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Live or not, we will watch

August 11, 2008|STEVE SPRINGER

I had just settled down on the couch Saturday afternoon to watch U.S. beach volleyball stars Phil Dalhausser and Todd Rogers beat up heavy underdog Latvia when my son, Alan, walked through the door, glanced at the screen and said, "Oh yeah, big upset. U.S. lost."


Sure enough, Martins Plavins and Aleksandrs Samoilovs kicked sand in the face of the Americans, winning in straight sets.

The toughest thing about the Beijing Olympics for us viewers stuck in the Pacific time zone is to remember to disregard the word that often flashes in the upper right-hand corner of the screen: live.

Wrong. It was live three hours earlier for those in the Eastern time zone.

NBC is trumpeting tonight's telecast -- "Michael Phelps could match greatest Olympians ever Monday live in prime time on NBC."

Wrong again. Phelps' bid for a record-tying ninth career gold medal will be shown tape-delayed three hours later in the West.

I know NBC is boasting about 2,900 hours of live coverage, the most ever for an Olympics. Nearly all of that live coverage for the West Coast, however, is online or on the basketball and soccer specialty channels.

You can find live coverage thanks to the many outlets provided by NBC. You just have to work at it and accept the fact that you'll often be forced to watch on a small computer screen rather than your larger TV screen.

But occasionally, like for Phelps tonight, or the opening ceremony Friday, NBC could bend its rules and go live here -- that would be 5 p.m. today and would have been 5 a.m. Friday.

People will watch.

When Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal met in their classic Wimbledon final last month, NBC put it on live starting at 6 a.m. on the West Coast.

People watched.

Lots of people are tuning in

Based on early returns, NBC need not be worried about tape-delay concerns. Live or not, frustrated or not, the audience is there.

Through the first two days, the various NBC channels have drawn a combined 114 million viewers, the most ever for an Olympics. That's 4 million more than the previous record total attracted to the 1996 Games in Atlanta and 19 million more than the audience for the 2004 Games in Athens, according to Nielsen Media research.

Saturday's coverage drew 92 million viewers, 14 million more than on the first Saturday in Athens.

The national ratings average for Beijing (16.2/30) is the highest for an Olympics on a site outside the United States since the 1976 Summer Games in Montreal, which had a 22.1 rating (percentage of TV households) and a 46 share (percentage of televisions in use).

The Beijing numbers are helped by the fact NBC is using a record number of channels.


The sorrow: The start of Saturday's telecast was eerie. The Beijing horizon had been ablaze with fireworks when NBC signed off Friday night; now there were only somber skies.

There had been awe and euphoria on the faces of co-hosts Bob Costas and Matt Lauer as they signed off Friday; Jim Lampley welcomed the audience back with a somber look and furrowed brow.

It was a jarring but proper mood as Lampley began by informing viewers of the slaying of Todd Bachman and the wounding of his wife, Barbara, at a tourist landmark five miles from the Olympic village. The pair, in-laws of Hugh McCutcheon, U.S. men's volleyball coach, were stabbed by an assailant who then leapt to his own death.

The joy: From the tragedy, the telecast soon took another jarring leap to triumph, showing a trio of American women on the victory stand celebrating an American sweep in fencing by Mariel Zagunis (gold), Sada Jacobson (silver) and Becca Ward (bronze).

The euphoria and tears were early reminders of what these Games, beyond the hype and the high-profile performers, can mean to those who devote their lives to a sport.


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