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Olympic TV: Dead or Live

Olympic TV: Dead or Live

Features
By John Fry
posted: 01/15/2002

For the second night in a row, I'd fallen asleep watching the most exciting World Series ever shown on television. The next morning, frustrated, I read about how the remarkable New York Yankees won in extra innings.

"The poynnt," I wailed, "is that I missed seeing the game live! When it was happening!"

Welcome to a discussion likely to occur in your home as you take in NBC's delayed, edited tape of Winter Olympic alpine skiing. Together with Sri Lankan and north Bhutanese hut dwellers, Americans are among the few people in the world who can't see the Salt Lake Olympic races live.

Once again a network, which has spent $3.5 billion to buy exclusive rights to televise the Olympics to a U.S. audience, is denying us the right to view gold-medal skiing and snowboarding events as they happen. You'll have to see them later as pre-recorded shows. By then, via radio, Internet or another TV station's news or sports program, you may easily have learned who won which races at Snow Basin, Park City and Deer Valley.

Even if you don't know the outcome, it's difficult to root for Daron Rahlves when you're nagged by the thought that he made his run eight hours ago.

For a simulation, try eating day-old spaghetti.

"In addition to presenting edited highlights in the evening," I asked an NBC spokesperson, "why not let us see the races as they happen?"

Logic doesn't figure high in the thinking of network officials at Rockefeller Center headquarters. Olympic TV ratings have been in decline for years. Viewership of the 1998 Nagano Winter Olympics (via CBS) was the lowest since 1968 and 42 percent behind Lillehammer's in 1992. NBC's Sydney Summer Olympics ratings were 36 percent lower than Atlanta's. Hey, guys, why not reverse a policy that could be the root of the problem?

NBC doesn't find it a problem to televise Wimbledon live from London on weekend mornings, which is the same time the Olympic men's downhill, the men's and women's super G's and the men's slalom take place. Why won't NBC do for skiing what it does for tennis?

"We want to show the most popular events in prime time," responded an NBC spokesperson, "when the audience is biggest." By that logic, NBC should have presented a delayed tape of Wimbledon at night, when more people were tuned in.

An added excuse given by NBC for its delayed Olympic coverage is that one event shown live may prevent the showing of another happening at the same time. But this seemingly insurmountable difficulty doesn't apply in the case of "minor sports," such as the biathlon (guys shooting rifles and skiing cross-country) and curling (bowling without pins). These you can see live on MSNBC.

The cable channel thus faces an excruciating decision: Does it show the 50-kilometer cross-country race or curling if both bore-a-thons are happening simultaneously? Sorry, you won't see Steamboat Springs' Todd Lodwick at the moment he wins the gold medal in Nordic Combined. For excitement, how about a tape of the producers heatedly debating whether to show the popular ski races and freestyle and snowboarding events in real time?

The fact is, American television is determined to present the Olympics as docu-drama, not sport. Critic Marvin Kitman describes the telecasts as "Oprah-esque human-interest stories, hype and travelogues, sandwiched between commercials."

It's what works best for advertisers, who pay the mammoth costs incurred by NBC and CBS for rights. You can't blame multimillion-dollar athlete salaries. The $3.5-billion fee NBC is paying for three Summer and two Winter Games was negotiated with an international amateur sports organization in Switzerland, which has a notable recent history of corruption.

I'll admit that ski racing has deficiencies as a televised spectator sport. Watching 30 guys or gals make seemingly identical runs down the same course can cause eyelids to droop. "I'm a firm believer that post-production tells the story better than a race shown live," says NBC's lead play-by-play ski announcer Tim Ryan. Salt Lake is his fourth Winter Games. Ryan can point to the fact that World Cup races typically fail to engender strong ratings. Victory often goes to little known European skiers with hard-to-pronounce names. Skiing lacks a Tiger Woods and a Pete Sampras, who build audiences for golf and tennis outside their sports.

But this is the Olympics. Who could have foreseen Canadian Ross Rebagliati's marijuana-jointed victory in snowboarding four years ago? Or the excitement of Jonny Moseley's gold medal in the moguls? Or Hermann Maier's spectacular fall at Nagano?

Of all the Olympic winter sports, downhill skiers supply the largest potential TV viewership. You want a reason for showing the alpine races live? As many as 20 million people have had a near-experience of what it's like to race in a giant slalom. By contrast, only a few thousand Americans have slid on a luge, raced on a speed-skating oval or shot a rifle on cross-country skis.

And today, ski racing is much more interesting to watch. For a long time, viewer appeal was hampered by the inability (even of technical analysts and coaches) to determine where on the course the race was won and lost. Now, with a European production technique called Simucam, you can view the images of two racers as if they were on the course at the same time. From their lines of descent traced on the screen, you can actually see the difference between silver and gold. Simucam will at least inject excitement into NBC's delayed coverage.

"You want it live because you're ski nuts," say the TV networks, dismissively. I have a suggestion. If television's pooh-bahs regard us as minor nut cases, let's open our chalet windows and shout, "I'm mad, and I'm not going to take it any more!" Turn off your TV. Get in your car and drive to a Canadian ski area, where you can spend your winter vacation, Feb. 10-23, watching the races on live TV, between runs, in the lodge.

Hundreds of thousands of American residents along our northern border-from Burlington to Detroit to Seattle-can access full live coverage from the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. (CBC). "We're a country of snow and ice," says CBC's Olympics Executive Producer Joel Darling, "and this is the Winter Games. Canadians simply won't accept a tape-delay of six or eight hours."

Forty or more years ago, TV was an inspiring innovation. For the first time, masses of people could see events as they happened...football, baseball and golf. For the Olympics, however, television marches backward in time. Instead of drawing on its unique strength as a live medium, television treats skiing in the manner of an evening newspaper. We deserve better.

John Fry has witnessed a dozen World Championships and Olympics as an on-site journalist or as a television viewer. Contact him at Snowfry@worldnet.att.net

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