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HOWARD ROSENBERG

CBS in Lillehammer: Let the Self-Promotion Begin! : Television: And that's not the only problem with the network's Olympic coverage. Whatever happened to continuity and focus?

February 16, 1994|HOWARD ROSENBERG

The banner headline emerging from the Winter Olympics this week is not about Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan or even the surprise gold medal of U.S. Alpine skier Tommy Moe.

It's that Connie Chung is nice. Really, sincerely, honest-to-goodness, syrupy-sweet nice.

That's the word from her co-anchor, Dan Rather, who reports with a straight face, in one of those gaudily pretentious "CBS Evening News" promo spots that the network has been slipping into its daily coverage from Lillehammer, Norway, that a man in a pickup asked him the following question: "Is Connie Chung really as nice as she seems?"

Rather's reply: "Yup."

During a separate spot, Rather announces that, yup, Chung is also a pretty terrific reporter: "Good instinct for a story . . . real journalistic credentials . . . smiles easily . . . a real tough competitor."

When it comes to Olympics commercials, however, these spots are a mere drop in the fiord.

Granted, CBS has never advertised itself as the Sisters of Mercy. Understandably, its mission in Lillehammer is to help its stockholders, its purpose in acquiring telecast rights for the Winter Games being to earn an Olympian profit. Fair enough. But c'mon, this is becoming ridiculous.

Nice production values, nice photography, nice music, nice people, nice snow, nice Norway. Yet during its three hours of prime-time coverage Monday night, CBS aired only 25 minutes of actual competition, compared to 47 minutes of commercials. In other words, the commercials-to-medal-event ratio was nearly 2-to-1.

The tone was set when CBS began its men's luge coverage that evening by going to a break after the first sledder. No wonder David Letterman got a big laugh when he quipped Monday night: "I guess if I had one complaint about the CBS coverage--not enough commercials."

The rest of that night's bloc was bloated with chatter and features--a minute of luge, 4 1/2 minutes of human interest, and so on and so on.

All right, your heart may not beat wildly for the luge. Plus, it's obvious that CBS has the burden of freshening events that are hours old, while also seeking to broaden its audience by offering sports coverage for viewers who may not care all that much for sports. But as long as you're watching all of these events, you'd enjoy some continuity, seeing things from start to finish, instead of the jumping-bean tactics that CBS has been employing.

There on the screen Monday was U.S. Alpine skier Donna Weinbrecht, not competing in Lillehammer--she wouldn't ski until Tuesday--but in a feature about her battle back ("The weather worsens and the day grows darker. . . .") from serious injury. A 10-minute feature.

CBS has also been guilty of TV's old bait and switch. Before a commercial break late in its first hour Monday, it advertised ("coming up . . . ") another down-hill run by the newly crowned hero Moe. Yet after the break, it was not Moe but two Canadian skiers who viewers saw. They were followed by another commercial. Moe did not show up until the start of the second hour.

Soon it was also time for some tricky moves regarding another designated poster Olympian, U.S. speedskater Dan Jansen. So halfway through the hour, bring on the five-minute feature, replete with oozy, sentimental music--an apparent prelude to CBS showing his taped 500-meter race at Hamar. Except. . . .

"We'll see Dan Jansen skate here just a little later," said studio host Greg Gumbel. But first hockey results, a Tonya Harding update, a commercial break, a return to the luge. More yadda yadda yadda.

Then finally, after CBS has stretched this out like a marathon taffy pull, Jansen skated.

By now, surely everyone who cares even a whit knows that Jansen--the 500-meter world record-holder who had failed to capture a medal in three previous Olympics--suffered a slip on Monday that dropped him to eighth, costing him a medal. That was a shame.

Yet talk about your overreaction.

From that night's coverage--CBS adding groaning funereal music to the replays and hounding Jansen, his coach and family for explanations--you'd have thought he let down the entire United States by briefly slipping on the ice. Prior to Lillehammer, relatively few Americans knew of Jansen. Now the nation was being implored to wear a black armband and begin a period of national mourning.

With so many things in the United States and around the world to get depressed about, however, it's hard to find room for a skater who didn't get his medal. So get a life here.

That's what Charles Kuralt seemed to be saying in a sweet feature that evening celebrating Olympians who hadn't lived up to expectations. "Don't feel so bad," he said.

In the advice category, David Letterman had some later that evening for his white-haired mom, who was on "assignment" in Lillehammer for his show. "Don't let those CBS goons push you around," he said.

In an incredible coup, Letterman's mom even scored an interview in Lillehammer with First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton. She followed the script by asking the First Lady if she or the President could do something about the speed limit in Connecticut, where Letterman lives.

Earlier, Letterman got his own scoop when breaking the news that "the U.S. Olympic Committee worked out a deal so the Menendez brothers can compete in the bobsled."

If it were true, CBS would spritz the event with commercials and drag it out for hours.

Is the coverage really that frustrating?

Yup.

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