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California and the West | MIKE DOWNEY

Viewing Olympics on TV Inspires a Man--to Rip NBC

September 20, 2000|MIKE DOWNEY

Cursing at a television set is America's national pastime. Getting angry at an (a) program; (b) commercial; (c) announcer, or (d) technical difficulty is almost a birthright for those of us who were born after the invention of TV.

In my business, though, one of the things I always feel guilty about is our constant criticism of television. Newspapers are always picking on TV, whereas TV very rarely picks on newspapers.

I don't know when or why this ritual began.

As a consumer service? Maybe, but since network TV is free--all you have to do is buy the appliance--I'm not entirely sure what makes us justified in advising viewers what to (and what not to) watch.

Yet television is such a force in our lives, it seems impossible to avoid. It's what our friends gab about. It's what we gather around when we get home.

I know a guy whose wife watches TV maybe once a month. She doesn't know Kelsey Grammer from Jeffrey Dahmer. The TV in her home is just furniture. If somebody brings up a popular new series or an unpopular ad, her whole face goes blank. She's an educated, well-read woman who has no idea what anybody's talking about.

Oh, how I envy her.

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I envy her in part because she isn't exposed to the countless appearances of "cast" members from the CBS hit program "Survivor"--even the losers--on other shows, as if these people have something to say that we should hear.

And I envy her in part because she isn't bombarded--as I am--by repeated complaints about Dennis Miller, the stand-up comedian who found a seat in ABC's "Monday Night Football" booth. He's been doing games for only a few weeks, but people react as if Miller spat in their beer. As if jocks and jokes can't mix.

"I wish you'd rip Dennis Miller," a woman in my office who's a serious football fan said the other day. "He's killing Monday nights for me."

My e-mail also runs this way. It's like there's a new weekly series: Nobody Loves Dennis.

A big objection--ad-libs or prepared material aside--seems to be that Miller is somehow unqualified to be at these games, "analyzing" football.

Listen, I have listened much of my life to "expert" analysts who actually played organized football, and I am still waiting for one of them to tell me something about the art of playing football that I didn't already know.

Those ex-jocks in the booth, what do they offer us? "Look at that tackle." "This guy's really quick." "That guy loves to win."

I can't say Dennis Miller adds anything to a game, other than his stabs at being funny. But you don't have to be a Hall of Famer to do what he's doing--looking at a replay and saying that a ref blew a call. Or saying that the Cowboys have a really big third down coming up here. A high school freshman could do that.

Which brings me to the Olympics.

A few days ago, I pointed out that this was the first Olympics in 20 years that I was not attending in person, and that therefore I was "at the mercy of NBC."

What I didn't point out was that I had made a private vow to not rip NBC during the Olympics, no matter what I saw (or didn't see).

I promised myself this because I have grown increasingly weary of newspaper people telling TV people what they're doing wrong. I too submit to this temptation, and often remind myself to get a life.

Yet I have found something out: It's murder sitting in front of that TV, being force-fed whatever TV gives you. Now I know what you poor people have been suffering through these past Olympiads. So I'll just have to break my promise.

Like you, I sit at home rolling my eyes over profiles of athletes whose mother/brother/childhood sweetheart recently died/disappeared/survived after an illness/accident/abduction while living in poverty/despair/quicksand without a father/kidney/thing to eat except sand.

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I watch games without being told the score, watch swims without knowing which event it is, watch equestrian events with TV graphics blocking the horses' legs--which is the most important part of equestrian.

I listen to expert commentary that goes: "Oooooh!" "Yes!" "She's done it!"

I hear obscure Olympians described as "legendary." (Write this down: Legendary should mean somebody everybody's heard of.)

And if I hear once more the word "courage" in regard to a gymnast, I'm going to courageously burn my TV.

Which I won't, because nobody should criticize NBC--it's free.

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Mike Downey's column appears Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Write to: Los Angeles Times, 202 W. 1st St., Los Angeles, CA 90012. E-mail: mike.downey@latimes.com.

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