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Survival Instincts

NBC's Delayed Coverage Might Get a Run for Its Money From That Other Island Show

September 10, 2000|MIKE PENNER

For months, NBC and American media critics have been playing a lively match of Olympic tennis--and good of them to step up since Pete Sampras, Martina Hingis, Anna Kournikova and Jan-Michael Gambill didn't.

Approach shot! Critics lambaste NBC for deciding to televise all 441 1/2 hours of its Olympic coverage on a tape-delayed basis, most of it sitting around for more than 12 hours until it can be served up to America during prime time.

Return volley! NBC points to the demographic pie charts and the computer printouts tracking American family viewing habits and smugly declares that it knows precisely what it is doing, people will watch anyway because they are hooked on the Olympic logo, this is the only way to get ratings.

Running defensive lob! Critics: That strategy is way too cynical. It's an insult to our intelligence.

Overhead winner! NBC: Ratings! Ratings! Ratings!

Or so it seemed until CBS announced plans to toss a rather dangerous floater into the mix. Lining up in the lane next to NBC's prime-time Olympic coverage will be reruns of CBS's ratings powerhouse, "Survivor," augmented by new commentary by participants and yet-unseen outtakes that will run head-to-head against NBC's canned swimming, track and field and gymnastics.

Suddenly, NBC finds itself in a footrace, and American television viewers have a choice.

Do they watch "Survivor," where nothing is live, everything is on videotape and everyone watching already knows the winner?

Or do they watch the Olympics, where nothing is live, everything is on videotape and everyone watching already knows the winner?

Do they watch "Survivor," which was dominated by a pompous, master manipulator named Richard dedicated to protecting his self-interest by forging secret unsavory alliances?

Or do they watch the Olympics, which have been dominated by a pompous, master manipulator named Juan Antonio dedicated to protecting his self-interest by forging secret unsavory alliances?

(And, for that matter, which of the photos published this summer do they find more disturbing? Richard strolling the beach in the buff ? Or Samaranch lifting weights in his underwear? I know where I'd place my vote. I mean, Richard was just trying to get rid of his tan lines. Aren't there limits to Olympic investigative reporting?)

The ratings showdown between NBC and CBS could be tighter than Maurice Greene and Ato Boldon in the men's 100. NBC has one advantage: It has the run of the island from now until Oct. 1. But the tribe is restless and impatient and armed with the Internet, and it won't be long until it has conclusively spoken.

A day-by-day look at the best NBC will have to offer, presented both in real time and NBC time:

DAY 1: Friday, Sept. 15

Opening Ceremony: NBC's coverage of the opening ceremony will set the tone for the next 16 days. By the time American viewers get to watch the home team march around Olympic Stadium, medals will already have been awarded in the women's triathlon and the first round of swimming heats will have been completed.

When: 12 a.m. (Los Angeles time)

TV: 7:30 p.m.

Delay: 19 1/2 hours.

DAY 2: Saturday, Sept. 16

Swimming: Men's 400-meter freestyle final: Australia's main piece of Olympic artillery, Ian "Thorpedo" Thorpe, bids for his first gold medal--and latest world record. Thorpe, considered a lock for two individual golds in the 200 and 400, owns world records in both events. American Chad Carvin figures to be chasing Thorpe a dozen meters back, but Carvin's mere appearance at the Olympics is a major story. Carvin's agonizing odyssey to Sydney includes a life-threatening heart virus, a suicide attempt, a herniated disk in his back and a stirring qualification swim at last month's U.S. trials.

When: 1 a.m. to 2:50 a.m.

TV: Between 7 p.m. and midnight

Delay: 17 1/2 to 23 hours.

DAY 3: Sunday, Sept. 17

Women's soccer: United States vs. China: A year after their titanic overtime struggle in the Women's World Cup final and the Americans' controversial shootout victory, the world's two best female soccer teams meet again. No medal or cup is on the line this time, but the action should be no less intense. Neither side can afford a defeat in this one, with only two teams advancing from a loaded first-round group that also includes 1995 World Cup champion Norway and fast-breaking Nigeria.

When: 11:30 p.m. Saturday

TV: 9 a.m.

Delay: 9 1/2 hours.

DAY 4: Monday, Sept. 18

Swimming: Men's 100-meter backstroke final: Minutes after Thorpe churns out his second gold medal in the 200-meter freestyle, Lenny Krayzelburg returns fire for the United States in the 100 backstroke. Krayzelburg will be a prohibitive favorite for the gold, but he--and his father--won't be satisfied unless a world record comes attached. If Lenny fails to break his own world record, as he did at the U.S. trials, you can be sure NBC's cameras will be trained on Papa Krayzelburg for more agony-of-victory poolside dejection.

When: 1 a.m. to 3 a.m.

TV: Between 7 p.m. and midnight.

Delay: 17 to 23 hours.

DAY 5: Tuesday, Sept. 19

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