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SYDNEY 2000 / SUMMER OLYMPIC GAMES | TV-Radio

NBC Coverage Is Simply Unreal

September 16, 2000|LARRY STEWART

There may not be a lot of drama on NBC during the Olympic competition because we'll know the results.

But there was real drama during the opening ceremony, and NBC captured every second of it.

After Aborigine sprinter Cathy Freeman lit the caldron near the end of the opening ceremony, the tension mounted.

Would the caldron rise up the waterfall, or would it remain stuck?

Finally, after nearly four minutes, it began to rise.

Because NBC taped the opening ceremony some 18 hours earlier, it could have easily edited out some of those anguishing moments. But NBC covered the event as it happened, and that was a good thing.

What wasn't such a good thing was that we got a taste of what's in store.

At 6:15 p.m. Friday in Los Angeles, 9:15 on the East Coast, and 12:15 p.m. Saturday in Sydney, the first Olympic women's triathlon was completed.

NBC was on the air in the East at the time, but there was nary a mention of the women's triathlon.

Get the picture?

You'll have to wait.

NBC came on the air at 7:30 with a half-hour show that preceded its four-hour block devoted to the opening ceremony. Host Bob Costas greeted viewers and said, "It's less than 30 minutes to go until the opening ceremony,"

No, the opening ceremony had already taken place in real time. But NBC isn't operating in real time.

Then Katie Couric said there was news to report. Couric's news was that North and South Koreans would march together. Actually, that was news days before.

Costas did mention that Sydney is 15 hours ahead of the East Coast and 18 hours ahead of the West Coast, and that NBC was showing events at a time "most convenient" for viewing, "meaning not in the wee hours of the morning."

NBC has been upfront all along that everything would be delayed, and that the main objective was storytelling. NBC promised to entertain viewers with stories so uplifting that they wouldn't mind the delays.

So what was the main story on the half-hour preview show, one that went on and on for more than 10 minutes? It was about the Olympic bribery scandal.

Now that was a real uplifting story!

OK, so NBC wanted to let everyone know they will be practicing some journalism during the Olympics. But there is a time and place for journalistic pieces, and moments before celebrating the opening of the Olympics is not the time.

A story on the doping of athletes is already in the can, but at least NBC didn't also show that one on the preview show.

More appropriate would have been a story on Australian Olympic icon Betty Cuthbert, which reporter and essayist Jimmy Roberts--Dick Enberg's replacement--has done for tonight's prime-time show.

Cuthbert came out of nowhere to win three track gold medals--in the 100, 200 and 4x100 relay--at the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne. She also won the Olympic 400 in 1964 after missing the '60 Olympics because of an injury.

Cuthbert, 62, is now in a wheelchair because of multiple sclerosis.

"Greg Norman told me, 'She is our Babe Ruth,' " Roberts said on the phone from Sydney on Friday night.

A story on Cuthbert in the preview show would have primed viewers for her role later that night, when she was the first of five Australian women Olympians who carried the torch before Freeman took over.

NBC had to do the bribery and doping stories at some point, but why show one of these downers at a time when the network is trying to get everyone fired up?

Once the opening ceremony began, things got more uplifting. People on wires seemed to be flying all over the place. And the star of the show, 13-year-old Nikki Webster, won the hearts of the world, and particularly the hearts of American viewers who saw her interviewed by NBC newcomer Harry Smith.

No, she told Smith, she wasn't nervous performing in front of a live audience of 110,000 or a worldwide television audience of 3 billion.

"I was overwhelmed with excitement," she said.

Asked what her parents thought of her flying 80 feet above the ground, she said she didn't tell her parents because she was sworn to secrecy regarding details of the show.

"What a poised young lady," Costas said. "She wasn't nervous, and she kept a secret, even from her parents."

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