Slow start, slower downhill makes CBS' '94 debut far from golden

February 14, 1994|By Phil Jackman

The TV Repairman:

Obviously, CBS does not subscribe to the theory of a strong opening act.

Pressed into providing additional hours of Winter Olympics coverage Saturday even before the opening ceremonies, the network stumbled and bumbled badly for want of interesting filler.

The cause of the dilemma was the cancellation of a basketball game here in the States. At the same time, there wasn't much going on in Lillehammer.

So, OK, if the net didn't want to go with meaningful segments out of a spirited hockey game between Finland and the Czech Republic, at least it could have made with a package reviewing the Games held in France just two years ago.

Action and competition, that's what viewers tuning in were perhaps expecting to see only to be disappointed with talking heads. But let's not be too hard on CBS; after all, they were caught by surprise and . . .

Forget any and all excuses. Yesterday was the first full day of competition with action on a half-dozen fronts, and the net was there with more than the necessary time to cover all bases, in excess of 10 hours.

The morning show, that hoped-for strong opening act, was nothing shy of a disaster. It was nearly unwatchable, bringing a fan's blood to a boil early and keeping it there for three hours.

Straight out of the box, the usually imperturbable Jim Nantz told us American AJ Kitt had won the downhill, drawing a look of surprise from his co-anchor Andrea Joyce. Oops, it was Tommy Moe. What was this, "Saturday Night Live"?

The rest of the morning and all afternoon (2:30 to 6 p.m.), we were reminded a hundred times that Moe's heroics would be shown during the prime time show at 8 p.m.

What a strange way to do business, telling you gleefully what has happened, but that you won't be seeing it. To its credit, the net came through with a terrific 45-minute package on the downhill, but it didn't get under way until 9:15.

Of course, constant reference was made to it as soon as the show started, lead host Greg Gumbel saying after a course feature at 8:34, "We'll have the Olympic downhill in just a minute."

Moe was the eighth skier out of the start house and, to that point, we had seen five of the first seven starters. Too often, American television will go with the Americans and the victor. This trip, we ended up seeing a dozen of 30 competitors, a welcome step away from the jingoism that invariably slips into the coverage.

But back to the morning show where, despite an excellent

hockey game between teams the U.S. will be battling to gain the second round, Sweden and Slovakia, the network cameras were trained on the hosts introducing commercial breaks that seemed to trail on for hours.

It was positively unique how so many goals were missed in a hockey game that ended 4-4 and also featured two more disallowed scores. Just two tallies were caught live as obviously CBS found it more important to go to downtown Lillehammer and have reporter James Brown ask a couple from California if they were having a good time.

Considering they're paying upward of $6,000 for this excursion, it's not likely they're going to admit to anything short of ecstasy.

In the midst of all the commercial breaks and promises of things we'd be seeing hours later, not now, was a clear, interesting report on the first gold medal of the Games. They gave the women's 15K cross country run seven minutes, and the men's 5K speed skating far less than that.

Yeah, but they promised us we'd see that later on, too, late in the afternoon. There was luge going on, too, but we saw little of that.

Ads, ads, ads, they were tumbling at us from all directions, the ultimate test of all patience occurring in the last half hour of the show.

It was nothing but commercials and promos from 11:30 to noon, the cutaways to the studio proving little more than further promotions. Joyce brought us up to date on the things we wouldn't be seeing. Nantz "set the menu for things you'll be seeing on the afternoon show."

Commercials numbered 17 in the last 28 minutes, network and local promotions, seven. Yes, it was late afternoon in Norway, but the athletes hadn't put away the skates, the skis and the sleds yet.

Fortunately, things picked up nicely in the afternoon, every minute of a tie game between the United States and France being shown. Besides the astute announcing team of Mike Emrick and John Davidson, there were the pictures being produced by the folks who do hockey best, the Canadians, and even lukewarm fans had to enjoy it . . . if only because we weren't constantly being switched back to the studio for more FTC strained and worthless chit-chat.

Davidson was particularly good with his explanations about why the superior Americans had to rally to tie, how the U.S. power play was backfiring and what in the style of the Frenchmen was so troublesome to the United States.

The big guns in prime time, the downhill and the technical program in pairs skating, were done well, with the proper time allotted.

CBS, reviewing its effort in the 1992 Games, said it would provide much more action this time and, clearly, it's time to put up.

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