seem so much more sincere and important now, as do the possible risks athletes and spectators are facing just by showing up.

NBC, like the Salt Lake City Olympics organizers, has talked about letting the American spirit shine through without turning these Games into a festival of red, white and blue jingoism. The truth is, we'll probably see more shots of waving flags than we will of snow during these games, but considering the circumstances, that's a good thing for most Americans and probably something the rest of the world expects.

All of that emotion and, likely, patriotism will feel more honest and genuine if it's spontaneous and live, and NBC knows that, too. But the network paid $545 million for the rights to these Games and, also in the words of Ebersol, NBC is "in the business of getting the largest possible audience."

So here's how that translates to coverage: curling, 24/7.

OK, that's a joke, but you didn't think you'd get through a story about Olympics coverage without the gratuitous curling reference or a mention that the heart-pounding curling coverage will, naturally, feature the play-by-play of Don Chevrier, the analysis of Don Duguid and, of course, the reporting of Elfi Schlegel. (Word is, they're legends in Canada.)

Really, now, here's what to expect: Daytime coverage will air from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. on MSNBC and will feature mostly live (hooray!) coverage of events like cross-country skiing, biathlon, some hockey and, yup, curling. NBC will broadcast an hour during the day from 3 to 4 p.m.

CNBC, which will feature wall-to-wall, mostly live ice hockey, both men's and women's, will air from 3 to 9 p.m. Jim Lampley will anchor both MSNBC's and CNBC's coverage, and that brings up the question: Do we really need 11 straight hours of Jim Lampley's hair? The late-night show will air on NBC from 11:35 p.m. to 1:05 a.m.

The prime-time broadcast will, of course, be on NBC, and here's where we get into it. NBC is trying to funnel the bulk of the viewers into prime time, which they'll tell you is most convenient for people at home, but they'll mean it's most lucrative for NBC. That's why the big daytime stuff will have to wait until the evening to make the air.

The prime-time show - hosted by Bob Costas, who still swears he didn't dye his hair in Sydney - will have more than just the tape, though. Airing from 8 to 11:30 p.m. on the East Coast, NBC plans to feature live figure skating and some live speed skating, bobsled and a few other events.

But not on the West Coast. For Pacific time zone stations, a live broadcast would have meant a 5 to 8:30 p.m. run, messing up the local news and scoring precious little prime-time ratings for the stations, since prime time officially starts at 8 p.m.

NBC and its stations said they polled viewers, and a vast majority said they would prefer tape-delay, but it was the stations, not the network, that forced NBC to tape-delay the evening show out West by 2-1/2 hours, airing it from 7:30 to 11 p.m.

We'll have to take their word for it on viewer preferences, though at least it's a legitimate argument that many more people will be able to watch a show starting at 7:30 p.m.

What is far less legitimate is NBC's hockey-puck notion that viewers want those sappy soap operas they call athlete feature stories, or that we need them every time an athlete steps onto the ice or snow.

(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, http://www.shns.com)


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