Posted: Wednesday February 22, 2006 1:16PM; Updated: Wednesday February 22, 2006 1:31PM
There are alibis enough to explain why the Turin Olympics simply haven't caught on with Americans. Let's see:
Well, they're not in our time zone. What few U.S. stars who were hyped before the Games came up either missing in action or missing at the podium. Other networks had the nerve to actually schedule their regular programs against NBC. Other sports had the nerve not to cede the month of February to the Olympics. And on and on.
At the end of the day, though, it may simply be that the Winter Olympics are foremost a television game show, and history tells us that all TV shows eventually grow weary, stale, flat and unprofitable ... and get canceled.
It was Roone Arledge, ABC's programming genius, who conceived how to package the Games for an American audience. First, he played up quaint location. Cue the cuckoo clocks and the lederhosen. He emphasized beauty. The snow, the mountains, the ice, the sequins. He pursued an audience that didn't usually care all that much for sports. That is, in a word: women.
Arledge then really did make a silk purse out of a sow's ear. He took these sports that nobody much knew -- luge! slalom! curling! -- and ballyhooed: Come with us into the tent, we're going to show you new, exotic games, not the same old baseball and football that your old man watches all year round. Finally, he gave us well-crafted vignettes of the most arresting competitors. Nobody much had heard of them, so Arledge had blank canvases to paint on, and he brushed heavily with pathos and paradox. And always: These aren't just athletes -- no, they're pure and innocent Olympians advancing brotherhood, fellowship and world peace.
At some point, though, the formula began to grow threadbare. New sports were added, but so were more days to the schedule. If it's Tuesday, it must be whatzit or who knows. The vignettes all began to look hackneyed. Anybody could see that the adored Olympic flame was really no different than the Nike swoosh or the Coca-Cola swirl.
You know what the Olympics most remind me of? Miss America. The pageant worked the same dodge for decades, giving us competitors we'd never heard of, putting on acts we didn't really care about, with judging we often didn't understand -- and gussying it all up in a patina of patriotism and purity. After awhile, the conceit became stale. Viewers said, you know, I'd rather watch Miss Universe, where it's just the best babe wins.
Same now, it seems. Bob Costas, meet the ghost of Bert Parks. American Idol whips the Olympics. It may be a junk show, but it's straightforward and familiar. So too do competing sports events like the Daytona 500 and the NBA All-Star Game. They give us athletes we know in real time. Few of us will settle anymore for ersatz drama on tape delay when we already know who won. Women, too, are so much more sophisticated sports fans today. In a way, I think the old-hat Olympic presentation patronizes them. Hey, it was women who tuned out Miss America.
Sure, the Winter Games will do better four years hence, when they're back on our body clock in Vancouver, but unless somebody figures out how to update Arledge, the Winter Olympics will just continue on as another musty old show, struggling to keep share and stay off cable.