Like athletes to come, CBS is off quickly

Phil Jackman

February 07, 1992|By Phil Jackman

You got it, CBS, now hold it! In any sport, it's important to get off to a good start, and the network bringing us the Winter Olympics for the next 16 days did just that last night, jumping out impressively with its Games preview.

Oh sure, we could have done without all those folks from the net's solid Monday night prime time lineup reminding us they'd be back in a couple of weeks. But that was ordered up by the

entertainment division, you know, and it is rumored to carry considerable weight.

Anyway, following a classy Aaron Copland music video opening, the cast at CBS stumbled only slightly before heading off to the exquisite scenery of the French Alps.

Evening (8-11 p.m.) co-host Tim McCarver's opening remark was, "It's hard to believe the opening is only hours away," and it's hard to believe that's all he could come up with after six months reflection. Strike One! It's apparent bright and cheery Paula Zahn will pilot the prime time show while Tim will be interjecting tidbits of information and helping out with the venue switches and breaks to commercial. They figure to wear well if the chit- chat doesn't get too cutesy.

This, killing time, could be a problem because they'll be doing a lot of it from now on. As Jim McKay puts it, "You get to the bottom of the barrel pretty quickly at the Winter Olympics." McKay qualifies as an expert on the subject since he started doing these quadrennials for ABC about the time Sonja Henie made her first million.

Following in the footsteps of fellow telecaster TNT and ESPN, which aired interesting preview shows Wednesday night, CBS covered pretty much the same territory but with more substance and flair. Of course, budget may have had something to do with it.

Anyway, there were a couple of very poignant moments last night, led by the retelling of the Dan Jansen story from 1988. He's the speed skater who lost a sister to leukemia the day the Calgary Games started and, instead of two medals, he ended up falling twice in races.

Dan asked his parents if the family wanted him to go through with the race and mother Gerry said yes. "That night on television," she recalled, "I saw how pale and drawn he was. Oh my, I thought, what have we asked him to do."

Then there was Charles Kuralt on the road telling the story of a bobsledder, Yanos Kipours, who won a gold medal for the Soviets four years ago, but not really. He won it for his native Latvia, was right in the middle of things when the country declared its independence last year, and is now back to win outright for his true country.

Kipours described independence and an Olympic gold as "holidays of the soul," a description that doesn't figure to die too quickly.

CBS hop-scotched around, as John Cameron Swayze used to say, to the far-flung competition sites where well-known commentators brought us up to speed on what we can expect.

Without exception, the sportscasters functioned as reporters, giving us the who, what, where, why and how, not projecting themselves into the story as is too often the case.

From the ski venues to the skating arenas to the jumping and sliding runs, the reports did a nice job of building anticipation for the start of play without coming across as being overly provincial.

The U.S. athletes are primed to do well, but past Winter Olympics have taught us that jingoism has no place on the slopes, trails, ovals and rinks of the world.

The network has prepared more than 200 features on a variety of subjects. And if its battery of crack newspeople, plus Zahn, are handling the interviews, they figure to score well.

Too often, even experienced sportscasters conduct dreary interviews, eliciting the latest cliches, and people brought in strictly for marquee value are all but a waste of time.

Katarina Witt, for instance. In one and the same sentence, the two-time gold medalist picked Kristi Yamaguchi and Midori Ito to win the women's figure skating. No doubt she would have picked Tonya Harding if she hadn't run out of breath.

Greg Gumbel and Harry Smith will handle the live-action shows daily (7-9 a.m.), James Brown will have a day's worth of news to report at noon (to 12:30) and Pat O'Brien will handle the late-night wrapup at 11:30 around the taped three-hour offering in prime time.

Prior to tomorrow's opening ceremonies (8-11 p.m.), the net will have a two-hour afternoon show beginning at 4 featuring a hockey game (Canada vs. France), practice ski jumping and the downhillers heating up the Val d'Isere plunge.

The event many, including all Europeans, consider the centerpiece of the Winter Olympics, the men's downhill, goes Sunday night after 9 a.m. to noon and 2-6 p.m. shows, the latter beginning with Team USA taking on Italy (coached by ex-Skipjack and Pittsburgh coach and Baltimore resident Gene Ubriaco).

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