CBS cuts up viewing feast into many small portions

PHIL JACKMAN

February 12, 1992|By Phil Jackman

There are a couple of theories as to how CBS should be formatting these nightly three-hour romps on the ice and snow of southeastern France in the Winter Olympics.

First off, it should be pointed out that when prime time arrives on the East Coast, everyone in the Alps is in bed, save for those walking with the CBS swastika on their clothing.

The absence of events to cover live dictates that the programs be taped. And it's the sworn duty of the network to make sure viewers stick around so that the ratings hold up from 8 to 11 p.m., and thus the commercial rates for advertisers, too.

OK, now last night the schedule included the freestyle final of the pairs in figure skating, the first half of the women's luge competition, the conclusion of the Alpine combined event and a report on the 2-0 Team USA hockey squad.

Not exactly the conference championship games of the NFL playoffs, or the semifinals of the Final Four, know what I mean?

Immediately, CBS went to the figure skating, showing a couple of performances, including an American duo, before cutting away. It's called a tease, whetting your appetite for more.

At the same time, a vast majority of the audience doesn't want more that instant because, face it, after a couple of side-by-side double Axels, all pairs' programs look pretty much the same.

Besides, there are viewers who prefer skiing to skating, and vice versa, and there were medals up for grabs at the demolition derby in Val d'Isere.

Taped action at the Alpine combined is hardly what you'd call uplifting what with all the crashes and complaining about the conditions.

"I can't understand how organizers make such a bad course for us," moaned Swiss star Paul Accola, saving some U.S. skier from saying the same thing and drawing the "Ugly American" tag.

After a half-hour outdoors, it was time to return to the nice warm skating arena and, of course, the obligatory nightly chat with the 31-year-old waitress and the 26-year-old truck driver.

If ever a couple looked about to take part in a five-car pileup on the freeway, it was Calla and Rocky. Another five minutes of pairs skating and the net was through the first hour with nine (count 'em) breaks for commercials.

Time to check on what took place over at the hockey rink during the afternoon and the report of Team USA's 2-0 victory over Germany was fast and exciting, the tape editor catching all the important stuff. The piece was accompanied by the inspirational music from the movie "Hoosiers," which should serve as the team's theme from now on.

Before heading back to the Olympic dwarf-throwing, Philadelphia columnist Bill Conlin's name for pairs skating, luge had to be covered.

Good news from La Plagne, where Americans Cammy Myler and Erica Terwilligar stood 6-7 at the midpoint of four runs. Problem is, those women from Eastern Europe rarely falter, they are so technically proficient.

The skating then took the audience well into the 10-11 hour and, once again, aware of our tolerance levels, CBS had achieved its hoped-for ratings.

Granted, we might not fancy a baseball game being covered three innings at a time with lengthy breaks for a soap opera or the local news, but when it comes to the Winter Olympics this is the way things will always be done.

* The pictures aren't very good, which hurts considerably since it is a visual medium, but the coverage of Team USA hockey has been excellent because of the excellent commentary. When's the last time such a statement could be made during a Winter Olympics, where, generally, the ex-athlete analysts lack sufficient communication skills and the play-by-play people lack true expertise?

Not only did NHL stalwarts Jiggs McDonald and Bill Clement add enjoyment and insight to the U.S. victory over Germany yesterday (live on TNT), back in the studio 1988 Olympian Lane McDonald had some worthwhile things to say.

For instance, McDonald told co-host Fred Hickman, "Individually, this team is not as good as the [disappointing] '88 squad, because it had guys who went on to star in the NHL [Brian Leetch, Tony Granato, Mike Richter, Chris Terreri, Corey Millen, etc.]. But this team has four solid skating lines and a hot goalie in Ray LeBlanc, definite pluses."

TNT is paying CBS $20 million for the rights to 45 hours of afternoon air time these two weeks. Although it might sound excessive, the cable says it's happy since it plans on showing as much action as it can, letting the network provide hour upon hour of talking heads.

After the Calgary Games and the world feed for hockey as provided by the Canadian Broadcasting Co., almost any camera work would pale by comparison. But the French and CBS pictures are consistently of 1970s quality, because it's difficult to follow the puck, there are few replays, the cameras make dizzying jumps hither and yon and the director is not good at anticipating plays.

* THUMBS UP: The "Skating Mothers" feature as done by Charles Kuralt (who else?).

* THUMBS DOWN: Tim McCarver's favorite ad lib: "Uh-huh." . . . The question put to Italian gold medalist Josef Polig: "How do you feel?" . . . The new buzzword in Albertville (used to cover all disappointments): "It's a learning experience." . . . A day without Katarina Witt was like a day without sunshine.

* TODAY'S TIP: Miss American Pie Bonnie Blair goes to war in the 1,500 meters, but don't be disappointed if she doesn't make the top three. She's a sprinter who's just working her way up to the mile.

The United States has a good shot at a second gold with world champion Donna Weinbrecht starting her two-day march in the moguls of freestyle skiing.

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