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COMMENTARY

The Olympics' Hollow Ring

Before NBC moves on to Sydney, let's recall who deserved victory laps and who didn't stick their landings.

August 11, 1996|Howard Rosenberg | Howard Rosenberg is The Times' television critic

Now that the gravel has settled and the sweat subsided, let's talk Olympics.

There were 2 1/2 weeks of backgrounders and synopses along with time-warped, disjointed and oddly juxtaposed elements (crisscrossing volleyball, equestrian show jumping and rhythmic gymnastics on the final Sunday, for example), all of which somehow coalesced into an often thrilling supplement. But supplement to what?

There frequently was no center there, as NBC shredded the recent Olympiad mainly into fragments tailored to its selling strategy. Too often it presented the 1996 Summer Games much the way Cliffs Notes does Shakespeare. Somewhat less than the total experience.

A horse! . . . (commercial, commercial, commercial, commercial) . . . A horse! My kingdom . . . (But first, what sort of man is Richard III, a spirit so fierce that a withered body does not deter him from being No. 1?) . . . for a horse.

My kingdom for an able-bodied Olympics.

Let's pause briefly in this minority report to give NBC credit.

How successful was the Olympics as television commerce? Well, if NBC has a countinghouse, Dick Ebersol, president of its sports division, is probably in it right now, running his hands through mounds of gold coins.

From opening flame to rocking windup, soaring Nielsen ratings confirmed just how pleased were the masses, and the advertisers spending a bundle to reach them, with NBC's 170-plus hours of coverage, the tragic blast in Centennial Olympic Park notwithstanding. They're still running victory laps on Madison Avenue.

Obviously, NBC did much right, notably the throning of Bob Costas as its own torchbearer and prime-time studio host. Costas affirmed what his admirers had known: that he is that rare hybrid in sportscasting with converging wit, erudition and superb communication skills.

Most of the event announcers did fine too, some of the standouts being Dwight Stones in track and field, Cynthia Potter in diving (did she ever miss a call?) and Elfi Schlegel and Tim Daggett in gymnastics (he got his point across--gotta stick the landing).

Much of the camera work was spectacular, especially ground-level shots of speedsters in track and field. NBC's camera pointers and technical crews are unsung stars.

And speaking of pictures, none was as memorable as U.S. gold medalist Derrick Adkins and U.S. bronze medalist Calvin Davis flanking Zambian silver medalist Samuel Matete as these once-tenacious competitors strode down the track after the 400-meter hurdles final, arms draped across one another's shoulders, as elated as kids headed for a video arcade. Talk about expressions of globalism.

But enough with the accolades and golden moments. No more Mr. Nice Guy.

NBC's version of the Olympics was fine if you sought mainly a flag-wrapped, U.S.-anthemized gist of the Games intersected by lots of throat lumps induced by soapy stories about Olympians surmounting Homeric, life-threatening obstacles to get to Atlanta. Couldn't NBC find anyone who'd been pain-free?

What else was wrong? The obvious:

Too much diving! Too much Dream Team! Too much synchronized swimming (two seconds are too much)! Too much schmaltz, and too much of Orson Welles-wannabe John Tesh spewing it.

Too little live!

Naturally, NBC had to make choices, just as it will even when it parcels some venues of Sydney's 2000 Olympics to its cable partners, CNBC and MSNBC. Given its intent to design a female-friendly telecast, however, some of the network's choices were ironic, if not downright inexplicable.

There was its short-sheeting of the U.S. women's softball and soccer teams, for instance, both of which earned gold medals but only a smattering of videotaped highlights from NBC. Curiously, the network had Costas do lengthy live interviews with both teams after they got their gold but avoided telecasting them live in action.

Much of the post-Olympics buzz is about defining moments. For some it was Muhammad Ali opening the show or kadzillionaire-to-be Kerri Strug vaulting on her damaged ankle or wondrous sprinter Michael Johnson getting his double gold in the 200 and 400 meters or seemingly fading Carl Lewis flying far in the long jump for his unlikely ninth gold medal.

Yet there were more apt metaphors:

* Long-legged Marie-Jose Perec, the renowned French sprinter, getting snubbed by NBC after completing her own televised 200-400 double hours before Johnson's. Although her feat ranks with his, and she had been living in Westwood (making her almost one of us), no medal ceremony for a gazelle who wasn't a U.S. gazelle.

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