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Putting the Gold on Hold
Richard Hoffer
March 02, 1998
CBS's canned Olympic coverage raises questions about NBC's game plan for Sydney
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March 02, 1998

Putting The Gold On Hold

CBS's canned Olympic coverage raises questions about NBC's game plan for Sydney

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Too Much of a Good Thing?

As the hours devoted to Olympic telecasts have expanded, the rights fees to cover the costs have risen. But as the numbers below show, the ratings have not always gone up accordingly. (One ratings point represents 1% of TV households.)

YEAR

LOCATION

NETWORK(S)

HOURS

RIGHTS FEES

AVG. PRIME-TIME RATING

1960

Squaw Valley

CBS

13.0

$50,000

1964

Innsbruck

ABC

16.0

$597,000

1968

Grenoble

ABC

23.5

$2.5 million

13.4

1972

Sapporo

NBC

26.0

$6.4 million

17.2

1976

Innsbruck

ABC

40.5

$10 million

21.7

1980

Lake Placid

ABC

53.5

$15.5 million

23.6

1984

Sarajevo

ABC

62.5

$91.5 million

18.2

1988

Calgary

ABC

94.5

$309 million

19.3

1992

Albertville

CBS
TNT

112.5
45.0

$243 million
$20 million

18.7

1994

Lillehammer

CBS
TNT

119.0
45.0

$295 million
$30 million

27.8

1998

Nagano

CBS
TNT

128.0
50.0

$375 million
$9.5 million

16.2*

2002

Salt Lake City

NBC

???

$545 million

SOURCE: NIELSEN MEDIA RESEARCH AND CBS

*Preliminary final number

Well, now we know what the Olympic torch is for. It's to be applied to the backside of whatever network is foolish enough to bid on the Olympic Games, particularly a cold-weather version in which problems created by a 14-hour time difference might be compounded by, oh, let's say snow. This time it was CBS's turn to feel the flames of critics and viewers, who, for the life of them, can't understand why television takes as long as 24 hours to get its signal across the Pacific Ocean.

Although CBS expects to make approximately $40 million on the $375 million it invested in rights fees for the Nagano Games, it suffered the lowest Olympic prime-time ratings since 1968 and was even forced to run make-good ads after failing to deliver the audience it had guaranteed. The criticism and the Nielsen decline have Olympic officials concerned enough about the prospects for NBC in Sydney (in 2000) and Salt Lake City (2002) to consider some changes in scheduling and in the way the Games are covered. "This is a made-for-TV event," says John Krimsky, U.S. Olympic Committee deputy secretary general and managing director for business affairs, "and there are a number of things we can do to enhance that. That's our job, to enhance the brand."

Even allowing for that time difference between Japan and the U.S., CBS bears much of the blame for the viewers' dissatisfaction. The network made disastrous decisions, starting with its choice of prime-time host, the uninspiring Jim Nantz. It confused sports and entertainment, and it generally behaved as if viewers didn't deserve to share in the Olympic experience until the network was good and ready to let them.

It will be a long time before anybody forgets CBS's bungling of the women's Super G in the first week of the Games, when it seemed a viewer had a better chance of seeing Martha Stewart do something interesting than Picabo Street. A lot of people are going to spend the next four years wondering why the network would pass on showing the men's Super G live and present it the next night on tape, about nine news cycles after the event. The morning news shows, for goodness' sake, were interviewing gold medal winners 12 hours before CBS showed them in competition.

But that may be the nature of the Winter Olympics beast, too. As the Winter Games have become bloated, going from 13 hours of broadcast coverage over 11 days in 1960 to 178 (on CBS and cable's TNT) over 17 days this year, viewers have realized that there is not always something interesting to watch. No amount of graphics, no amount of athletes' profiles and no amount of travelogues (here's Martha at a wholesale fish market!) can disguise the awful truth. The Winter Olympics are not the NFL.

Even CBS seems to have turned against the Games. Rick Gentile, the network's Olympics executive producer, told anyone who called him in Nagano that the Games had no personality, charisma or warmth. The words he sprinkled in his defense were boring, bland and drab. "This," he said, "is a bad Olympics. It's a 32-6 Super Bowl."

Some stories on the CBS wish list, stories involving ratings-friendly teams or athletes, didn't develop. "We've got that package on the [U.S.] hockey team ready to go," Gentile said. "Just tell me when to cue it up." Do you believe in disappointments? "If the game stinks, the broadcast stinks," said Gentile. "We can make a boring event watchable, we just can't make it exciting."

This is the politically correct way of saying that Michelle Kwan did not get thwacked on the leg with a bar on her way to Japan. Of course, the 1994 Lillehammer Games, which had a 27.8 prime-time rating to Nagano's 16.2 (preliminary final number), had stories besides Nancy & Tonya, such as the Olympic return of professional skaters and the sagas of U.S. heroes Bonnie Blair, Dan Jansen and Tommy Moe. With such an abundance of personalities, however, Lillehammer may have been an anomaly and thus an unfair ratings benchmark for subsequent Games.

CBS tried to put a positive spin on its coverage, noting that Olympics programming killed its network prime-time competition and boosted ratings for Late Night with David Letterman, which was sandwiched between prime-time and late-night coverage of the Games. CBS complained about the weather and the time difference, neither of which should have surprised a network that prides itself on news gathering. Certainly it hurt when the men's downhill skiing was postponed because of heavy snow on the first Saturday of the Games. Had the folks back home gotten to see Austria's Hermann Maier soar off the mountain—off the mountain, not just the course—and crash horrifically on the first evening of televised competition (as he did later in the week after three weather-induced delays), the Olympics might have seemed a lot hotter.

The manipulation of time and space for ratings advantage is an old broadcast tradition; anybody remember NBC's little broadcast fantasy from 1996—"plausibly live"? But no network ever insisted upon the kind of national make-believe that CBS did the first week of the Olympics, when it held onto Street's gold-medal-winning Super G race for 23 hours and 17 minutes, not airing it until well after Martha Stewart had cleared the air with her kimono fitting. Worse, CBS presented the triumph the next night as if it were happening right before our eyes, with three hours of bumpers and teases. ("There's gold on the line in the Super G!" Well, there had been once.)

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