CBS steps back, athletes step up, and the TV viewing is riveting

February 16, 1994|By Phil Jackman

The TV Repairman:

After a couple of days of non-stop commercials, endless attempts to humanize Dan Rather and just plain suspicious production, CBS hit its stride in Lillehammer last night.

Gone were the inane little features from the beer hall, the candy store and the newsstand downtown. Instead, the athletes moved front and center and their awesome performances were not lost on the network and thus the viewers.

Maneuvering and manipulating magnificently, CBS saw to it that the last 90 minutes of the pairs figure skating competition was as exciting and gripping as any athletic event has a right to be.

These guys, Eric Mann and Bob Matina, producer and director of the 3 1/2 -hour show, respectively, have to be direct descendants of Alfred Hitchcock the way they constructed the drama toward the suspense-laden climax.

What the effort proved is that the net now faces the enviable task of coming up with shows of approximate quality for the next 10 nights.

It's a well-known fact that figure skating is far and away the biggest ratings producer in the Winter Olympics and, with Tonya Harding adding her own special hype, the audience figured to be flocking to the tube for a glimpse of anyone on skates.

Add a field of a half-dozen of the greatest pairs teams of all time and CBS had no problem coming to the conclusion that it was in its best interests to yield to the performers.

Gone were the constant returns to the studio, where host Greg Gumbel would simply introduce a rack of commercials and promos.

Starting at 9:50, we saw a sparkling effort by American hopefuls Jenni Meno and Todd Sand, which gave way to a German duo, their closest competitors, suffering a chilling accident that saw the woman unable to continue. Talk about the drama building.

At every opportunity, Gumbel let us know exactly what was going on and how soon we would be back at the rink to see the battery of Russian teams and the world champion tandem from Canada start the tug-o-war for the medals.

The commercial breaks and the swift and interesting packages prepared to let us know what else had gone on throughout the day actually served as a welcome respite.

Ad breaks fell at about 10:30, 10:45 and 11 o'clock as the eventual medal-winning teams performed flawlessly. When is the last time we were treated to such sustained action in any event held under the auspices of something commanding huge rights fees?

In the end it was the performances, though. Even folks who don't see the ability and artistry for all the sequins and posturing had to be struck by the obvious perfection. And CBS did not deprive us of one second of the action, thankfully.

The announcers did their best to capture it, Verne Lundquist saying, "this has been an extraordinary night," Scott Hamilton adding, "this is the best pairs I've ever seen," and Tracy Wilson checking in with, "that was breathtaking." But, in the end, words almost seemed superfluous, so compelling were the pictures.

Actually, the first 90 minutes of the show weren't bad either, the network lucking out when American Diann Roffe-Steinrotter was an up set victor in the women's Super G. It took exactly one minute to set up the night's festivities before honing in on the ski story.

Roffe-Steinrotter was the first skier down the mountain, so it was a natural to play the whole event off her as she stood at the bottom of the mountain agonizing that her opening effort would hold up. In Super G, there are no practice runs, making Diann's performance all the more remarkable.

And CBS didn't miss a trick, up to and including Roffe-Steinrotter speaking by phone to her Dad back in the States and saying, "Yeah, I told you guys not to come [to the Games] and now it's my own damn fault."

With the lead stories it had, the network covered hockey, luge and freestyle skiing adequately and didn't even go overboard with pictures of Tonya Harding leaving the United States for her triumphant entrance into Lillehammer today.

One thing you have to give Tonya is she's the coolest of customers. While most mortals would probably be in a straitjacket by now after all she's gone through in the past month, Harding spotted the cameras recording her every step and good-naturedly held up a bag, saying, "Breakfast of champions, homemade cookies."

* Perhaps the greatest innovation in sports television history, at least as far as the fan is concerned, arrived yesterday on TNT.

Several times during the afternoon as Team USA was struggling to a 3-3 tie with Slovakia, the information "40 minutes until pairs skating" was flashed on the screen. And sure enough, the promise would be kept.

Think of how many times an announcer has looked you straight in the eye and said, "we'll be joining [or going back to] so-and-so in a minute," only for an hour or more to pass.

Go, ye, and do likewise, everyone.

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