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ATLANTA 1996 OLYMPICS | ON TELEVISION | LARRY STEWART

For NBC, Numbers Are All That Count

July 29, 1996

There are basically two things wrong with NBC's Olympic coverage. One is what is being shown. The other is what isn't.

What is being shown is watered down with chatter, interviews, promos, reviews of things we've already seen, and, of course, commercials.

Well, not much we can do about the commercials, but why do we get the same ones over and over?

Someone figured out that during a five-hour block, we get less than an hour of actual competition.

Maybe that's why so many sports are being ignored.

Boxing, for one, has been virtually absent in prime time. NBC didn't even show Fernando Vargas' controversial loss. Channel 4 showed it, but it was a day late because of broadcast restrictions.

"Please, NBC, take a look at these guys," U.S. assistant boxing coach Pat Burns pleaded the other day. "These guys are busting their butts for America and the people want to see them."

Another internationally popular sport being ignored by NBC is soccer. It came as somewhat of a surprise that NBC devoted three whole minutes to women's games Sunday night, showing highlights of the 2-1 semifinal victory by the U.S. over Norway and even highlights of China's 3-2 victory over Brazil in the other semifinal.

Then Bob Costas, who overall has been doing an incredible job, showed that soccer isn't one of his sports. While reading the highlights, he noted a player named Roselli had scored Brazil's first goal.

"There's another of those one-name players in soccer. It's all the craze."

Sorry, but Brazilians and others have had one-name players since before Pele.

Costas probably didn't brush up on soccer, knowing NBC wouldn't be showing much of the sport.

So, what's going on? There has been gymnastics, gymnastics and more gymnastics. Sure, we like Dominique Dawes, Kerri Strug and the rest of the team, but it's almost been NBG, Nothing But Gymnastics, on NBC. That and swimming. At least the swimming is over, but there's still diving.

NBC surveyed about 10,000 viewers to see what they wanted to see, or more important, what women wanted to see. That's the demographic group NBC went after, figuring if women were watching, ratings would be high.

NBC got what it was after--the highest Olympic ratings in 20 years, and an audience made up of 52% women.

Yes, NBC is keeping track of how many women are watching each night. That should tell you something.

That NBC is targeting women might help explain why John Tesh of "Entertainment Tonight" is doing gymnastics. Although Tesh was at one time a sportscaster for CBS, where his assignments included NCAA gymnastics, you assume Tesh didn't get this job because of his gymnastics expertise.

Dick Ebersol, president of NBC Sports, says, "We are programming in a different way. We want the largest family audience we can attract. If the purists are upset, I'm not. . . . My job is to get eyeballs to the television, and that's exactly what we're doing."

Of NBC's coverage, Ebersol says, "In the history of NBC sports, we've never seen more positive feedback."

Ebersol is certainly getting different feedback than we are.

Fortunately, this is the last Olympics to be televised only on NBC. The 2000 Summer Games at Sydney, Australia, will also be televised on NBC's cable partners, CNBC and upstart MSNBC.

Maybe NBC can label the coverage--one for nonsports viewers (or what NBC perceives as women) and one for sports purists.

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