The network lamely explained that the event was run late, and CBS couldn't have shown the result before going off the air. Further, the network didn't want to squander its exclusivity, which came at a pretty good price, by showing the tape before it could get the most viewers, which was in prime time the next night. Gentile protested glumly that his hands had been tied. "The perception that we held events is so unfair," he said. "You look back at our best moment [Street's Super G] and tell me what we could have done. We're living in an environment where we have to get on a lot of commercials. We have to get off at 11 p.m. to deliver our audience to CBS affiliates [for the local news]."
But the problem of how to treat the events—are they news or entertainment?—was never really resolved. This was a handicap in a world in which viewers can get results instantly on the Internet and on 24-hour sports news stations. (Do you think CNN was holding off on Street's victory? Do you think ESPN2 blanked the crawl under its NASCAR coverage?) Maier became a crossover name in these Olympics mostly because of his sensational spill (which was shown live and got the best ratings to that point), yet CBS did not capitalize on this with live coverage of what turned out to be Maier's victory in the Super G three days later. To have done so might have meant cutting segments from ice dancing, but it would have been boffo TV. CBS instead showed Maier's win canned the following night. Again, Gentile says it's unfair to blame the network for that decision. CBS had decided to make Street's downhill race the premier event on live coverage and, short of using a split screen, couldn't have shown both events.
It's interesting to look down the road and anticipate how the next guy—NBC's Dick Ebersol—will handle these same problems. Gentile has given this some thought. "If what the public wants is immediate and free access to the Olympics, then the network needs to get a cable partner and show everything live, wall-to-wall, and get Bud Greenspan to do the show in prime time, present a completely taped, movie-fied package," he says, invoking the name of the Olympics' most renowned film chronicler. "And I'm not being ridiculous."
Then the prime-time package becomes less valuable, of course, which doesn't make economic sense in an industry in which rights fees go up, not down. Still, Gentile's solution would acknowledge the truth about the Olympics, that they're both sports and entertainment, and allow everybody to have it both ways.
Richard Palfreyman, chief spokesman for the organizers in Sydney (where NBC will have a 15-hour time difference in 2000), says, "The word we've had consistently from Dick Ebersol is that NBC is looking to package its programs and will show virtually nothing live." (Through a spokesman, NBC declined to comment on its plans.) The network will Greenspan it (despite the fact that NBC has what it needs to follow Gentile's blueprint: two sister cable channels, CNBC and MSNBC, that could show live coverage around the clock.) But if NBC gets the drift that the audience won't stand for the canned approach—and isn't that what we're learning here?—it may want the IOC to tweak the schedule. NBC did it in Seoul, twisting arms and getting sprints staged under the midday sun. Could Salt Lake City have bobsled runs and ski races under the lights, in prime time? "We're beginning to have those discussions," Krimsky says.
There is, in any event, a sense that all the rules have changed. Maybe there was a time when a network, with all its swagger, could get away with presenting an Olympics on its own terms. This is a different era, when news is delivered on demand, and no amount of packaging or styling can substitute for its timely arrival.
So, show us Hermann Maier as a young bricklayer, pipe in ska for the snowboarding. Give us all the emotion you can manufacture. Just don't do it a day late. Attention NBC: We're not complete dopes anymore.
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