Inundated by Phelps updates, you might want to practice your flip turn


Athens 2004

August 13, 2004|By RAY FRAGER

IF YOU REALLY want to live the suspenseful television experience of following Michael Phelps' quest for seven or eight gold medals at the Athens Olympics, you'll have to work at it.

Filter out the news and sports Web sites from your computer. Avoid local newscasts. Avoid network newscasts. Avoid cable news and sports channels that feature "crawls" across the bottom of the screen.

Avoid radio. Make like a Preakness horse and wear blinders. Cover your ears and yell, "La la la la, I can't hear you," whenever anyone approaches.

Want to be safe? Just watch NBC (WBAL/Channel 11, WRC/Channel 4) during Olympic programming. That way, you're guaranteed not to find out the results of his races until the network is good and ready to show them to you.

Phelps doesn't just belong to Baltimore; he belongs to the world - and NBC. His pursuit of Spitzian heights is the story of the Olympics. So, here are your choices, Mr. Armchair Network Executive:

You air his races live, before a truncated audience in the afternoon, pointing out your journalistic virtue when the chairman of the board smacks you on the back of your head and asks, "For this we paid $793 million?"

You make everyone wait until prime time, building the tension, building an audience, building network revenue and then building a nice beach house in the Hamptons.

The time difference between the East Coast and Athens is seven hours. Remember Sydney in 2000? That was a whopping 15 hours ahead.

Phelps' races will be over by early afternoon here, six-plus hours before NBC's prime-time telecasts each evening. And don't rush home, Bunky; we're guessing none of his finals will air at exactly 8 o'clock.

Calling the races at whatever time they get on will be Dan Hicks and Rowdy Gaines.

Gaines, a former Olympic swimmer, said he doesn't expect Phelps to match Mark Spitz's seven golds of 1972.

"I have him down for five gold, two silver and one bronze," Gaines said from Athens earlier this week.

"He's got three major catastrophes waiting for him," he said, referring to the star-studded 200-meter freestyle, the 100 butterfly (Phelps was second to Ian Crocker at the U.S. trials) and the 800 freestyle relay.

"[The relay] might be the biggest battle, because three-quarters of it is out of his hands," Gaines said.

Gaines won't deny a rooting interest.

"I'm not supposed to be a cheerleader, but if Michael were from Timbuktu, I'd be pulling for him," he said. "It will help the sport tremendously."

Gaines also acknowledges being part of the hype machine that would consider "only" four golds a failure.

"Absolutely, it's a shame," Gaines said. "I'm part of it, too. It's what we do with these athletes when they don't meet expectations."

But go easy on Phelps, Gaines said. "He really is just a kid. You got to give him some slack."


WBAL-TV has equipped Phelps' mother, Debbie, with a DVD recorder in hopes of capturing what station president and general manager Bill Fine called "behind-the-scenes family home video" from Athens.

The plan calls for Debbie Phelps to hand off a DVD to WBAL's reporter at the Games, Noel Tucker, who then would feed the footage to Baltimore via satellite.

Olympic overview

NBC will televise 1,210 hours of Olympic programming on seven outlets - NBC, MSNBC, CNBC, Bravo, USA Network, Telemundo and HDTV.

A good deal of live coverage is planned, though the greatest part of it is on the cable channels, not NBC.

You can literally watch Olympic television 24 hours a day by going from channel to channel. That might be made easier by going heavy on the women's beach volleyball.

Bob Costas, who never wears out his welcome, returns as prime-time host, joined by the Today show's Katie Couric.

As far as we know, Bravo's coverage won't include James Lipton asking teen gymnast Courtney Kupets for her favorite curse word.

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