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NBC's omnipresent Games begin with fireworks

Posted: Sunday August 15, 2004 4:19AM; Updated: Sunday August 15, 2004 4:19AM
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TV Highlights

A look at NBC's coverage of the summer Olympic games from Athens:

RATINGS: Friday's opening ceremony averaged 25.1 million viewers, according to Nielsen Media Research. That's down from the 27.3 million who watched opening night in Sydney four years ago. NBC was pleased, however, that Friday's total viewership of 56 million -- counting the number of people who tuned in at any point during the night instead of who was watching during an average minute -- was identical to the Sydney figure. The ratings were actually higher than those for the 1992 Barcelona opening ceremony, the last European games.

HIGHLIGHT: Tom Brokaw and Robert Hager's short, sharp report on Olympic security, noting the fivefold spending increase since Sydney in 2000. They showed how a blimp floating over the venues could film a van on the streets below, even reading the license plate. Cameras are planted all over the grounds, able to swivel toward the sound of a gunshot. Creepy. Here's hoping it's the last time security is in the spotlight.

LOWLIGHT: Shortly after the U.S. Olympic team marched into the stadium, viewers were directed to NBC's Web site, where replicas of their outfits were already for sale. How fast can a nice moment be turned into a sales opportunity? That fast. NBC also said its Web site had information about Bjork's music -- right after Bob Costas and Katie Couric talked over her performance during Friday's opening ceremony.

ILL-ADVISED QUOTE OF THE DAY: "Iraqi athletes have a tortured past, literally." -- Katie Couric. That tragic story shouldn't be fodder for wordplay.

EWWWWW!: Greek athletes kissing the camera lens while marching into stadium.

NO NEWS: We understand the business reasons for NBC holding off until prime-time Saturday to show Michael Phelps' gold medal swim. But why did MSNBC -- during a news report Saturday afternoon -- mention that the U.S. had one gold medal but not say who won it? Such a tease! Curious viewers could easily turn to ESPN and find out. MSNBC also stayed with its planned Olympics coverage Saturday evening even though its competitors were covering Hurricane Charley's aftermath nearly full-time. MSNBC planned to offer news updates.

WHEN TO WATCH SUNDAY (TIMES EDT, SUBJECT TO CHANGE): NBC (Noon to 6 p.m.), swimming and U.S. men's basketball team vs. Puerto Rico; NBC (7 p.m. to midnight), women's gymnastics, four gold medal swimming finals; CNBC (2 a.m. to 4 p.m.), men's doubles badminton with U.S. vs. South Africa, rowing and volleyball; Bravo (4 a.m. to noon), U.S. softball vs. Australia; USA (8 a.m. to 11:30 a.m.), women's cycling; MSNBC (4 p.m. to 7 p.m.), boxing; Bravo (midnight to 1 a.m.), tennis and sailing; Telemundo (noon to 7 p.m.), boxing and men's soccer.

(AP) -- After dozing off to images of flying Eros, an overdressed Bjork and Olympic rings burning in water, television viewers awoke Saturday to the U.S. women's basketball team easily beating New Zealand.

So began NBC's omnipresent Olympics.

With a staggering 39 hours of coverage spread across six networks on Saturday alone -- not including Lester Holt interviewing athletes on weekend "Today" -- the Olympic burnout factor is being tested right away.

NBC has bet billions of dollars that Americans will get hooked on the Athens Games. Its executives were cautiously optimistic Saturday after preliminary ratings showed strong interest in Friday's opening ceremony. Full national ratings were expected later Saturday.

The key to big ratings is to create big stars, which NBC has been relentlessly attempting with swimmer Michael Phelps and his quest to top Mark Spitz' haul of gold. CNBC also rushed to interview blonde pinup pitcher Jennie Finch after the U.S. softball team's opening rout of Italy.

"Congratulations again," gushed analyst and former softball star Dot Richardson. "We look forward to seeing you again on the mound."

Friday's opening ceremony was the type of spectacle Hollywood used to create for the big screen, where "excess" was a word never spoken. It had plenty of arresting images, some as simple as fireworks exploding over a brand new stadium, others as obtuse as a midair dancer on a tumbling cube.

NBC's Bob Costas and Katie Couric served as translators, and not for language. The sprawling tribute to Greek history and mythology would have flown over the head of most viewers -- just like Eros, the god of love -- if the commentators hadn't explained what it all signified.

The two were able and amiable pros. Some of Costas' quips seemed forced ("When you are a Greek god, you can do as you please"), but they hit the right combination of letting the show unfold on its own while inserting cogent commentary.

During the parade of nations, there was some anticipation of what type of reaction the American athletes would receive, given the unpopularity of the Iraq war in Europe.

Costas noted the "tremendous roar of approval" almost with relief.

"It's a very warm and generous reception for every country, across the spectrum of politics and humanity," he said. "They have all been welcomed here."

One of NBC's best ideas was a very simple graphic during the parade of nations, listing the three countries "on deck" while athletes were marching in. Viewers could anticipate their favorites.

With 202 countries, NBC researchers had to dig deep. Denmark, Costas noted, was very competitive in badminton.

Singer Bjork was dressed in a huge outfit that unfolded beneath her into a map of the world and spread over the heads of all the athletes. Yes, it looked as odd as it sounds. Costas didn't miss the obvious reference to her swan get-up at the Academy Awards a few years back.

NBC hired James Earl Jones, whose voice seems to descend from the gods, for an opening essay on Greek history and the Olympic movement. "The games are home," he said, which instantly became the games' first cliche.

More effective was Costas' opening, shifting from an overhead view of the Parthenon to one of the brand new Olympic stadium.

NBC's beginning montage telegraphed the sports that the network will concentrate on during its prime-time broadcasts, primarily because they appeal to women: swimming and diving, track and field and gymnastics. But the packed schedules on CNBC, MSNBC, Bravo, USA and Telemundo offer plenty of opportunities for other sports to emerge in popularity.

The games' first commercial? An artsy Budweiser piece, with a young horse imitating the Clydesdales. Four commercial breaks during the telecast's first half hour proved distracting, although less annoying than the Rolling Stones selling the rights to "Jumpin' Jack Flash" to sell Corvettes.

Oh, and the first Donald Trump promotional sighting came 40 minutes into the show.

What, you were expecting discretion?

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