ABC coverage fades badly at the finish Network too reassuring on Union City's health

May 16, 1993|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,TV Critic

The Baltimore Colts' Band playing "Maryland, My Maryland." Flags and pennants snapping in the breeze. The grandstand a confetti of festive color. Jim McKay's quickening cadences, as ground-level cameras show horses and jockeys heading to the gate. And everywhere green lawns, blue sky and sunshine.

ABC Sports can still capture the pageantry of special moments like no other TV operation going. And it did it again yesterday with its coverage of the Preakness from Pimlico Race Course.

But as for its nuts-and-bolts coverage -- the actual reporting and instant commentary -- of the race yesterday, it was a different story.

ABC Sports started out all right.

Unlike last year, when it focused all pre-race coverage on two horses and wound up mostly ignoring the ultimate winner, the net was cast wider this time. Viewers were given a good enough pre-race look at Prairie Bayou and jockey Mike Smith so that the horse's win should not have surprised anyone.

But things started going wrong with former jockey Steve Cauthen, now a reporter for ABC Sports. Part of the pre-race coverage included one of the more overproduced, unproductive and wooden interview sessions in recent memory. Cauthen interviewed Smith and jockey Jerry Bailey. But instead of asking questions, Cauthen kept making statements, which the two jockeys responded to throughout by saying, "That's right" or "Exactly." Note to Cauthen: Interviewing involves asking questions.

But Cauthen's ineffectiveness was small potatoes compared with ABC's coverage of Union City fracturing sesamoid bones. To its credit, ABC Sports certainly did not ignore the injury or try to sweep it aside and rush to the winner's circle, where all the energy, awards and high emotions were flowing. Viewers were shown the horse in its cast waiting to be taken from the track, and an interview was conducted with the jockey.

But virtually all of ABC's commentary consisted of assurances that everything was being done, had been done and would be done in the horse's best interest. In fact, Al Michaels told viewers that such an injury was "not life-threatening." But because of the injury, the animal had to be destroyed.

Outside of this serious lapse, ABC did good work. And anyone who watched the Preakness special anchored by Chris Lincoln earlier in the day on ESPN knows just how good.

ESPN failed to capture the pageantry that is Pimlico, focusing instead on facts, interviews and trivia in its coverage of preliminary races. Note to ESPN: If you don't have rights to the big race, but you do have rights to the big pageantry, why not give the viewers the feel of Pimlico on a gorgeous May afternoon when the azaleas are in bloom? And what's the name of the bureaucrat who does your graphics?

ABC was the place to be yesterday for those who did not have tickets to Pimlico -- until it stumbled in its coverage of Union City.

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