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ATLANTA 1996 OLYMPICS | LARRY STEWART / ON TELEVISION

NBC Ruffled a Few Feathers With Its Proud Peacock Routine

August 05, 1996|LARRY STEWART

The Olympics are over, but the self-congratulating among the NBC folks who brought them to you will continue.

NBC is ecstatic.

It guaranteed sponsors an average prime-time rating of 17, and did better than a 22. It didn't expect to make much of a profit, but instead will make a healthy one. Estimates range from $70 million to more than $100 million.

Dick Ebersol, the proudest peacock of them all, will get the most pats on the back from colleagues and General Electric stockholders.

Ebersol, viewing himself as another Roone Arledge, wore two hats for the Olympics. As the president of NBC Sports, it was Ebersol's responsibility to ensure good ratings and a profit. As the executive producer of the coverage, he also made the decision about which sports were covered.

And there lies a problem. Ebersol couldn't be totally objective in striving for balance in NBC's coverage because he also had to pick the sports he believed would deliver the highest ratings.

Ratings meant everything to NBC, since advertising rates are based on them, and NBC will also be doing the next three Summer Olympics.

So on the final day of Olympic competition, rhythmic gymnastics dominated much of the daytime coverage, while on the previous day, the gold-medal game in soccer, the world's most popular sport, got less than four minutes.

NBC4 in Los Angeles received about 70-80 calls from viewers who were angry that NBC chose not to show any of the game on its late-night segment, as scheduled.

Boxing got its biggest slight when the controversial loss of American Floyd Mayweather and the subsequent resignation of an outraged American judge on Friday night got only a 10-second mention at 2:27 a.m. Eastern time.

NBC didn't even examine the controversy the next day, instead showing a loss by another American, Antonio Tarver, one of the few boxers NBC had prepared a profile on.

NBC ignored Fernando Vargas' second-round loss and did not show even one three-round fight in its entirety until Sunday afternoon, when it showed American David Reid's gold-medal-winning knockout from the start. Delayed, of course.

On Saturday, only the final round of Cuban Felix Savon's gold-medal bout was televised.

Commentator Al Bernstein, asked why NBC didn't show more boxing, said, "That's the $64,000 question."

Late-night co-host Hannah Storm suggested that boxing may not even be part of the the 2000 Olympics at Sydney, a remark that surprised Bernstein.

"It's been rumored that it might be discussed, but that's all," Bernstein said.

Maybe just wishful thinking on NBC's part.

NBC apparently did not view soccer or boxing as popular among its target audience. Same for softball, baseball and some of the other sports that got shoddy coverage.

NBC actually put itself in a no-win situation. Once it decided it didn't need cable partners, there was no way it could cover everything and avoid angering various segments of the viewing audience.

According to Ebersol, an effort was made to bring in cable partners after it acquired the Atlanta rights in 1993, but no one was willing to make a significant monetary offer.

He said Turner Broadcasting "didn't offer a dime."

No, but it offered something more important--air time. Turner was willing to give NBC use of TBS and TNT, plus promotional time leading up to the Games.

But NBC wanted cash to compensate its affiliates that had put up $60 million to keep cable out. Turner didn't view it as a sound business decision to give NBC the kind of money it wanted.

NBC can say it didn't matter, that it enjoyed great success in Atlanta, and point to the ratings to prove it. But CBS got better ratings and more viewers for the 1994 Winter Olympics at Lillehammer, Norway, and ABC got better ratings for the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics.

Anyway, the main reason the Olympics get the ratings they do is the buildup they get. Obviously, NBC provided some of the buildup to Atlanta, but most of it came from newspapers and magazines.

Despite the shortcomings, NBC and much of its crew deserve credit for the jobs they did in Atlanta.

Bob Costas, for one, was outstanding. Always cool, always calm. He was almost flawless, and he deserves the accolades he gets.

Olympic veteran Jim Lampley, handling the late shift with Storm, had a good run, although putting clothespins on his nose and lower lip as he did the other night was a little silly. Lampley worked the late-night segment Saturday and then doubled back Sunday morning to be host for the men's marathon coverage, which began at 7 a.m. in Atlanta.

Track and field announcers Tom Hammond and Craig Masback turned in solid performances, and Carol Lewis was almost as big a star in the broadcast booth as her brother Carl was in the long jump pit.

Masback, however, bobbled the baton a little during the 400-meter men's relay when he mistakenly said Tim Harden switched hands with the baton. Harden simply adjusted the baton.

John Tesh, although a sportscaster before becoming the co-host for "Entertainment Tonight" in 1985, seemed out of place on gymnastics and talked too much, but partner Tim Daggett did well.

Charlie Jones, who did track and field at the 1988 Seoul Olympics and swimming four years ago in Barcelona, showed the same enthusiasm and professionalism doing rowing and kayaking.

NBC was on the air for more than 170 hours in 17 days. There was no way it was going to please everyone. And it certainly didn't.

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