As soon as the Olympics were over, I tried to recall exactly what I had seen on ABC's two weeks of telecasts. Despite voluminous notes taken while watching virtually every one of the network's 79½ hours of coverage, it was not an easy task. Was that because there had been too much for the viewer to enjoy and remember? Probably not. Could it have been that the telecasts were disjointed, that they were too full of images that drew attention away from the Olympic participants? Probably so, because many of the pictures that first came to mind, on reflection, were the wrong ones.
There was that fellow who kept throwing a 16-pound shot into the back of a pickup truck. There was the Old North Church getting painted for the 40th—or was it the 400th?—time. There was Nadia Comaneci pirouetting on the balance beam. (But where were her Romanian silver medal teammates? You got the impression they had been eaten by the Big Bad Wolf.) There were those men who ran and rowed while eating yogurt. There were spectacular overhead shots of pole vaulting and platform diving. There was Dick Fosbury ordering extra ketchup and no pickle, then biting into an upside-down hamburger. There were interesting profiles of Sprinter Valery Borzov and Gymnast Nikolai Andrianov of the Soviet Union and Weightlifter Valentin Christov of Bulgaria. But the personality who came through strongest was Mr. Ripov of Madison Avenue.
It is doubtful that any other major sporting broadcast has been so flawed by commercials. And you'd better get used to it, Olympic fans, because the problem is likely to get worse. The cost of buying the TV rights to the Games has escalated incredibly. In 1968, the summer Olympics cost ABC $4.5 million; the fee for the Montreal Games was $25 million. It would shock hardly anyone in television if the Soviets got $50 million for the 1980 summer Olympics. For openers they have already mentioned $100 million.
There were times during the shows from Montreal when the commercials became so frequent and so repetitious that I stopped watching and listening. Many of the ads, for which ABC collected $72,000 per minute, were produced specifically for the Olympic telecasts, and as a result, a lot of them looked alike.
The network that wins the bidding for the Moscow Games should concentrate on finding a way to cut down the number of commercials. Perhaps the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, which aired an astounding 350 hours of Olympic programs in two languages, already may have pointed the way. It had a small number of sponsors who paid high prices for the prestige of being part of the Olympics. Admittedly, the CBC had a huge advantage over ABC. It receives a large government subsidy, and consequently it did not need nearly as many advertising dollars to underwrite its Olympic coverage as the U.S. network did.
Other things jarred: the rock concerts, the mural painting, the interviews with non-Olympians. They should be eliminated. Instead, telecasts should emphasize more complete coverage of the featured events and make occasional trips to those venues such as fencing and soccer that rarely are shown.
Between the commercials and non-sporting irritations, ABC managed to come up with some decent camera coverage. And as they were during this year's Innsbruck Games, the network's filmed visits with participants from all over the globe were first-rate.
When it came to the announcers, Roone Arledge, the head of ABC Sports, apparently went out with a giant net and gathered up every "expert" commentator he could find. The all-star system failed here, as it often does on sports broadcasts, because good athletes generally are people with great physical gifts who perform instinctively. Few ever truly examine the fine points of their games. When put on the air, they often pull punches, root hysterically or babble. In Montreal, Mark Spitz won seven gold medals for babbling, challenged only by the syrupy man on the marathon, Erich Segal. A few experts did help the Olympic coverage: Ken Sitzberger in diving, Bill Steinkraus in equestrian events, Bob Seagren in the pole vault. Marty Liquori in distance running. O. J. Simpson did a fair job on the sprints although, of all people, he still cannot differentiate between the present and past tenses of the word "run."
The TV endurance record of the year goes to Jim McKay, who served as anchorman for both the winter and summer Games. McKay was on the job for 116 hours, almost as much anchor time as Walter Cronkite, John Chancellor, David Brinkley, Howard K. Smith and Harry Reasoner combined will put in at the Democratic and Republican conventions. That is an Olympian performance.
An even more astounding Olympic accomplishment, the winning of five gold medals by U.S. boxers on the last night of the Games, provided the best example of ABC at its worst. Almost none of the action from the final bouts of Olympic champs Leo Randolph and Howard Davis and silver medalist Charles Mooney was shown. Instead, between salvos of commercials, ABC gave us such things as an interview with singer Mick Jagger and a visit to Montreal's Chinatown, during which much was made of the startling fact that Chinese can learn to speak French.
The political problems surrounding the '76 Olympics will cause them to be remembered not only for what they were, but also for what they might have been. The overabundance of commercials left me feeling virtually the same way about the telecasts.