Work in Sports
Time may change NBC, but NBC can't change time
Sports Illustrated media columnist John Walters checks in three times a week during the Olympics with his coverage of the coverage of the Sydney Games.
There's a newspaper article taped up in NBC's little corner of the International Broadcast Center in Sydney. The Associated Press story out of Toronto reports the paltry ratings that the Canadian Broadcast Channel's (CBC) Olympics coverage has earned thus far. In Detroit, for example, the CBC is pulling a 1.9 share, which likely places it in a dead heat with Tool Time.
The posted piece is a morale booster for NBC's beleaguered media relations folk and a vindication for the network's Olympics pooh-bah, Dick Ebersol. The CBC, you see, is airing the Games live, something we impatient stock-quotes-on-your-cell-phone Americans supposedly desire. CBC's signal is available to Americans living along the Canadian border, thus providing an opportunity to determine whether we prefer to watch sports bleary-eyed in real-time or in prime-time, even if they're 15 hours old.
Which do we prefer? Herewith, the tale of the tape-delay. The following is a comparison of the ratings brought in Tuesday by NBC's prime-time coverage and CBC's live coverage for three northern U.S. metropolises:
"Everyone is complaining that we are not showing the Olympics live," says one NBC staffer in Sydney. "But look what would happen if we did. Nobody would watch."
Yes, we say we want our Olympics live, but that's really not the case. Instead, we just don't want to know the score before we tune in, and in this era of the Internet, cable sports networks and instant messaging, that's almost impossible.
The two most exciting Olympic moments I can remember -- both from the Winter Games -- were Franz Klammer's downhill run in 1976 and the U.S.'s 4-3 "Miracle on Ice" upset of the Soviet Union in hockey four years later. As I recall, I saw both on tape-delay. And I had no idea of the outcome beforehand.
Blame progress, then. Of course, it's easier for us TV critics to point fingers at NBC -- and with zeal, I might add. Even Chris Schenkel, who worked 10 Olympics for ABC and CBS. "Everything seems scripted and I'd like to see more liveliness somewhere," Schenkel told National Public Radio the other day. "But how to do it, I don't know."
To quote Cher: "If I could turn back time..."
NBC cannot. And airing the Games live -- or both live and on tape -- is akin to flying first class from New York to Boston (of course you'd love to, but it's financial insanity). Still, there is much NBC could do to improve its coverage. A few suggestions:
Cue the violins.
If not a moratorium, I'd be happy with a 50-percent reduction of pieces featuring softly-lit athletes, their hardscrabble stories being told as a Greek chorus sings in the background.
Jimmy Roberts did the best story of the Games thus far. It was on barely buoyant swimmer Eric Moussambani of Equatorial Guinea. It was a wonderful tale and Roberts, a producer-turned-reporter, was smart enough to stay out of its way.
"When Dick Ebersol gave me this [nightly "GM Moments"] assignment," says Roberts, "he told me that he wanted something with 'heart and soul.' "
That's fine, if the story merits it. But not every evening needs an Equatorial Guinea pig to stir our emotions. We'd rather...
On Thursday a Russian gymnast tripped in the floor exercise and, in the process, squandered a gold medal. Announcer Al Trautwig said bluntly, "That's what happened to the opportunity that will define the rest of her life."
His words were harsh but in large measure true. The stakes were higher for her in Sydney than they ever could be for, say, Gary Payton. Give us more of that, NBC. That's your heart and soul.
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