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Showing Networks' Strength : Television: The Olympics' ratings prove that even with the proliferation of cable channels, networks 'are still the thread that ties the country together.'

March 05, 1994|RICK DU BROW

In the afterglow of the Winter Olympics, not only CBS, which carried the Games, but even its competitors--ABC, NBC and Fox--basked to a degree in the reminder of network power amid all the talk of a future, 500-channel TV universe.

"The content is always more important than the technology," Howard Stringer, president of the CBS Broadcast Group, said in an interview this week, just a few days after his network's coverage, sparked by the Nancy Kerrigan-Tonya Harding rivalry, resulted in the most-watched Olympic Games--Winter or Summer--ever shown on TV.

"We (the networks) are still the thread that ties the country together," said Ted Harbert, president of ABC Entertainment. "We are still the meeting place of America. It is much more than just the ratings. It shows that anyone who thinks network television is a dinosaur just isn't paying attention."

Added Don Ohlmeyer, president of NBC West Coast: "This really affirmed that the more fractionalized audiences become, the more the audience will seek out a communal television viewing experience, whether it's this or the 'Cheers' finale. People increasingly are developing a bunker mentality and aren't looking to leave their homes because of (such things as) crime. But on the information superhighway, the networks are the freeway and cable is the toll booth."

Ohlmeyer complimented CBS for doing "appealing, heartwarming stories that made you believe there still are 'heroes' out there in this world. And some of this is a reaction to the constant negativism we're surrounded by in television, radio and newspapers. Part of what programs like this do is sublimate, they allow people to cast aside their cares for a while. And I think that we have to listen to the public."

Fox, whose heavily young audience allowed it to hold its ground during CBS' ratings avalanche, concurred in the impact and fallout of the Olympics coverage from Lillehammer, Norway. Sandy Grushow, president of the Fox Entertainment Group, indicated that the Olympics' "storytelling" gave some clues as to how his network--which, ironically, just outbid CBS for National Football League games starting this fall--will try to lure NFL viewers.

"Event television is not created on an assembly line or in the pilot process," Grushow said, "and the NFL acquisition puts us closer to being in that game. To me, the Olympics was all about good storytelling, human drama, creating personal stakes."

Are there any similarities in Fox's pro football plans? Said Grushow:

"One of the reasons the NFL has experienced erosion, especially among younger viewers, is that, unlike the National Basketball Assn.--which has been extremely successful over the last decade in creating accessible, human superstars--it's hard to get underneath all that gear in professional football. It's our goal to take the helmets and shoulder pads off and really bring these people into viewers' living rooms as human beings.

"A bunch of NFL players will appear as themselves, out of uniform, in our series programming during the next few months. It's our goal to introduce today's football players to the American public in ways I don't believe they've been introduced in the past decade."

All the factors for grabbing a huge Olympics audience certainly came together at the right time for CBS. In addition to the frenzy of the Kerrigan-Harding showdown and the bad weather that kept many viewers home--and despite the endless plague of commercials, including those terrible spots trying to sell the anchor team of Dan Rather and Connie Chung as just plain folks--the national audience simply got hooked.

Part of it surely was the escapism to the warm, friendly Norwegian atmosphere and the striking scenery. Charles Kuralt's sidebar pieces and CBS' willingness to poke fun at the goings-on, despite its involvement in them, were other pluses.

NBC's Ohlmeyer, widely experienced in TV sports, sized up CBS' Olympics strategy:

"They took the approach: Forget about the men, they'll come anyway. Go for the women. And I think they did it successfully. They wove the story very nicely. The advantage of the Winter Games is that you have events that for the most part are performance-driven, not necessarily a matter of winning and losing."

But CBS' Stringer thought there was more. Acknowledging the "wretched hype" of the Kerrigan-Harding affair that "we used shamelessly as a hook to get people into the Olympics," he thought the Games in Lillehammer "stood for clean competition."

He also returned to his litany defending networks in a high-tech world, although CBS has a link with the on-line Prodigy service and, in fact, issued a press release about the number of viewers who contacted the broadcast company about the Olympics through the interactive medium.

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