The TV Repairman: The great experiment of our time, right up there next to splitting the atom if you listen to the television people, is the TripleCast, 540 hours of Olympic action on three commercial-free cable channels. It's great, they say, because its success or failure will provide us with strong indication of the effect and influence of pay-per-view TV in the near future.
Rest easy, gang, no need to rush out and get a second or third job to support your sports habit, no matter how advanced the addiction. If this is PPV's litmus test, over-the-air TV is reasonably safe for a while.
Originally, NBC figured that despite the 161 hours it would be sending along, there would be at least a million folks out there clamoring for a view of every single moment that transpires at the Games from the time U.S. athletes climb off the plane at the Barcelona Airport.
One network spokesman went so far as to predict that TripleCast would not only pull in three-quarters of NBC's payout of $400 million in rights fees, it would exceed it. He didn't even flinch when it was pointed out 2.7 million households would have to sign up to make this a reality.
Lately, the network and cable people have been saying 200,000 sign-ups would be great. Unconfirmed estimates this week set the sign-up figure at about 10,000. When you think about it, this shockingly low number is understandable, even as it jumps up two or threefold as the opening of the XXV Olympiad July 25 approaches.
For starters, it is estimated that each of the packages subscribers can choose -- $125 for all 15 days, $95 for the first week or all three weekends or $30 for a single day -- are overpriced by at least double.
Then, too, it's great having all that preliminary round and heat action at one's disposal with nary a commercial or constantly-yammering commentators to distract. But, remember, here we are subjecting the viewer to constant choices as the Red, White and Blue Channels telecast simultaneously live from 5 a.m. to 5 p.m., then tape 5 p.m. to 5 a.m.
Making matters worse, all the action the cable stations send along, be it live or on replay, will be in direct competition to the taped shows NBC is running in the morning, during mid-afternoon and in prime time.
Bad enough that it's 1 o'clock in the morning and everyone is asleep in Spain when prime time (8-11 p.m.) arrives on the East Coast of the United States, don't forget that in summertime audiences are well under half what they are in the winter. And that plethora of ballgames we get on commercial channels, superstations and local cable aren't about to cease and desist.
The idea of fans of off-the-beaten-path sports such as fencing, pentathlon, volleyball and equestrian queuing up to support their passion seemed to have some merit at the beginning. But the plain fact is, at the price quoted, the ardor suddenly takes a dramatic dip.
Also, no matter how big a fan of basketball, boxing or tennis one is, those 92-27 "contests," one-sided bouts between fighters from Thailand and Netherlands Antilles and 6-0, 6-0 results wear very thin very fast.
In addition to the $400 million rights fee NBC paid the International Olympic Committee, the network and its cable partner are absorbing production costs estimated at $150 million. It hoped the TripleCast would help cover these costs and cut down on losses, not become a huge loser in its own right.
Another potential problem stems from the fact that while selling out about 90 percent of its commercial time NBC has had to guarantee such-and-such a rating. With TripleCast and usual summertime activities working against achieving the guaranteed rating, the network has to make good with advertisers and/or increase the number of ads during telecasts.
The thought of host Bob Costas spending four hours each night introducing commercials could prompt a viewer to go for the cable package as a defense mechanism. Too many do it and it starts to show up in the rating and audience share NBC achieves. Talk about a Catch 22.
* HBO has the Riddick Bowe (30-0) vs. Pierre Coetzer (38-2) bout from Las Vegas tomorrow (10 p.m.) and the larger significance of this meeting is the victor gets a title shot against Evander Holyfield in the fall. Good prelim: Pernell Whitaker (28-1), lightweight champ going for junior welterweight crown of Rafael Pineda (26-1).
* On its best day, Muirfield, the site of the British Open, looks like a huge abandoned cow pasture. Then, when the North Sea becomes angry, it takes on the appearance of a wind-swept swamp. Yet, for four days on ESPN (today 9 a.m.) and ABC (tomorrow 10 a.m., Sunday 9:30 a.m.) commentators will wax poetic about the majesty of the layout, the tournament and so on. Seriously, can anyone imagine an alternative use for any of those fabled links courses in the merry, old British Isles?