CBS returns to big time with TV's 5-ring circus WINTER OLYMPICS

February 11, 1994|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,Sun Staff Writer

LILLEHAMMER, Norway -- This is what it's like to be down and out in the land of television sports:

No football.

No baseball.

And no John Madden.

But shed no tears for CBS, the network shunned by the NFL and major-league baseball.

The big eye has the big event of 1994, the Winter Olympics from Lillehammer, Norway.

For television, this is the greatest sports show on earth, 16 days ++ and 120 hours of glory, not to mention colossal Nielsen ratings in the midst of the February sweeps.

But for CBS, these Games take on added importance, as the network is out to prove it remains a player in the sports business.

"This is not the swan song of CBS Sports," said Rick Gentile, senior vice president of production. "We're very viable. We're down; we're not out. We're going to crawl our way back."

The loss of broadcast rights to NFL and major-league baseball games clearly was devastating to a network that gave pro football billions and fueled baseball's free-agent frenzy.

CBS still has college basketball's Final Four, the Daytona 500 and the Masters.

But it also has a gaping hole in its broadcast schedule.

And there are only so many rock-climbing events to go around for the dueling network sports anthology series.

"What goes around comes around," Gentile said. "Anyone who doesn't take us seriously is making an enormous mistake."

CBS still has the capacity to spend big bucks on big events. It paid $295 million for the rights to Lillehammer, some $42 million more than it paid to televise the 1992 Games in Albertville, France.

But the past fees look like a bargain when compared to the $375 million the network paid for the rights to the 1998 Winter Games of Nagano, Japan.

"Economically, this makes a lot of sense for us," said CBS Sports president Neal Pilson.

CBS doesn't plan to make money with the Olympics. It plans to pull in viewers.

In 1992, the network won the ratings race, 15 of 16 nights.

Even more important, the Winter Games were watched by more women than men.

What makes the numbers so astonishing is that in an age of instant communications, a European Olympics remains essentially a tape-delayed event.

You can watch the Russian Parliament blown up live on CNN, but you'll have to wait 16 hours after the men's downhill to see the race on CBS.

How in the name of the information highway can CBS manage to retain interest in a videotaped Games?

Simple.

This isn't a sporting event; it's a made-for-television miniseries.

"The goal remains the same: build a watchable movie every night and to tell stories," Gentile said. "We will be building towards the key story. The Bonnie Blair gold medal. The Nancy Kerrigan gold medal. That's not to say we throw away the first two hours of the broadcast."

But just as Ed Sullivan brought on Catskill comedians before he rolled out the Beatles, CBS will be panning to the cross country skiers before cutting to the figure skaters.

"Rhett Butler did not open up the movie by saying, 'Frankly my dear, I don't give a damn,' " Harrington said.

So what will America get during the 120 hours of CBS broadcast coverage?

First, the country gets one prime-time host. Fellow by the name of Gumbel. Greg Gumbel, that is.

Unlike his older brother, Bryant, who was ripped by critics for his aloof style in serving as host for NBC's 1988 Summer Olympic broadcast, Greg Gumbel is likely to be a hit.

And the fact that he's alone is important. When CBS paired Paula Zahn with Tim McCarver in 1992, they created the ultimate anchor problem:

Two mannequins for the price of one.

Greg Gumbel is personable. Opinionated. And he doesn't take himself or the event all that seriously.

Besides . . .

"I hate the cold weather," he said.

Good thing, because most of CBS' Winter Games coverage will take place indoors.

Figure skating is the prime event. Ten nights' worth, all leading up to the women's final, and the debut of national heroine Nancy Kerrigan.

"We'll ride figure skating like a surfer riding a wave," Harrington said.

There also will be three live hockey games involving the U.S. team, plus the gold-medal game broadcast live on the final Sunday.

The rest of the broadcasts will be driven by the news of the day and the personalities of the moment.

There will be plenty of skiing and speed skating.

And there even will be a few more minutes than usual of the cross country events, the hot-ticket item in Norway.

CBS also has stockpiled more than 100 features on athletes and issues ranging from a Maori skier from New Zealand to Brian Boitano to the World War II Heroes of Telemark.

And for those who need their Olympic fix morning, noon and night, the network is putting the Games on "CBS This Morning" for two weeks, and producing a wrap-up show to follow David Letterman.

For CBS, the only thing missing is the Maddencruiser.

But don't worry. The network is bringing the next best thing to Lillehammer.

A blimp.

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