ABC: Too Many Hours, Not Enough Moments

February 27, 1984

Before we bury ABC's Winter Olympics—after 63 yawning hours they deserve proper rites—let's take a look at how the network played Pretvarajmo Se, its favorite pastime in Sarajevo. Pretvarajmo Se is Serbo-Croatian for "Let's pretend." For starters, we had John Denver singing The Gold and Beyond on a snow-covered mountainside, just the way he does back home in the Rockies. Only this time he seemed to have an echo chamber and orchestra to help him. The string section must have been hiding behind an evergreen. Next, ABC gave us the frantic Bob Beattie and Sam Posey, Keith Jackson and other commentators, all laying voice-overs on videotapes of their events. Jackson and his friends truly seemed stirred by all the drama. The problem was, they were often faking it when the tape had to be edited, their voices reaching crescendos hours after their events were over. There were other time warps—Jim McKay pretending the luge had been run on Monday, say, when the morning paper showed it actually had taken place on Sunday.

With certain exceptions, notably the star-is-born performance of late-night anchor Kathleen Sullivan, ABC's romp in the snow amounted to the biggest fiasco in Sarajevo since the archduke's car went down the wrong street. A lot of it, of course, wasn't ABC's fault. Even if ABC did raise expectations for the U.S. hockey team to absurdly high levels, placing an unfair burden on the kids, it didn't choke against the Canadians. And even though network executives may think they're God sometimes, they didn't dump that blizzard on Bjelašnica. Nor did Roone Arledge, ABC's president for news and sports, put a hex on Bill Koch.

There were two things that turned this show into a nula (zero in the mother tongue). One was the six-hour time lag between Sarajevo and the East Coast of the U.S., which meant that everybody but a Trappist monk knew who won by the time ABC came on with its tapes. The other, which raises questions about ABC's 188-hour coverage of the Summer Olympics in Los Angeles, was that 63 hours simply proved to be overkill. Enough already! It was like having novocain on the brain, just watching it all. Although most of the L.A. coverage will be live from 10:30 a.m. to 2 a.m. (E.D.T.) each day, how many 4 X 100 relay heats will people be expected to watch? ABC has to stay on forever to sell enough ads to cover rights payments—$91.5 million for Sarajevo, $225 million for L.A. It came in third in the ratings the first week of the Winter Games, averaging a 16.3 prime-time rating for the six days of coverage compared to 17.7 for CBS and 16.8 for NBC. It won several nights in Week 2, although its prime-time ratings for the first 10 days of the Games were still 21.9% below those it received for its entire prime-time coverage of Lake Placid. In short, what we may be seeing are the first signs of the Olympics on TV dying of their own weight.

Ironically, the network that now uses the Olympic rings for its own logo may for the first time have to offer make-goods to clients. At least one major advertiser has formally asked for adjustments, complaining it didn't get its money's worth. The fire alarms aren't ringing yet, for ABC sold out the Sarajevo telecasts at a substantial profit. The real day of reckoning could come at the '88 Winter Olympics in Calgary, the U.S. TV rights to which ABC just bought for $309 million. Although most of those Games will be aired live, Arledge, McKay and the gang obviously will need a winning U.S. hockey team, no fog and no blizzards to make a go of it. It's planning some 80-odd hours of telecasts. What will Denver do this time if the bottom falls out? Sing O Canada down the bob run?

Without question, the clock was ABC's executioner this year. There's nothing worse than watching videotaped events when you know the result, unless it's announcers playacting to accentuate the drama of those tapes. ABC has to 'fess up to its faked commentary if it wants its journalism to be taken seriously. And how can they call Denver a reporter when he read a script for a videotape feature already in the can? ABC put on a pat formula show, a kind of two-week Wide World of Sports in which everything happened in a time bubble. Was the speed skating we just saw in the can since yesterday? No one said. And what a slick illusion to have McKay ruminate about the U.S. women's giant-slalom chances when he knew all along that Debbie Armstrong had won. What was real here and what wasn't? Was McKay live from Sarajevo now, or was this taped last week, or last night, or maybe eight hours ago, after he tracked down Beattie and Frank Gifford hanging out in a slivovitz mill?

ABC's basic miscalculation was that American viewers in '84 would lap up videotape as happily as they did during the Innsbruck Games of '76, the last time the network aired a canned Olympics. Truth is, the old formulas don't work anymore. The nature of the business has changed in eight years. Live electronic journalism is the thing, simply because it's there. Show me now. Give me the results instantly. ABC should have gone live whenever possible on weekend mornings and afternoons, a la NBC at Wimbledon. The first Sunday, ABC could have shown the Carrutherses' silver-medal performance live in the afternoon and then run it again on tape that night. And last Sunday the network could have run tapes of the Mahre brothers winning the gold and silver in the slalom in its afternoon slot, but instead elected to hold that footage until evening.

Need some evidence on 63 hours being too much time to fill? Consider the following: Second Wednesday, ABC wastes 29 minutes cutting in and out of a hockey game between Canada and Czechoslovakia, each of which has already made the medal round. Second Friday, ABC runs an interview with Dorothy Hamill about the '76 Olympics. The very next night, for gosh sakes, there's a 30-second bite of the same stale talk. Who cares about this flotsam? On the other hand, when officials erased two big jumps by the U.S. Nordic combined skier, Pat Ahern, Jackson was more adept at turning phrases such as "thrashing through the thickets like a frightened fox" than satisfactorily explaining the controversy. Jack Whitaker had to give us a recap the following day. Neither Jackson nor Eric Heiden picked up another story—American speed skater Nick Thometz' false start in the 500, which may have cost him a medal. And for two weeks we saw precious few interviews with losing American athletes. No downers in show biz, folks.

ABC did score an occasional point. First there was Sullivan, the co-anchor of ABC News This Morning, who shared the bright, original nightcap with Jim Lampley. She was phenomenal—warm, charming, intelligent, businesslike—the antithesis of the sugar woman networks have traditionally used on sports. If Sarajevo was Sullivan's trial for L.A., hallelujah! Then there was the very fresh and stimulating work of Dick Schaap and Ray Gandolf, who poked around Sarajevo digging up stories that were small jewels. Gandolfs feature comparing Sarajevo to Harrisburg, Pa. was typically whimsical and enlightening. Schaap's pieces on American athletes competing for foreign Olympic teams, Karpov the chess champ and the Lebanese skiers ("We're living, not dying") were certainly top-of-the-line.

Come to think of it, you have to give kudos to the majority of ABC's feature pieces, especially the up-close-and-personals. Who knew that U.S. gold medalist Bill Johnson was a car thief until he admitted it in a taped short last Thursday? One of the few inappropriate features was an asinine comparison of drag racing with the 15-km cross-country race. How a hot rod, which races for six seconds or so, is analogous to Juha Mieto, who raced for 42 minutes, only ABC knows. Infinitely more revealing were Dick Button's lessons on figure skating. It was Button who delivered the single most enlightening feature of the Olympics, a review of the genesis, art and judging of school figures. It was like visiting another world.

The thing about Button is this: He knows his sport, he passionately cares about it and he conveys his enthusiasm. Sure he's a homer. Of course he doesn't like the Russkies. And yes, when Scott Hamilton admitted making mistakes in his final performance, Button gushed, "You didn't make mistakes. I said you didn't make mistakes." But you don't need a clinical observer in a subjective sport. Button succeeds because he emotes. The same can't be said about Fleming, who comes across as a Barbie doll placed on the air for her marquee value and little else.

ABC's other Olympic resources were McKay, who looked like he was getting no fun out of Sarajevo at all, Lampley, Al Michaels and brilliant hockey commentator Ken Dry-den. Typically, ABC gave us too little of Dry-den and too much of glitter-named Mike Eruzione, whose chief observation was that the puck just wasn't bouncing for the Americans. Tim Brant? A pleasant, no-nonsense addition to ABC. Posey? He seems to have lapsed into a kind of terminal hysteria after his impressive performances at Indianapolis the last several years. Lampley was one of the few people in ABC's tent who could chase down news stories, such as the hockey eligibility controversy.

Unfortunately, McKay probably will be blamed for a) the pointless buildup of the hockey team, b) ABC's exasperating tease routine, whereby we never were told when Torvill and Dean, say, would come on the air, and c) the bar-hopping Yugoslav who kissed him on the cheek. That's not fair, for these decisions were beyond his control. McKay was a tired and dour face at times, but he's still ABC's rock of stability.

Last week an anchor on the late-night news at WJLA, the ABC affiliate in Washington, D.C., wondered aloud on the air if the network's board of directors might not be ready to put Arledge on skis and push him down Bjelašnica. One never knows. If those were Arledge's pictures the network showed, including the lovely one of Kitty Carruthers with a tear on her cheek, those were also his Games. And for the first time in Arledge's career, after eight trips to the Olympic gate, they were D-O-S-A-D-A-N. That's Serbo-Croatian for B-O-R-I-N-G.

PHOTOBeattie and Gifford gave some of their "live" commentary after the events had ended. PHOTOSullivan: Warm, charming and intelligent.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)