Let's face it, TV watchers, ABC's problem—and yours—is that the Calgary Games are just too drawn out, and with the U.S. hockey team eliminated from the competition, things are only going to get worse. Interest falls off when Brian, Debi and the gang are off the ice, and Brian and the hockey team were long gone as of Sunday.
These Games are the longest in history, covering 16 days and three weekends. By their conclusion, ABC will have televised 94� hours of coverage. That's 31� more hours than it telecast from Sarajevo in 1984, 41� more than from Lake Placid in 1980 and 51 more than from Innsbruck in 1976. More is clearly not better for the viewer or for ABC, which paid an exorbitant $309 million for the 1988 U.S. TV rights and now stands to lose at least $40 million on the Games.
But ABC's average prime-time rating of about 19 through Sunday, though lower than the 21.5 guaranteed to sponsors, wasn't exactly the pits. If sustained, it could be enough to win ABC its first February sweeps (on which ad rates are based for the subsequent three months) since Sarajevo. But with NBC's Noble House miniseries amid the competition this week, ABC's numbers could fall off the ski lift.
Compounding the problem, of course, has been the disappointing performance of U.S. athletes, particularly the hockey team, and the repeated postponement of events. The men's downhill, for example, was to have been shown live on the Sunday of the opening weekend, but the race was delayed a day because of high winds. The two-man bobsled competition, scheduled for Sunday, was postponed when the wind blew gravel and sand onto the run. So ABC has had to use fillers: Instead of the downhill, Keith Jackson sent us out to watch Alpine training runs. Another time, there was an interview with actor Michael J. Fox. There was even a segment featuring commentators Al Trautwig and Bob Beattie eating pastries. Talk about scraping the bottom.
But we're not there yet—not by a long shot. How about Friday night's taped feature on how tongue-tied Canadians mispronounced Scandinavian and Eastern European names? Give us a break. ABC filled part of 10� hours of coverage on Saturday with the Sweden- Finland hockey game. Maybe three salmon were watching. Then there was Trautwig's interview with Dr. Ruth, in which she expounded on the merits of skiers having sex before competition. Dr. Ruth was on the air only because ABC, desperately trying to fill time, had absolutely nothing better to show. The Q & A was in egregiously bad taste, aired as it was early Sunday afternoon, when families were watching. "A quickie" with one's wife or usual partner would be all right, she said, adding that if skiers suffered from too much sexual tension they should take "a shower or do something to relieve themselves." Great.
Advertising revenue, of course, is behind the interminable coverage. The more ABC shows of the Games, the more commercials it can air. The late-night half-hour wrap-up show brings in $900,000. Every hour of coverage on weekend mornings and afternoons is worth $3 million. Every hour in prime time—even when NBC's The Cosby Show is walloping ABC in the ratings—the network generates $5 million in ad revenues. A prime-time half-minute commercial goes for $285,000.
Early in last Wednesday's coverage, Jim McKay delivered a sermon, trying to explain why ABC had cut away from Monday night's U.S.- Czechoslovakia hockey game, thereby missing three of the first four goals scored by the Americans and the Czech goal that tied the score at 4-4 in the third period. These goals took place, said McKay, "while we were elsewhere, at other events, usually.... After all, we are here to cover the Olympics, not just ice hockey."
In this case ABC had gone to the men's downhill, an important event. What McKay neglected to say was that the race had been taped earlier in the day—and thus could have been aired between periods—and that during two of the missed goals ABC was showing commercials, not the race. The network could have reduced the hockey action to a portion of the screen while simultaneously running commercials, similar to the way NBC did it during its World Cup soccer coverage in 1986. But as ABC News president Roone Arledge, who is in charge of the Calgary coverage, said, "It was tough enough to sell commercials the way they were." Translation: ABC couldn't afford it.
"TV doesn't control Olympic hockey—and I hope it never does," McKay said. He had to be kidding. Hadn't the tooth fairy clued him in that there may have been a connection between ABC's rights payment and the U.S. hockey team's regularly getting 8:15 p.m. EST starting times, while other teams played at all hours of the day and night?
ABC does deserve applause for its high-tech pictures and sound. These are truly the You-Are-There Olympics. The super slo-mo has been used more smartly than in the past, and for $250,000 ABC has developed four two-ounce cameras and one larger POV (point-of-view) camera that give viewers a feeling of what it's like to soar off a ski jump or zoom down Nakiska at 80 mph.