NBC's omnipresent Games begin with fireworks
Posted: Sunday August 15, 2004 4:19AM; Updated: Sunday August 15, 2004 4:19AM
(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?