NBC can make a good thing better by sticking with the action

The TV Repairman:

July 27, 1992|By Phil Jackman

Last Friday night's preview of the Olympics on NBC was exceptional. It was tight with a battery of features and profiles designed to interest the historian, the sports fanatic, the romantic and the interested citizen of the world. Better yet, it had flow as commercial breaks arrived at acceptable intervals.

The Opening Ceremonies a day later were magnifico as the pictures did the obvious joy of the moment justice and the accompanying words added to the enjoyment.

After months of anticipation and promise, the competition was finally at hand yesterday, spread over more than 12 hours from noon to early this morning, and, clearly, NBC was off to a rip-roaring start.

Oh, there were some aspects of the presentation that gnawed at viewers; still, all things considered, prospects appear excellent for this proving a mini-series to rival "Roots." However, there are areas that need touching up. A good place to start would be with seemingly flawless anchor Bob Costas.

As good as the man is no matter what the assignment, Costas, perhaps inadvertently, set the tone for the first hour of last night's prime-time telecast when he showed up with a face equaling the length of the world-record long jump by Mike Powell in Tokyo last year.

After the preliminaries had been shown during the afternoon, the United States held high hopes for a gold medal in the women's 100-meter freestyle final with record-holder Jenny Thompson obviously at the top of her game.

It wasn't to be for the New Hampshire native, though, and despite a silver medal, Thompson was quickly made to feel as if she had fanned with the bases loaded to end the ballgame. While the host went pale and spoke of the "disappointment," analyst Mike O'Brien made things worse with his soon-to-be-patented inane non-questions.

Jingoism, Bobby, is inevitable, but to be up and waving the flag so soon over a race lost by two-tenths of a second could lead to a nervous breakdown by midweek.

Fortunately, Nelson Diebel, in a mild upset, won the men's 100-meter breaststroke and Costas soon was back to his usual objective self.

Two more swimming finals interlaced with ever-popular women's gymnastics, a gripping package covering the women's 50-mile road race and the ladies diving off the 10-meter platform made for a diverse and interesting evening.

The same can hardly be said for the six-hour hodge podge constituting the afternoon fare. Granted, much that goes on has to be held in abeyance for taped presentation tothe prime-time audience since Balcelona is six hours ahead of Eastern Daylight Time. The problem becomes worse when too much of the preliminary action gives way to predictable profiles and endless announcer chit-chat.

For instance, instead of showing swimming heats and/or preliminary boxing matches, the net jumped hither and yon letting us know over and over what was coming up . . . after this break for commercial.

Here's a typical hour during the afternoon: Two 400-meter individual medley heats, five dives, two rounds of boxing, a travelogue, an endless yarn about the arrow lighting the Olympic torch, commercials totaling 14 minutes, interviews with competitors and commentators and the Dream Team boarding a bus (no one was injured). All of it taped when there was live action going on on the shores of the Mediterranean.

At the end of an hour and with a controversial stoppage of a fight over at the boxing venue begging for further explanation, we were gently lifted over to the basketball venue for nearly a half-hour of chewing the fat preparatory to the Dream Team doing its expected number on Angola.

First there was a music video, then a 10-minute recap of the U.S. team's failure at the 1988 Olympics in Seoul with coach John Thompson taking virtually no responsibility for the setback. And how could any pre-game show be complete without a word from Charles Barkley. "They in serious trouble," Sir Charles said of Angola and we all felt better.

When Bryant Gumbel of the "Today Show" hosted NBC's prime time telecast of the '88 Olympics, it took him but three days to be known as "the smirking American" throughout the Orient. Something similar could occur again if NBC continues to go bonkers over a shellacking like the Dream Team administered yesterday on the evening news and Costas gets too cutesy with his sarcastic references to the U.S. team going on a 46-1 run against far inferior competition.

Bad enough this galaxy of stars is forced to run up huge victory margins almost by default -- of course, they could run some time off the clock, couldn't they? -- to rub it in verbally afterward doesn't appear to be propogating the Olympic spirit now, does it?

Perhaps Angolans, huddled around their TV sets at home, felt a little better later when Costas became distraught over Jenny Thompson's slight slip later on.

While the somewhat repetitious compulsory exercises of the team competition in women's gymnastics was accorded too much time, it did serve to familiarize us with the pixies who now move toward the spectacular stuff.

The best "up close and personal" was on Svetlana Boguinskaya of the Unified Team, but no doubt the most insightful was one on Betty Okino. We quickly learned why the youngster doesn't get the usual bear hug from Bela Karolyi, even though the coach has been known to hug a pommel horse if he thinks it will get him on camera.

It proved ironic that on the same day Miguel Indurain was winning his second straight Tour de France in a race that lost all drama over the last several days, the women's 50-miler would provide such excitement and pathos. And, if anything, NBC heightened the drama.

What the net does once competition is under way is often memorable. Here's hoping it does more of it as the Games rage on.

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