Historians and those who measure time may quibble over whether the just-concluded Winter Olympics are the last Games of the millennium, but, from a television standpoint, the event is about to enter a new era.
That's because, starting with the Summer Games of 2000 in Sydney, Australia, NBC will take over telecast control of the Olympics -- winter and summer -- through 2008. And right off the bat, NBC executives will be confronted with the decision of whether, in the wake of CBS' diminished ratings return for the just-completed Nagano Games, to shake up the tried and true formula of presenting the Olympics to an American television audience.
For more than 30 years, since legendary former ABC Sports president Roone Arledge invented the "up close and personal" form of sports coverage, the Olympics have been telecast in the United States not so much like the Super Bowl, but as an ongoing drama, a miniseries of sorts.
The coverage model, filled with lots of features and profiles of participants, has been designed to get viewers in general and women in particular to care about the athletes, as if they were characters.
"I don't think it [the coverage plan] has changed that much. If you have the right balance and amount of material that tells stories about athletes and have events that take place when they're supposed to take place, you can do a good job of attracting an audience, especially in a Winter Olympics where people don't know the athletes as well as in the Summer Games," said Mike Pearl, Turner Sports executive producer, who was involved in three Olympics at ABC and was coordinating producer for CBS' Winter Games coverage in 1992 and 1994.
In the one instance when a network covered the Games more as sport than as drama, namely NBC's presentation of the 1988 Summer Olympics from Seoul, South Korea, the network was heavily criticized and viewers tuned out in large numbers.
Those ratings had a predictably chilling effect on executives and producers from both CBS and NBC -- many of whom, like Pearl, learned at Arledge's knee -- who have subsequently tailored their coverage to fill the supposed American desire to get more than just a cold, hard sports show.
But some suggest that the tinkering and tailoring of coverage, driven mostly by audience research studies, have taken away some of the soul of the Games.
"All too often these days, the Olympic viewer tunes in knowing that he's going to get predominantly a gymnastics or figure skating show," said Jim Lampley, who has covered nine Olympics, including the Nagano Games, which he anchored for TNT.
CBS, which seemed to follow the Arledge formula in Nagano, saw its ratings slide from the two previous Winter Olympics, posting a 16.2 rating and 26 share.
That could be seen, in some quarters, as a signal that the public is perhaps getting restless with Olympics coverage as usual, though, to be certain, there were other factors for some of the public's discomfiture.
One of them -- the 14-hour time difference between Nagano and the East Coast -- will dog NBC in Sydney, which is 15 hours ahead of Baltimore. That means almost all of the network's Summer Games' coverage will be on tape, and that most people will have access to results before they watch the telecasts, which may have a deleterious effect on NBC's ratings, though the network will shift some events to its cable outlets.
Also, unlike the Atlanta Games of 1996, which took place in July, away from major counter-programming, the Sydney Olympics are scheduled for mid-September, which is in the heart of the new fall television season. It is difficult to imagine ABC, CBS and Fox taking two to three weeks off at such an important time on the television calendar to let NBC have the spotlight alone.
Those factors, and the billions of dollars American television networks are committing for broadcast rights, with the spoken or implied influence they bring, may make it difficult for a Southern or Eastern Hemisphere city to play host to an Olympics in the near future, say 2006 or 2008.
Meanwhile, don't expect the Winter Olympics of 2002 in Salt Lake City to be live in prime time, or at least not most of them. The outdoor activities, like skiing, luge and bobsled, will take place during daylight hours, by necessity.
And if Atlanta is any gauge, where the gymnastics competitions were all taped, the figure skating in Salt Lake City will probably end up that way, too.
New millennium, same television.
Gold medalist Tara Lipinski and silver medalist Michelle Kwan lead a field of Olympic stars in the Campbell's Soups Champions on Ice Tour that begins in Baltimore on April 8.
Tickets went on sale yesterday for the 7: 30 p.m. event at the Baltimore Arena. In addition to Lipinski and Kwan, performers include all of the Olympic medalists in the men's event -- Ilia Kulik, Elvis Stojko and Philippe Candeloro -- as well as Americans Todd Eldredge and Michael Weiss.
Nicole Bobek, Surya Bonaly and 1994 Olympic champion Oksana Baiul are also scheduled, along with all of the 1998 Olympic medalists in pairs and ice dancing.
Tickets are available at the Baltimore Arena box office and at all Ticketmaster locations, including Hecht's stores. To charge tickets by phone, call 410-481-SEAT. For accessible seating information, call 410-727-7811.
Pub Date: 2/24/98