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Cutting Off TV Access Makes NBC an Olympic Buzz Saw

September 22, 2000|LARRY STEWART

NBC may be killing the Olympic movement.

Let's consider the ways.

* The tape-delayed telecasts are maddening. Not only do viewers usually know the results of what they're watching, they're also left confused, wondering what is taking place when. All viewers know is what they're watching is a day old.

* Critics are hammering NBC in general--and sports chairman Dick Ebersol in particular. This from Chicago Sun-Times columnist Jay Mariotti: "He figured Americans would have no conception of a time-zone difference, that tape delay would have the effects of real time. He thinks we're idiots. We aren't."

* The Sydney Games have been a ratings disaster, falling 10% below the 16.1 guarantee. What this means is NBC has had to add two commercials per hour--as if there weren't already enough interruptions.

* Commercials and promos are to be expected. NBC needs to recoup the

$705 million it spent on rights and the

$125 million it is spending on production. But do we really need so many sappy up-close-and-personal profiles, plus all the one-on-one interviews. It makes for a cluttered, disjointed telecast.

OK, not everything NBC is doing is bad. Some of those profiles are actually quite good. So is much of the camera work and the announcing. Host Bob Costas is holding up well, swimming's Rowdy Gaines has been a standout, and Chris Marlowe and Paul Sunderland, usually seen on the late-night block, have done their usual yeoman work on volleyball.

But back to the negatives. Maybe the worst thing NBC is doing is turning the Olympics into a minor event for other television news outlets.

NBC sent out four pages worth of guidelines to every TV news outlet in the country. Essentially, the edict is: You can't show any highlights until we have.

NBC spokesman Kevin Sullivan said, "The IOC makes the rules to protect the rights of all the host broadcasters, and the rules are the same they've always been."

But since NBC delays everything 24 hours, then signs off at midnight in the West--3 a.m. in the East--what this means is other news outlets are shut out for two days.

Mike Cunningham, the executive producer of sports for Channel 2, said, "As an example, let's look at the women's gymnastics team finals. They ended after midnight Monday, NBC showed them Tuesday night and they weren't available to us until Wednesday night.

"By then, it's old news and everyone knows the U.S. finished fourth."

Making matters worse for 24-hour networks such as CNN and ESPN is, they are limited to two minutes of highlights on three shows during a 24-hour block.

"In a nutshell, we can't air anything," said Bob Eaton, senior vice president of news operations at ESPN.

"We can report the latest results on our morning shows, show some interviews that our people in Sydney get and show a few features. That's about it."

NBC has forced news outlets to give short shrift to the Olympics.

NBC needs a combination of newspaper, radio and television coverage to generate interest. It has pretty much taken television out of that equation.

"I understand NBC paid a tremendous amount of money for the rights to the Games and needs to protect those rights," Eaton said. "But I think this tack hurts the Olympics in the long run."

Scott Ackerson, the executive producer of Fox Sports Net's "National Sports Report," says, "I agree that NBC is hurting the Olympic movement.

"Essentially, what NBC has done is eliminate the possibility of showing anything until 48 hours later, so what's the point?"

Channel 7's Bill Weir says, "Our hands are tied. I feel like the swimmer from Equatorial Guinea. All I can do is dog-paddle.

"Not much we can do but have some fun with it."

Weir has shown such things as the "2000 Cheerleader Olympics," relying on some old NFL Films footage of NFL cheerleaders.

"The aquatic events are big, particularly the two-meter hot-tub sit."

Channel 9's Alan Massengale said, "I think what NBC should have done was open it up and let us use highlights as a means for creating a buzz.

"It's certainly not good TV to show only a board with a medal count. And with the restrictions NBC has put on us, we certainly aren't going to go out of our way to promote their event."

Massengale makes a good point. Not only are the ratings off, no one seems to be talking about the Olympics. The buzz that usually accompanies a major event is missing.

NBC has taken the approach that the Olympics are all about storytelling and a visual experience tailored to the whole family.

That's fine, but there are still many sports fans out there who watch sports for the drama, and there is no drama if the result is already known.

These Olympics are not without drama, it's just that NBC doesn't deliver it, and the result is an apathetic audience.

Maybe the apathy is not all NBC's fault. Maybe world peace is bad for the Olympics. No longer is it the United States against the Soviet Union, no longer is it U.S. college basketball players against foreign pros. Now it's NBA players beating up on Angola.

But whatever it is, virtually eliminating television coverage outside of NBC can't be a good thing. It cuts down on the buzz.

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