NBC telecast restrictions hinder news coverage

Media Watch

July 28, 1996|By MILTON KENT

YESTERDAY'S bombing of the Centennial Olympic Park in Atlanta provided a textbook example of how the business of television can directly conflict with the gathering and dissemination of news, particularly in moments of crisis.

Although the Olympics are a worldwide spectacle, their American telecast rights belong exclusively to NBC at a cost of $456 million, and that fact dictated how the terrorist attack was to be covered.

Each of the other major news-gathering networks, ABC, CBS and CNN, has a sizable contingent of reporters and photographers to capture the Olympics, and each, along with NBC, did a creditable job in getting pertinent information out to viewers during the morning.

Before noon, CBS and CNN were particularly on the ball in reporting major developments ahead of the rest of the field.

CNN, whose headquarters is within walking distance of the park, was first to report the bombing at 1: 30 a.m., as sports reporter Mark McKay, who was crossing through the park to get to a spot for a scheduled stand-up report, told viewers that he had heard a "loud, concussive explosion" from the park, where a band was playing.

"I felt the shock go right through me, and I thought the band was finishing up its show. I realized it was more than pyrotechnics," McKay said yesterday.

Two hours later, the network aired footage of the explosion, which it obtained from a Belmont, Calif., tourist named Robert Gee, an electronics engineer, who had tried to give the tape to journalists on the street before going into the CNN Center to offer it to the network.

"It was the most professionally shot amateur video I've ever seen in 25 years," said Chris Kramer, a CNN executive.

"It couldn't have been better shot if it had been on a tripod. He kept his cool in the midst of a dreadful situation."

Jim Stewart, CBS' Justice Department correspondent, was the first to report that the explosive device was, in fact, in three pieces bound together in a knapsack with a plastic container filled with shrapnel.

But at noon, NBC's regularly scheduled Olympics telecast began, and the ability of other networks to cover the news was severely hindered by the restrictions placed on non-rights holders by the International Olympic Committee.

For example, other networks are prohibited from carrying cameras into competition sites.

That gave NBC a remarkable leg up on its competitors, but the network, which was the first definitively to call the device a bomb, sputtered, with a series of slight technical glitches in which the first words of some of its interview subjects were clipped.

And the network inexplicably stayed with live Games coverage while an FBI agent was holding a 1 p.m. news conference on the bombing, a briefing carried live by all its competitors.

Thirty-five minutes later, prime-time anchor Bob Costas capsulized the news conference in a minute-long burst, but that was much too little and far too late. Running and rowing should have taken a back seat.

NBC, which broke into its late-night Olympics coverage at 1: 40 a.m., with anchor Tom Brokaw staying on the air for 10 hours, also employed the questionable tactic of running a logo with its symbol, the peacock, above the Olympic rings throughout the morning, in much the same fashion that it would at the end of a major race, to ensure that viewers watching the highlight knew where the original telecast ran.

The effect, in this case, was to give the unsophisticated viewer the impression that he would have to stay with NBC's coverage to get official information, an impression the network's millions of dollars didn't entitle it to present.

And while CNN, ESPN Radio and other news outlets were reporting an evacuation at Atlanta's Underground, a shopping facility, last evening, Sara James of NBC News was delivering a syrupy-sweet report on how the mood of the participants and spectators had swung to defiance of the perpetrators.

Locally, the place to tune was Channel 2, even as its network, ABC, which bills itself as the network more people tune to for news, dumped out of coverage from 10: 30 a.m., when things were still fluid, until the 1 p.m. news briefing.

Channel 2 wisely switched to CNN, while Channels 11 and 13 were darting in and out of their networks to air the implosion at Lexington Terrace, similar to an event that had taken place months before, and which paled in comparison to the bombing in Atlanta.

Channel 13 also missed the first few words of President Clinton's briefing while its Saturday morning anchors were chatting about the Lexington implosion. Channel 45 stayed with its regular programming, severely hindered by the absence of a fully

functional Fox network news operation.

Pub Date: 7/28/96

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