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SYDNEY 2000 / SUMMER OLYMPICS

NBC's Games Face Isn't All Smiles

Television: Network's decision to delay broadcasts confuses and angers some, including advertisers.

September 28, 2000|RENE LYNCH and TIM BROWN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Ask Claire Allens how the Americans are doing at the Sydney Summer Games and she'll rattle off the results of the latest heats, offer an updated medal count and even speculate on what Marion Jones might wear as she continues her run for gold.

Since the Olympics began in Australia, Allens has barely left her screen--her computer screen, that is.

"I need to know, and I need to know now," said the Long Beach computer analyst, whose job allows her to keep close tabs on it all. "I just hop on the Internet and find out." There's no time to wait for NBC.

The network continues to scramble to reach Allens and others who are going elsewhere for their Olympic news--or simply ignoring the Games.

NBC paid nearly three-quarters of a billion dollars for Olympic broadcasting exclusivity, yet critics say the network has chosen to:

* Dull the excitement by tape-delaying every last minute, thereby treating it less like the Olympic Games, and more like a rerun of "Daddio."

* Place itself dead last in the ever-demanding 24-hour news cycle, behind nearly every newspaper, Web site and radio station in the world.

* Disappoint advertisers by promising far better ratings than it could deliver, leading at least one--Nike--to consider asking for compensation.

* Offer disjointed coverage where layers of misconceptions have bordered on deception, where Bob Costas, the capable host, pretends not to know the results of events that many viewers already know. Example: The network aired a Visa commercial Tuesday night that congratulated U.S. pole vaulter Stacy Dragila for winning the gold medal. About an hour later, amid much drama, NBC finally showed her event.

The results have been reflected in the ratings.

The network's 12th night of coverage from Sydney on Tuesday drew the worst rating for Summer Games competition in at least 16 years: NBC drew a 12.4 rating, far below the 17.5 to 18.5 predicted.

In the end, critics say, the network undermined its own product, 400-and-some hours of self-immolation in the name of making its own investment back, ignoring what some might consider its moral obligation to the public and to the Games to provide timely, accurate coverage.

That's what Canadian Broadcasting Corp. has done. But, like NBC, the CBC is experiencing sagging ratings, and blames the time difference Down Under. Of course, that's not stopping them from running 15 hours of live Sydney coverage each day, and an additional three hours of live in-studio coverage.

"The strategy for any Olympics for us is that we consider it not only a major Games, we consider it major news coverage," and that means doing it live, said Nancy Lee, executive director of CBC Sports. "It's just what our viewers expect. . . . It's what we think the viewers deserve. If that 100-meter race is run, you'd better have that."

Couldn't NBC have offered live coverage, and still run its prerecorded features and glitzy packages--and repeated its showcase events--in prime time? Is NBC's arrogance to blame? Has the network snuffed the buzz?

Nike is considering taking the highly unusual step of asking for some of its $15-million investment back. While NBC offered to rerun its sponsors' commercials to make up for the ratings, Nike fears the repetition of its two Olympic-themed ads would bore viewers.

"We're definitely disappointed," said Nike spokesman Scott Reames, who said Nike and NBC were discussing compensation options. "We're also disappointed that there seems to be a lack of really strong interest in the Games themselves."

To be sure, plenty of people are watching the Olympics.

An estimated 64 million people tuned in Sunday for at least part of the nightly show, drawing a 16.1 rating. That figure is 10% higher than for the previous Sunday's coverage, and 19% higher than Saturday's, but still short of projections.

The Games also have been a surprise hit for the "Today" show. NBC's two-hour morning show averaged 6.7 million viewers during five days from Sydney last week, making it the fourth most-watched week in the program's 49-year history. "Today's" best three weeks came in early 1998 when the Monica Lewinsky story broke.

Many viewers think NBC is doing just fine, although nearly all offer pointed remarks on how the network could do better.

"I've heard the criticism, but I think they're doing a pretty good job," said Tim Thrash, a freight train conductor. But he also said the network coverage has been uneven, spending too much time on sports like rowing and giving short shrift to other events.

"It's been marvelous, watching all the different athletes from the different countries and all their achievements, I love the feature stories," said Elaine Davis, a Long Beach homemaker. However, she complained about too many commercials and said she'd watch more if the coverage started and ended earlier.

Others say NBC is unfairly bearing the brunt of the criticism.

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