Japan TV shunned Tonya, won the gold in dullness

FOREIGN CLOSUP

March 01, 1994|By Thomas Easton | Thomas Easton,Tokyo Bureau of The Sun

TOKYO -- Appalled by the media's obsessive coverage of Tonya and Nancy? Think sports are being diminished by spectacle and commerce?

You should have been watching the games here in Japan.

Last week, speed skating on Monday came before speed skating on Tuesday, followed on Wednesday, well, you get the point.

When it wasn't speed skating, it was an endless procession of ski jumpers or, for a diversion, a 45-minute slush around the slopes with a cross country skier. These were the games where Japan had a competitor, and these were the sports on television.

What, one may ask, about the international character of the Olympics? What happened to the comeback efforts of Torvill and Dean, of Katarina Witt?

The questions leap out of the gate on their own. Isn't hockey part of the winter games? If the Jamaican bobsled team could make it to local movie theaters, how come it couldn't make it onto the small screen?

Television watchers in other, more technology-friendly countries could surmount some of these problems by changing the dial to a cable station packed with replays.

But in another of the many electronic ironies buzzing through Japan, dial freedom is not one of the rights provided to most Japanese. Hooking up to a cable system can cost more than $1,000, and is not widely available.

For most people, watching the Olympics meant tuning into Channel 1, NHK, the national public broadcasting arm, which is out to show how deadly dull responsible reportage can be.

Forget the agony of victory or the thrill of defeat or whatever slogan is in use this year in parts of the world that use slogans. If Ms. Harding's tears were ever on the air, the picture here disappeared before they hit the ice.

Activist television of the type that transforms even American football to a seamless mosaic of constant motion relies on selective editing. A race may begin with a close-up of the tense start, a quick cut to the straining competitors, and then, the finish and the crowd going wild.

NHK prefers to turn on the camera and let it roll. Skaters saunter out to the starting line, shake their legs, plant their feet, then saunter some more. After a few false starts, the race begins and goes and goes and goes until it is the viewer's turn to leave the room for a saunter.

In the United States, viewers feeling aggrieved typically phone their local station, so an inquiry was put into NHK about what calls it received.

A spokesman said 18,000 came in during the course of the Olympics, with the calls split into two camps -- those wanting to know the time of various events, and the rest complaining about technical terms like Axel and split.

Carping about television doesn't appear to have taken hold. Asked about his evaluation of NHK's coverage, Kazuhiro Nozawa, a critic at a major TV magazine, said he was delighted that NHK would pre-empt its usual nightly staple of travel documentaries and detective shows for the games.

"They made an effort. This time they were flexible," he said.

To get some anecdotal insights into how the real people of Japan felt, visits were made to several bars with televisions.

At Aki's, a neighborhood bar where regulars have their own whiskey bottles, owner Aki Tanaka said that when the set was tuned in to the games, there were watchers. When it wasn't, there weren't.

"The Olympics," he repeats once or twice, the games showing on the set behind him. "I never thought seriously about it."

At Cresson's nearby, many thousands of dollars had been invested in a state-of-the-art projector television. When the games began, they were shown on a 100-inch screen. But as they wound down, a 12-inch screen was used instead.

Typically, the ratings for the games were quite modest. Two successful efforts by competitors to retain audiences were films: "The Abyss" and, a staple on Japanese TV, the Audrey Hepburn-Cary Grant classic "Charade."

As a highlight of speed skating plays on the small screen, a waiter at Cresson's says: "My customers would rather watch movies."

For the sake of the Olympics, it would be convenient if the mood were to change abruptly. After all, the next games, in 1998, will be here.

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