Good taste had nothing to do with it. It rarely does now that
the opening ceremonies of the Olympics have morphed into a cross
between Twister and the Ice Capades. All an innocent television
watcher could do last Friday was laugh, groan and field one
phone call after another from friends who were equally
flabbergasted by the wretched excess in Atlanta. But never did
it seem possible that any of those silver-tongued smoothies from
NBC would make our jaws drop further. And then Bob Costas, the
smoothest of them all, almost slipped.
It happened when the pickup trucks rolled into Olympic
Stadium--30 of them bearing spotlights and using the chip on the
South's shoulder as punctuation in a garish $15 million
production number. Instantly and, one assumes, innocently,
Costas started working toward describing the pickup as a
cultural icon by saying, "In the South...." Uh-oh.
While his thought dangled, unfinished, you could almost hear him
kicking himself as he imagined outraged Southerners accusing him
of making them sound like stereotypes who marry their cousins
and traffic in moonshine. That would not do at all. So, in a
fraction of the time it took to write the last three sentences,
Costas added, "and elsewhere around America." Just like that he
was off the hook, and with him NBC.
The network didn't deploy Costas, Dick Enberg or anybody else in
its microphone cavalry to stir up trouble, inadvertently or
otherwise. NBC stands to make upwards of $60 million from
Atlanta, and it doesn't want loose lips turning the big bucks to
pocket change. To the network these Games are, first and
foremost, a business proposition. Then they are entertainment.
The best sports can get is a bronze medal.
So it was that the telecast of the opening ceremonies became a
giant promo not just for NBC's Olympic coverage but also for the
emphasis it will put on women's sports. We learned that one in
three athletes in Atlanta is female; we heard about the
emergence of women athletes around the world; we were even told
that swimmers Janet Evans and Amanda Beard went out together to
have their nails painted. There was no word on what color, but
you shouldn't have any question about which sex will dominate
prime time. And it's all because NBC knows who controls the
remote at home during those crucial viewing hours.
As boxers, wrestlers and weightlifters--hairy, sweaty
undesirables--contemplated their future in the daytime ratings
wars, Costas & Co. forged on with a rose-colored look at an
opening night that redefined gaudy. The festivities offered
unblushing proof that the nation's summer-movie psyche loves
nothing so much as exploding whipped cream. The only apparent
touch of restraint was that the Army Rangers who rappelled into
the stadium had been denied when they asked to wear their
camouflage fatigues. Credit Costas for sharing that nugget with
his audience. But he didn't have as much fun with it as he could
have. Maybe he was too busy trying to convince himself that this
mess really did symbolize Olympic purity.
If it was Olympic purity you wanted, though, it didn't come from
stirring songs or dozens of cheerleaders or a fleet of
28-foot-tall puppets. You had to wait until the 11,000 athletes
strode down a ramp and around the stadium's track, puffing their
chests with the pride that comes from having gotten this far.
That same good feeling could be found in precious few other
places in NBC's telecast, and one of them was a commercial. Of
course, it didn't look like a commercial when a kid in sneakers
and jeans stepped into the starting blocks for the 100 meters,
or even when he ran through the stages of his life on the way to
becoming an Olympic sprinter. Not until the sprinter looked back
at the kid he used to be, his story having been told brilliantly
in 90 seconds, did the McDonald's logo appear.
But goose bumps feel better when they are genuine, not
manufactured. The truth of that took over when Muhammad Ali, a
gold medalist in Rome 36 summers ago and always the Greatest,
became the last person to hold the Olympic torch before the
flame over the Games was ignited. His hands trembled with the
curse of Parkinson's syndrome, but his hold on the crowd was as
strong and sure as ever. Afterward, the TV cameras stayed with
Ali as he was led to the van that would whisk him away from the
cheers and back to the far quieter world he now inhabits. It was
just a moment, but it was poignant and honest and, most
important, the best one NBC had all night.
John Schulian, a former newspaper sports columnist in Chicago
and Philadelphia, is a TV writer and producer in Hollywood.