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ATLANTA 1996 OLYMPICS | HOWARD ROSENBERG / ON TELEVISION

NBC's Olympian Quest for Tears a Crying Shame

July 27, 1996|HOWARD ROSENBERG

Cry and the camera will come.

Tears travel well on television, especially these days, as NBC tries mightily to twist the 1996 Summer Olympics into bawling for dollars.

On NBC, much of the news from Atlanta is touchy-feely, an extravaganza of emotion in line with the network's strategy of winning viewers by crossing athletics with melodrama.

"That face tells it all," said a commiserating NBC voice Friday morning as a network minicam attached itself to the slumped figure of a losing U.S. beach volleyball player, the lens near enough to televise sand granules clinging to her skin.

NBC didn't invent this. TV's axiom for years has been that one manipulative tear is worth a thousand words, one sad face equal to infinite rating points, the theory being that viewers respond more to emotional "moments" than to information.

The outrageous extreme was a TV news cameraman trampling on private grief some years ago by leaning back on the coffin at a funeral to get a better shot of a mother weeping over the body of her murdered son. Nearly as repulsive are cameras pushed at the distraught faces of those reeling from tragedies, a brand of pictorial voyeurism surging most recently after the crash of TWA Flight 800. Thus, in fairness, anything that NBC does in Atlanta should be seen in the context of what preceded it.

Pretty bad is still bad enough, however.

In a week in which even a little Huck Finn who catches a sneaker heaved by Dream Teamer Charles Barkley gets interviewed on television, as does his father, nothing should be surprising.

But get a grip here. Where was NBC's judgment Thursday when making the Georgia Dome its dome of tears? First it shoved a minicam, up close and personal, at Russian gymnast Rozalia Galiyeva, and kept it there as she sobbed following a disappointing turn in the individual all-around battle. Although anyone could see that the high-strung Galiyeva was crushed and needed privacy, there was no escaping the all-seeing eye of Big Peacock.

Oft-jingoistic NBC wasn't victimizing only non-Americans, though, repeating its intrusive act when subsequent tumbling debacles sent U.S. gymnasts Shannon Miller and Dominique Dawes to the sidelines in tears, closely trailed by minicams. You wanted to hug them as they wept with heads bowed; you didn't want NBC's cameras to hug them. Yet that's what happened, the network's tenacious pursuit of these close-ups delivering a message that the gymnasts had sinned against their nation in a cataclysmic way, further tightening the vise of pressure on them.

On newscasts the next morning, it was these teary pictures that were played most prominently, smothered in commentary as sincerely sympathetic as a mortician selling caskets. And at one point on NBC's daytime Olympics telecast, slow motion pictures of Miller and Dawes were accompanied by somber music, as if the flag itself had been disgraced and their lives ruined.

TV cameras shouldn't be allowed such close proximity to gymnasts on the floor, said Mary Lou Retton, former U.S. gold medalist, on ABC's "Good Morning America" Friday. Host Charles Gibson added: "How sad that somebody's left in tears only because they didn't win gold or silver, even though they did so well."

Yet such crying and potential for tears, not only winning medals, are NBC's hottest ticket in Atlanta, with even that bawling Bubba, President Clinton, taking part Thursday when cameras looked deeply into his wet eyes as he responded emotionally to a gold-medal win by U.S. jocks.

There's a healthy side to this, the President and others setting good examples by letting their emotions flow rather than keeping it all inside and masking their feelings behind stiff upper lips. Less healthy is NBC's aggression in appearing to prod athletes to cut loose for the purpose of putting on a good show.

How disappointing for NBC, when miniature U.S. gymnast Dominique Moceanu didn't come through when asked if she was in the dumps and feeling just horrendous after Thursday's individual all-around. No, said the chipper youngster, who had the temerity at an antique age 14 to finish only ninth out of several dozen competitors.

But, the NBC questioner persisted, didn't Moceanu want desperately to run off to a room somewhere and just scream out loud in frustration? No, Moceanu repeated. She was happy at her age just to have the opportunity to compete for a medal.

Oh. Well, catch you later.

The setbacks continued on NBC's "Today" program Friday, when emerging U.S. super swimmer Brooke Bennett thoughtlessly produced no tears while recalling her gold medal win in the 800-meter freestyle event, which she dedicated to her grandfather, who died recently.

"Were you thinking about him on the medal stand?" asked Katie Couric, softly. "Oh, yes," replied Bennett. The camera stood poised for the flood from Bennett. But nothing, not even a lip quiver.

"What else were you thinking about?" Couric continued, as NBC showed tape of Bennett on the stand. "Because it didn't look exactly like you were fighting back tears like your mom," Couric now added, as NBC flashed footage of Bennett's mother responding emotionally. The way Bennett should, the segment appeared to be saying.

Obviously, stoicism doesn't sell on NBC, whose drive to captivate America in part with schmaltz includes those throbbing athlete profiles that surface in crescendos.

Following Thursday's closely contested gymnastics event, NBC failed to show the medal ceremony honoring the Ukrainian who won the gold and Romanians who earned the silver and bronze. Well, they were only foreigners. Besides, maybe they didn't cry.

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