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ATLANTA 1996 OLYMPICS | HOWARD ROSENBERG / ON TELEVISION

NBC Has Viewers as Willing Victims in This Deceit

July 26, 1996|HOWARD ROSENBERG

Calls are coming in rapping NBC's part-fiction rendition of the Summer Olympics in Atlanta.

The charge is that NBC isn't just airing some taped events as if live, but having studio anchors compound this pretense with intros that mislead viewers and make deception an Olympics moment.

Well . . . yes.

At 5:05 p.m. Thursday, for example, NBC's brightest light, Bob Costas, was speaking live from Atlanta when announcing: "Tonight, the best in their sport compete to decide who's the greatest female gymnast." Then he said that U.S. gymnasts had "medal possibilities." Then he added, "We'll have the start of the all-around about an hour from now."

Of course, Costas already knew the identity of "the greatest female gymnast," that the Americans had no medal "possibilities." He knew this because the competition had ended by the time he went on the air to initiate NBC's suspenseful foreplay for the evening that was.

So much for truth in marketing.

There's no need to ruin the surprise by revealing results. Yet why not act responsibly and inform viewers they're watching videotape in the evening, and thereby also avoid tainting the credibility of Costas and some of his colleagues who operate in Atlanta under the mantle of "journalist"? Insensitivity? Terror of losing audience? Sadly, there's no black box with an answer.

This is no issue to get that revved up about, however, given the numerous other ways that mainstream TV for years has fudged reality (infomercials presented as actual programs, scripted news anchor ad libs, self-serving news stories, misleading promos and so on) without conscience.

And, listen, even if NBC isn't always on the level about the Olympic results it knows and when it knows them, you could make a case, at least, that it's honoring the spirit of the Games by fibbing for its country.

In other words, the great bulk of its viewers wants only to celebrate and be entertained by the world's greatest athletes, regardless of the time frame, and NBC is obliging them by putting on the most stupendous TV show in sight.

The Olympics would soar on TV, probably, even if the Weather Channel were in control, such is the uniqueness of this event whose charisma transcends each impresario presenting it to the public.

At our place, for example, my wife usually couldn't find her way to the sports section with a team of trackers. For 2 1/2 weeks every four years, though, we fight over it. Meanwhile, gymnastics, swimming and other sports that I always ignore become must-sees during this period. Here's a bit of our dialogue from the Thursday night.

"Oooh, she didn't stick the landing."

"Needed the landing."

"Boy, did she."

"Definitely."

"Took a little hop."

"No, big hop."

"9.73," I'd say.

"Nah, 9.57 with that dismount."

"Good height."

"But bent the knees and under-rotated."

"You're crazy!"

"No, you're crazy!"

As if we had any idea what we were talking about. So go the yadda-yaddas when the arcane suddenly inspires great passion, when Americans indifferent to sports become transfixed by barefoot Munchkins in leotards who inexplicably are anointed as symbols for national honor and achievement. And when epic ratings for NBC's Olympic coverage suggest that the ticked-off callers mentioned above represent a wee minority, that the masses are mostly pleased with NBC's decision to protect its massive financial investment by telling stories with broad, soupy appeal--including by sticking intrusive cameras into the teary faces of despairing teenage gymnasts--instead of stressing pristine journalism.

Atlanta is fleeting fun, a show.

And only a show, another shared experience that unites us only as TV viewers, not as a nation. Why some relate national pride to Olympic medal counts is mystifying. As is why some believe that global jock meets can yield a kindler, gentler world.

Costas debunked that himself in a brief monologue the other night. Nonetheless, NBC still at times inanely blows its own hot air into this footnote of a world event. One occasion came during one of those bizarrely overwritten NBC profiles, this one declaring that an athlete had "the weight of the nation on his shoulders."

Actually, in only a few segments of society will the Olympics resonate much past the closing ceremonies. It may be true, for example, that the Games in Atlanta are a poorly managed gridlocked mess that is tormenting the multitudes there. Yet it is a stretch to suggest that the city's "boorishness," as someone on TV put it, will darken the U.S. image abroad, as if global attitudes were shaped by Olympiads.

Or by chauvinistic coverage of the Games in some U.S. media quarters. On ABC's "Good Morning America" Thursday, host Charles Gibson lamented that much of NBC's coverage "revolves around Americans," his amnesia of the moment erasing the memory of ABC's even-more U.S.-tilted coverage of previous Olympics.

But Gibson wasn't wrong, evidenced in one case by an anchor for Channel 4 pronouncing Tuesday's amazing vault by valiant American Kerri Strug "the one defining moment" of these Games.

Hello? Although a major throat lump, Strug's performance was hardly as seminal to other nations represented in Atlanta, notably China, for example, which surely found more meaningful the gold medal won Wednesday by its Li Xiaoshuang for men's individual all-round gymnastics. After all, wasn't it NBC's hammy John Tesh (would he consider laying off the caffeine?) who immediately declared that Li's gold "brings honor to China."

Talk about hyperbole. Yet how much does it matter in a telecast so reliant on fiction?

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