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ATLANTA 1996 OLYMPICS | LARRY STEWART / ON TELEVISION

NBC Is Fine, Except When It Comes to Big Picture

August 02, 1996|LARRY STEWART

Certainly, everything NBC has been doing during the Olympics hasn't been bad.

It showed Michael Johnson's world-record 19.32-second run in the 200 meters live Thursday night, and that will go down as one of the more memorable moments in Olympic history. At least NBC didn't package it on tape as it did with Carl Lewis' long jump triumph.

Also, wrestler Kurt Angle's raw emotion the night before won't soon be forgotten.

But what really has so many viewers irked since Day One is the lack of coverage, at the expense of fluffy stories.

For example, we got some of the U.S. women winning the gold in soccer Thursday night, but not enough.

Bryant Gumbel even appeared to take a shot at his own network Thursday morning on "Today" when he said, "Boxing is the untold story of the Olympics."

Untold on TV, at least. Uncovered and ignored, like a number of sports.

It didn't have to be this way. Sure, NBC is to blame, but so is the International Olympic Committee. Back in the spring of 1993, the IOC simply accepted NBC's bid because it was higher than ABC's.

ABC had a better plan, one that would have provided so much more coverage. But that didn't matter to the IOC. All that mattered was money.

ABC had lined up ESPN and Turner Broadcasting to share in the coverage. The plan was that ABC would give us what NBC is giving us--glitzy prime-time coverage targeted at a female audience--while ESPN, TNT and TBS would cover such sports as soccer, boxing, softball and baseball.

Kevin O'Malley, senior vice president of Turner Broadcasting, was part of the negotiations and remembers it well.

"ABC opened at $405 million and went to $425 million and then $430," he said. "NBC made one bid of $456 million and told the IOC to take it or leave it."

The IOC took it without considering that NBC needed cable assistance.

NBC didn't want cable because its affiliates put up $60 million to keep cable out. The affiliates didn't want to have to compete with cable for viewers and advertising revenue.

"If the IOC would have accepted ABC's plan, we could have track and field on ESPN, boxing on TBS and basketball or whatever on TNT," O'Malley said.

NBC says such a plan was used at Barcelona and it failed. Well, the Triplecast, as it was called, failed only because the price tag of $125 per household was too high.

Technically, the Triplecast was triple terrific. It was sports and more sports--live and raw. With the Triplecast, you didn't get only the final 100 meters of a 1,500 heat, as we did Thursday night. You got the whole race. For sports fans, it was perfect, as long as you didn't mind being out $125.

But the ABC plan for Atlanta was all free, except for your monthly cable bill.

NBC defends its approach and claims that since the ratings are good, everything must be right.

Without all the buildup--which NBC calls its "story lines"--viewers wouldn't care much about the events, says NBC spokesman Ed Markey. "This isn't really a sports event," he said. "It's a drama with a sports theme."

What NBC has done is package these Olympics into a series of mini-dramas, and the ratings have been incredible. NBC stands to make a profit of well over $100 million on these Games.

Not bad for 17 days.

But where NBC makes a mistake is using ratings and profits as a barometer to measure the kind of job it is doing.

Look at it this way. The rating for the opening ceremonies was a 23.6. NBC had less to do with that rating than a number of other elements. The buildup to the Games by newspapers, magazines and other media--the very tradition of opening ceremonies--are reasons the rating was so high.

The rating for Wednesday night's prime-time segment was a 19.8, and the average after 13 nights is 22.5.

Ratings are up all over the world. And ratings should be up in the United States because it is the host country.

The Canadian Broadcasting Company reported a rating increase of 100% for the opening ceremonies, and as much as 50% for some of the competition.

CBC officials also say they've been getting a lot of response via E-mail from people watching in the United States.

One reader, Tom Whitenack of Arcadia, says he watches the CBC coverage almost exclusively on his satellite dish, and loves it.

"It starts at 6 a.m. and runs almost straight through until 8 p.m.," Whitenack said. "Sure, they show a lot of Canadians, but it's the kind of coverage sports fans want.

"But to tell you the truth, I like a lot of NBC's coverage too. There's just more on CBC."

NBC has said this will be the last Olympics it will do without cable partners. The 2000 Games at Sydney will also be shown on NBC's cable partners, CNBC and MSNBC.

That's a great decision. Too bad the IOC kept out a cable partnership this time and not merely taken the highest bid.

CLOSING QUANDARY: The producer of the Olympic Games' closing ceremonies is looking to strike the right tone after the bombing in Centennial Olympic Park. F1

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