Give Ted Turner this: The humble, unassuming ol' boy we have come to know and cherish finally got his Goodwill Games up on the satellite. Unfortunately, what goes up must come down to the earth station. The TV coverage of the made-for-TV games has, for the most part, been painfully inept. Although some of the events have been compelling, almost nobody has tuned in. The average prime-time rating for the games' first five nights was 2.2 on superstation WTBS and a network of syndicated stations.
One of the problems is Turner's own conflict of interest: creating and promoting the games, and, last weekend, even acting as an expert commentator on the yachting competition. Is he selling or reporting? How objective can someone be when he's reporting on his own pet project? Is television in this case serving the sport, or vice versa?
Last Friday, Bob Neal, the Turner network studio host in Moscow, asked Peggy Fleming, the figure skating commentator who had just arrived in the U.S.S.R., what kind of reception the games were getting in America. "Everybody's excited about it," Fleming said. Now, Peggy, who are you kidding? Then there were the features about life in the Soviet Union. While Turner's Goodwill concept is certainly laudable, I didn't hear a single word about Soviet life that deserved any less than a 9 on the sympathy meter.
A larger failing, at least in TV terms, is the puzzling absence of substance or human drama in the telecasts. The events themselves haven't been bad, but the lead-ins have been tense and contrived, and some of the announcers seem not to have a clue about the sports or the athletes they're covering. Neal is a comfortable presence behind the host's desk, co-host Nick Charles has done his homework, and Skip Caray's tongue-in-cheek coverage of motoball has been delightful. But the jock commentators are so amateurish they might as well be high school students playing broadcaster—with the notable exception of Bob Knight at the men's world basketball championships in Spain, which are being included in the Goodwill coverage.
TBS, which airs 7 to 10 hours of Goodwill programming each day, certainly has the time to draw viewers into each sport and explain its nuances. Instead, what it generally has done is slap on a tape and let viewers fend for themselves. Because of the time difference, no more than 30% of the competition is being covered live, and TBS's budget is tiny compared with what a major network would spend on such a large event. The truth is, we've been spoiled rotten by ABC's coverage of past Olympics. TBS may be full of goodwill, but 129 hours of multievent television is too daunting a task for a network still in knee pants.
For much of the first week TBS, which has only 14 cameras of its own (Soviet TV is furnishing the main feed), lurched from snafu to disaster. The nadir was an Abbott and Costello-like studio interview conducted by hostess Mary Anne Loughlin with three female U.S. swimmers. Loughlin repeatedly mixed up the identities of her guests, botched a recital of their records and had to be saved by a stage whisper from one of the women ("No, that's Janet over there!"). There were people talking and giggling over open mikes, heavy objects dropping in the studio, announcer errors and enough airhead interview questions to keep viewers floating in a state of confusion. Why interviews are conducted when interviewers don't know what to ask is simply beyond reckoning.
As the games' second week began, TBS's coverage was improving. But I felt sad for Loughlin and other TBS commentators who wanted their show to be special but were in far over their heads. Goodwill does not necessarily make good television.