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WINTER OLYMPICS : Commentary : For ABC, It's Been Downhill

February 18, 1988|LARRY STEWART | Times Staff Writer

Roone Arledge was a recent guest on Howard Cosell's "Speaking of Everything" late-night show, which more appropriately should be called "Speaking of Nothing," or "Howard Cosell and Friends."

Anyway, Arledge, somehow managing to fit his ego into the same studio as Cosell's, proudly announced, "I don't want to sound immodest, but we took ABC Sports from nothing in 1960 to where it is today, recognized worldwide as the leader in sports television."

Arledge better check again. ABC's reputation is going downhill faster than Pirmin Zurbriggen does on a downhill course.

And it is Arledge who, more than anyone, is to blame.

It was Arledge who made one of the worst business decisions in the history of television in January, 1984, when, as the president of ABC Sports, he agreed that his employer would pay $309 million for the rights to the 1988 Winter Olympics.

There seemed no way that ABC was going to make a profit with such a stiff tab. But, damn, the network is sure giving it a go, running about 20 minutes of commercials per hour during its coverage of the Calgary Games.

At one point Tuesday night, the network returned from a commercial break at 10:48. At 10:50, it was back to another.

Just as bad as the number of commercial breaks is the placement of them. The person who oversees that is the executive producer, who just happens to be Mr. Arledge.

Arledge is no longer the president of ABC Sports, but someone had the bright idea to bring him back to run things for ABC during the Games. He admitted in his interview with Cosell that he was less enthusiastic about these Olympic Games than others, but the main problem probably is that Arledge has been away from sports for more than two years.

Whatever, things aren't going smoothly in Calgary.

After the long program by gold-medal winning figure skating pair of Ekaterina Gordeeva and Sergei Grinkov Tuesday night, ABC went to a commercial before their scores were announced.

When ABC returned, it showed the scores for artistic impression, but not the scores for technical merit, although Jim McKay mumbled something about 5.8s and 5.9s.

Not showing the complete scoring for the winning pair was awful.

ABC has been missing a lot of other things during these Games, including hockey goals. McKay said Wednesday night the problem is there are other events to cover. But the truth is, the problem Monday night during the U.S.-Czechoslovakia game was commercial breaks. There are usually seven per hour, and they range from one minute to three.

The International Ice Hockey Federation changed its Olympic format for the benefit of U.S. television, allowing three teams to advance to the medal round instead of two, but didn't do anything to help ABC insert commercials.

Under international rules, there is no stoppage of play for commercials.

Mark Stulberger, Prime Ticket's hockey producer who previously was in charge of the USA cable network's hockey coverage, said there is a league-wide system in the National Hockey League that allows stoppage for 30 seconds for television commercials.

ABC on Monday night was leaving hockey games for a full minute. "That's plain suicide," Stulberger said.

ABC wisely went to 30-second commercials Wednesday night but still irritated viewers by leaving the U.S.-Soviet Union hockey game in the third period to show taped Alpine skiing and figure skating highlights. ABC in New York reportedly received about 800 complaint calls, and ABC spokesman Jeff Tolvin said the majority were upset that the network didn't show the entire hockey game, but others wanted to see less hockey and fewer commercials.

The amount of commercials and placement of them are only two complaints about the television coverage of the Calgary Games. There are many more, not the least of which is the three-hour delay we get on the West Coast.

Wednesday night's hockey game was over by the time ABC showed the start here.

It's a slap in the face to everyone living in the Pacific time zone to show the Games delayed. A 5 p.m. start might be a little inconvenient for some commuters, but the vast majority would surely prefer live coverage, which is what all other time zones are getting.

Besides, ABC takes a while to get going anyway. On Monday night, the first action ABC showed was hockey at 8:26. Tuesday night, the first action was taped luge coverage at 8:27.

The only reason ABC is delaying coverage here is because it can get higher ratings with later coverage. To heck with giving people what they want, the network must figure. To heck with giving Westerners the United States and Soviets live.

Another thing: Young schoolchildren could watch all of the coverage before retiring for the evening. But to heck with them, too.

ABC, given a three-hour slot each weeknight, seems unsure of what to do with it. It will waste time on such things as announcers Al Trautwig and Bob Beattie sampling a certain Dutch pastry, yet omit coverage of events.

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