For the first time in the long love affair between TV and the Olympics, NBC is bringing us Games with an edge. No flag-waving, no ABC-style sugarcoating of U.S. chances—just the facts, ma'am, as Joe Friday used to say. Unvarnished truth may not be what most American viewers, who tend to prefer fantasy to reality, want to hear, but NBC should be complimented for not caving in to the Hollywoodizers.
Executive producer Mike Weisman, who was in high school the last time NBC aired a Summer Games, in 1964, deserves most of the credit for elevating Olympic coverage to the level of true journalism. It was his idea, for example, to hire five reporters from the print media and three from NBC affiliates—"Seoul Searchers," he infelicitously called them—to ferret out the news.
With all the controversies in Seoul—Ben Johnson's disqualification for taking steroids, the several disputes in boxing, the debate over U.S. swimmer Angel Myers's suspension for having used a proscribed substance—the ink-stained wretches were, for the most part, a hit. They may lack the polish of Tom Brokaw, but rarely ask vacuous, Diana Nyad-like questions such as, "How does it feel?" after an athlete wins or loses.
Most notable among them was Wallace Matthews, who covers boxing for Newsday, a metropolitan New York daily. He got chunks of air time when U.S. boxer Anthony Hembrick was disqualified for showing up late for his bout, and when Korean coaches and a Korean security official attacked a referee in the ring after a close decision went against one of their countrymen. Though Matthews's questions were sometimes more prosecutorial in tone than Mike Wallace's, he uncovered key information in both controversies.
October 2, 1988
Still, despite NBC's good work, the televised Games, for the first week at least, lacked a certain spark. One reason was that there was precious little drama with which to work. And U.S. athletes didn't exactly visit doom and gloom on the competition.
Bryant Gumbel was also part of the problem. He's an exceptional talent—confident, bright, quick—but, alas, he's too intense and standoffish to be a solo anchor for 4½ hours every night. The Games were five days old before the furrow in Gumbel's brow receded and he began to smile, oh, maybe once an hour. Weisman probably should have paired Gumbel with the late-night host, Bob Costas, who is knowledgeable, warm, whimsical and journalistically sound.
Weisman deserves kudos for focusing on fringe sports long enough for viewers to get a handle on them. In the past, standard TV procedure was to stay with lesser events for only a couple of minutes for fear of losing the audience. One night Weisman focused on the cross-country equestrian competition, of all things. Hoo boy, was this going to be snooty. But it was wonderful: a vast tableau, unusual sights and sounds, the danger to riders and their horses, and the drama of close competition.
With a few exceptions, NBC's announcers were excellent. Dick Enberg (gymnastics) and Charlie Jones (track and field) are knowledgeable and came through the screen as class acts, although Enberg sometimes tilted toward gushiness, and Jones blew the call of the men's 800. Chris Marlowe did a superb job of explaining the subtleties of volleyball, and Don Criqui's swimming calls were compelling. Criqui's partner, John Naber, didn't pull punches. He pointed out, for instance, that Matt Biondi lost the 100-meter butterfly because he coasted to the finish.
There were half a dozen on-air people who had scant reason to be in Seoul. Among them: Jane Pauley, who was forlorn with her lack of sports knowledge next to Gayle Gardner, an accomplished sportscaster, in the morning; Maria Shriver and Jimmy Cefalo, the gold medalists in hair care, who had little to offer on Sunday mornings; and Mary Lou Retton, whose principal role at the gymnastics events seemed to be to mug effusively.
Neither Tom Hammond nor Al McGuire, who teamed up for the men's basketball coverage, seemed to have done much homework on the non-U.S. teams. During one game, Hammond and McGuire, who has been mailing it in for years, called the Brazilian players by their surnames, even though they are known exclusively by their given names, both internationally and in their homeland. Enberg is replacing Hammond for the basketball medal rounds—and not a moment too soon.
On balance, NBC has more than met the test. Its welcome-to-reality approach took nerve. The low ratings through last Thursday—an average of 16.3, or 8.9 points below ABC's ratings at the same stage during the 1984 Games—no doubt were partly attributable to NBC's refusal to hype U.S. medal chances. But TV sports is not the film business, and fantasy should be left to Hollywood.