Oh, say can you see Olympic baseball on TV?

August 14, 1996|By John B. Holway

I STILL DON'T understand why I was not allowed to see the Olympic baseball finals and semifinals on TV.

NBC made the decision to give me more rhythmic gymnastics and synchronized swimming and only a smidgen of baseball.

That's because NBC bought the news, which means it bought the power to censor the news.

By what legal or constitutional right can anyone buy or sell news?

What is the next step? Will Olympic news coverage be sold to USA Today and leave The Sun with nothing but a listing of medal winners and their times?

Will the Republicans and Democrats sell their conventions to CBS? Will the FAA sell crash investigations to Turner Broadcasting? Will Los Angeles sell its next sensational trial to CNN? Will each state sell its election-night returns to the highest bidders?

Those would be obvious violations of the First Amendment. So is the practice of selling the Olympics -- or the World Series, or the Super Bowl.

Human cannonball

Yet the Supreme Court did exactly that in a curious case involving a human cannonball. This carnival performer sued a TV news program that had telecast his act without his permission, and the highest court upheld him.

Surely the court knows the difference between a carnival act and Kerri Strug's winning final vault in the women's gymnastics.

A guy getting shot out of a cannon is not news. He gets shot out twice a day, 360 days a year. And 720 straight times he lands in the net. He's an entertainer, a sideshow performer. Nobody even knows who he is, or cares.

Sports is entertainment, too, of course. But it's also news. You'll notice that The Sun played the Olympics on top of Page One, not among its movie reviews.

Movies follow a script. Arnold Schwarzenegger's latest flick is always going to end exactly the same way every time it is shown on the screen.

But when Carl Lewis tries to qualify for the long jump on his last leap, or Charlie Austin sets the bar at a new Olympic record height, whatever happens next is news.

When the Fox Network signed a multi-hecatomb-dollar deal to televise NFL games, the contract was signed by the network's news division, not its sitcom programming department.

The ultimate in censorship came when NBC's Washington outlet, WRC-TV, could not televise even excerpts from the Olympic soccer game played in Washington because the parent network would not permit it.

Generally, I agree that what NBC did show me was good. But I would love to have seen more softball. I wish I could have seen the Nigerians win the soccer gold.

And next October, I want to be able to tune in to any baseball playoff game I want. Last year the networks wouldn't let me. Because they had bought a news monopoly, they even cut games off in the middle of an inning.

So here's my plan:

Some TV news outfit with guts mounts a legal challenge to the present unconstitutional practice of selling sports news, which also means censoring the news.

What will that do to Olympic finances?

Bring them down to earth. Or give more importance to commercial sponsors.

What will it do U.S. professional baseball, football, basketball, etc.?

It will take about three zeros off every team's profit statement. But the teams will merely take two zeros off every superstar's pay check, which won't be such a bad thing. Not many decades ago superstars played for $25,000 or $100,000 a year, and were happy to get it. Now the extra zeros just go to alimony or sports cars, neither of which brings any real additional happiness to the athlete.

By removing TV revenue from profits, baseball will also take a giant stride toward revenue sharing. The Yankees' $54 million TV deal won't overwhelm Montreal's $12 million deal. The result will be better, more exciting competition.

While the courts mull over that, I have an interim plan: parcel out the news and sell parts of it to competing TV networks.

For example, track and field is one package, swimming and diving another, gymnastics a third, baseball and softball a fourth, basketball and volleyball a fifth, and so on.

That way I can do my own selecting, instead of letting an NBC editor do it. I can tune in the Japan-U.S. semifinal baseball game, if I wish.

And what is the legal status of putting the Olympics on line in cyberspace? Why can't I surf various World Wide Web sites to select the sport I want to watch?

I do that now with print journalism. I can buy any paper in the country and follow my favorite team. I can browse through the thick sports sections to get details of the stories I'm interested in. Every paper in the country would violently dispute any court that tried to take that right from me.

The Constitution gives me that same right when I turn on my TV set. But NBC does not allow me to exercise it.

John B. Holway is the author of numerous books on baseball.

Pub Date: 8/14/96

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