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Putting the Gold on Hold CBS's canned Olympic coverage raises questions about NBC's game plan for Sydney

March 02, 1998
March 02, 1998

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March 2, 1998

College Basketball [bonus Piece]

Putting the Gold on Hold CBS's canned Olympic coverage raises questions about NBC's game plan for Sydney

Well, now we know what the Olympic torch is for. It's to be
applied to the backside of whatever network is foolish enough to
bid on the Olympic Games, particularly a cold-weather version in
which problems created by a 14-hour time difference might be
compounded by, oh, let's say snow. This time it was CBS's turn
to feel the flames of critics and viewers, who, for the life of
them, can't understand why television takes as long as 24 hours
to get its signal across the Pacific Ocean.

This is an article from the March 2, 1998 issue Original Layout

Although CBS expects to make approximately $40 million on the
$375 million it invested in rights fees for the Nagano Games, it
suffered the lowest Olympic prime-time ratings since 1968 and
was even forced to run make-good ads after failing to deliver
the audience it had guaranteed. The criticism and the Nielsen
decline have Olympic officials concerned enough about the
prospects for NBC in Sydney (in 2000) and Salt Lake City (2002)
to consider some changes in scheduling and in the way the Games
are covered. "This is a made-for-TV event," says John Krimsky,
U.S. Olympic Committee deputy secretary general and managing
director for business affairs, "and there are a number of things
we can do to enhance that. That's our job, to enhance the brand."

Even allowing for that time difference between Japan and the
U.S., CBS bears much of the blame for the viewers'
dissatisfaction. The network made disastrous decisions, starting
with its choice of prime-time host, the uninspiring Jim Nantz.
It confused sports and entertainment, and it generally behaved
as if viewers didn't deserve to share in the Olympic experience
until the network was good and ready to let them.

It will be a long time before anybody forgets CBS's bungling of
the women's Super G in the first week of the Games, when it
seemed a viewer had a better chance of seeing Martha Stewart do
something interesting than Picabo Street. A lot of people are
going to spend the next four years wondering why the network
would pass on showing the men's Super G live and present it the
next night on tape, about nine news cycles after the event. The
morning news shows, for goodness' sake, were interviewing gold
medal winners 12 hours before CBS showed them in competition.

But that may be the nature of the Winter Olympics beast, too. As
the Winter Games have become bloated, going from 13 hours of
broadcast coverage over 11 days in 1960 to 178 (on CBS and
cable's TNT) over 17 days this year, viewers have realized that
there is not always something interesting to watch. No amount of
graphics, no amount of athletes' profiles and no amount of
travelogues (here's Martha at a wholesale fish market!) can
disguise the awful truth. The Winter Olympics are not the NFL.

Even CBS seems to have turned against the Games. Rick Gentile,
the network's Olympics executive producer, told anyone who
called him in Nagano that the Games had no personality, charisma
or warmth. The words he sprinkled in his defense were boring,
bland and drab. "This," he said, "is a bad Olympics. It's a 32-6
Super Bowl."

Some stories on the CBS wish list, stories involving
ratings-friendly teams or athletes, didn't develop. "We've got
that package on the [U.S.] hockey team ready to go," Gentile
said. "Just tell me when to cue it up." Do you believe in
disappointments? "If the game stinks, the broadcast stinks,"
said Gentile. "We can make a boring event watchable, we just
can't make it exciting."

This is the politically correct way of saying that Michelle Kwan
did not get thwacked on the leg with a bar on her way to Japan.
Of course, the 1994 Lillehammer Games, which had a 27.8
prime-time rating to Nagano's 16.2 (preliminary final number),
had stories besides Nancy & Tonya, such as the Olympic return of
professional skaters and the sagas of U.S. heroes Bonnie Blair,
Dan Jansen and Tommy Moe. With such an abundance of
personalities, however, Lillehammer may have been an anomaly and
thus an unfair ratings benchmark for subsequent Games.

CBS tried to put a positive spin on its coverage, noting that
Olympics programming killed its network prime-time competition
and boosted ratings for Late Night with David Letterman, which
was sandwiched between prime-time and late-night coverage of the
Games. CBS complained about the weather and the time difference,
neither of which should have surprised a network that prides
itself on news gathering. Certainly it hurt when the men's
downhill skiing was postponed because of heavy snow on the first
Saturday of the Games. Had the folks back home gotten to see
Austria's Hermann Maier soar off the mountain--off the mountain,
not just the course--and crash horrifically on the first evening
of televised competition (as he did later in the week after
three weather-induced delays), the Olympics might have seemed a
lot hotter.

The manipulation of time and space for ratings advantage is an
old broadcast tradition; anybody remember NBC's little broadcast
fantasy from 1996--"plausibly live"? But no network ever
insisted upon the kind of national make-believe that CBS did the
first week of the Olympics, when it held onto Street's
gold-medal-winning Super G race for 23 hours and 17 minutes, not
airing it until well after Martha Stewart had cleared the air
with her kimono fitting. Worse, CBS presented the triumph the
next night as if it were happening right before our eyes, with
three hours of bumpers and teases. ("There's gold on the line in
the Super G!" Well, there had been once.)

The network lamely explained that the event was run late, and
CBS couldn't have shown the result before going off the air.
Further, the network didn't want to squander its exclusivity,
which came at a pretty good price, by showing the tape before it
could get the most viewers, which was in prime time the next
night. Gentile protested glumly that his hands had been tied.
"The perception that we held events is so unfair," he said. "You
look back at our best moment [Street's Super G] and tell me what
we could have done. We're living in an environment where we have
to get on a lot of commercials. We have to get off at 11 p.m. to
deliver our audience to CBS affiliates [for the local news]."

But the problem of how to treat the events--are they news or
entertainment?--was never really resolved. This was a handicap
in a world in which viewers can get results instantly on the
Internet and on 24-hour sports news stations. (Do you think CNN
was holding off on Street's victory? Do you think ESPN2 blanked
the crawl under its NASCAR coverage?) Maier became a crossover
name in these Olympics mostly because of his sensational spill
(which was shown live and got the best ratings to that point),
yet CBS did not capitalize on this with live coverage of what
turned out to be Maier's victory in the Super G three days
later. To have done so might have meant cutting segments from
ice dancing, but it would have been boffo TV. CBS instead showed
Maier's win canned the following night. Again, Gentile says it's
unfair to blame the network for that decision. CBS had decided
to make Street's downhill race the premier event on live
coverage and, short of using a split screen, couldn't have shown
both events.

It's interesting to look down the road and anticipate how the
next guy--NBC's Dick Ebersol--will handle these same problems.
Gentile has given this some thought. "If what the public wants
is immediate and free access to the Olympics, then the network
needs to get a cable partner and show everything live,
wall-to-wall, and get Bud Greenspan to do the show in prime
time, present a completely taped, movie-fied package," he says,
invoking the name of the Olympics' most renowned film
chronicler. "And I'm not being ridiculous."

Then the prime-time package becomes less valuable, of course,
which doesn't make economic sense in an industry in which rights
fees go up, not down. Still, Gentile's solution would
acknowledge the truth about the Olympics, that they're both
sports and entertainment, and allow everybody to have it both
ways.

Richard Palfreyman, chief spokesman for the organizers in Sydney
(where NBC will have a 15-hour time difference in 2000), says,
"The word we've had consistently from Dick Ebersol is that NBC
is looking to package its programs and will show virtually
nothing live." (Through a spokesman, NBC declined to comment on
its plans.) The network will Greenspan it (despite the fact that
NBC has what it needs to follow Gentile's blueprint: two sister
cable channels, CNBC and MSNBC, that could show live coverage
around the clock.) But if NBC gets the drift that the audience
won't stand for the canned approach--and isn't that what we're
learning here?--it may want the IOC to tweak the schedule. NBC
did it in Seoul, twisting arms and getting sprints staged under
the midday sun. Could Salt Lake City have bobsled runs and ski
races under the lights, in prime time? "We're beginning to have
those discussions," Krimsky says.

There is, in any event, a sense that all the rules have changed.
Maybe there was a time when a network, with all its swagger,
could get away with presenting an Olympics on its own terms.
This is a different era, when news is delivered on demand, and
no amount of packaging or styling can substitute for its timely
arrival.

So, show us Hermann Maier as a young bricklayer, pipe in ska for
the snowboarding. Give us all the emotion you can manufacture.
Just don't do it a day late. Attention NBC: We're not complete
dopes anymore.

COLOR ILLUSTRATION: FRED HARPER A viewer had a better chance of seeing Martha Stewart do something interesting than Picabo Street [Drawing of Martha Stewart skiing]

Too Much of a Good Thing?

As the hours devoted to Olympic telecasts have expanded, the
rights fees to cover the costs have risen. But as the numbers
below show, the ratings have not always gone up accordingly.
(One ratings point represents 1% of TV households.)

WINTER GAMES
AVG. PRIME-
Year Location Network(s) Hours Rights Fees TIME RATING

1960 Squaw Valley CBS 13.0 $50,000 --
1964 Innsbruck ABC 16.0 $597,000 --
1968 Grenoble ABC 23.5 $2.5 million 13.4
1972 Sapporo NBC 26.0 $6.4 million 17.2
1976 Innsbruck ABC 40.5 $10 million 21.7
1980 Lake Placid ABC 53.5 $15.5 million 23.6
1984 Sarajevo ABC 62.5 $91.5 million 18.2
1988 Calgary ABC 94.5 $309 million 19.3
1992 Albertville CBS 112.5 $243 million 18.7
TNT 45.0 $20 million
1994 Lillehammer CBS 119.0 $295 million 27.8
TNT 45.0 $30 million
1998 Nagano CBS 128.0 $375 million 16.2*
TNT 50.0 $9.5 million
2002 Salt Lake City NBC ??? $545 million

SOURCE: NIELSEN MEDIA RESEARCH AND CBS
*Preliminary final number