If no Phelps, NBC would have pooled resources

ON MEDIA

August 20, 2004|By RAY FRAGER

IF NBC DIDN'T have Michael Phelps, the network would have had to invent him.

Think about it a moment: Who would have been the big star of the Olympics, featured in promos and those "teases"? ("Up next, Michael Phelps swims in a key preliminary race and tries to keep his swimsuit from falling down.")

Perhaps another American swimmer -- and, of course, it must be an American -- say, the photogenic Natalie Coughlin? Maybe, but was her medal haul going to be big enough? The U.S. men's basketball team? The younger demographic might have been cool with that, but LeBron James' star power doesn't mean much if the team can't beat Puerto Rico. The teen girls of U.S. gymnastics? A likely choice.

The point is, it needs to be somebody. Whether Marion Jones, Michael Johnson, Carl Lewis or Matt Biondi, we need stars to draw us to the Games. Once we're parked in front of the television, other compelling stories may emerge to keep us there.

And Phelps has been the vessel thus far, but he's done swimming tomorrow. Let's see what next week brings.

Olympic observatory

Notice what you're seeing when you watch the Olympics? You're seeing the Olympics.

The trend away from disease-of-the-week features on athletes overcoming adversity has been a welcome one, and NBC's coverage gives us hours filled with what Alicia Bridges once called "ack-shown." (You remember Bridges; she loved the night life, she wanted to boogie.) Complain if you must about not enough live coverage -- though there is plenty for those with cable access from early morning to late afternoon -- but no griping allowed about a lack of actual events on NBC.

The Summer Olympics only come around every four years, so let the commentators yell.

Whether it's Rowdy Gaines at swimming or Tim Daggett at gymnastics, enthusiasm plays well during the Games. This isn't Dick Vitale blowing out your speakers over a fast-break dunk in one of a never-ending stream of college basketball games. Chances are, you won't watch more than a few minutes of these sports again until 2008.

Speaking of sports we don't see, team handball is worth a glance or two. It's a bit like lacrosse without sticks and water polo without water. And given the way players can take several steps after a single dribble, it looks kind of like the NBA.

Along the lines of the yellow first-down line for football, swimming has the fabulous world-record marker. During the American women's 800-meter freestyle relay swim Wednesday night, NBC superimposed a line across the pool to show Kaitlin Sandeno's position in relation to world-record pace on the final leg. A gold medal to whomever came up with this device.

Al Trautwig has long been a welcome presence on any sport he does. He's the professional complement to Daggett and Elfi Schlegel on gymnastics. And if we didn't know better, his remarks during the first rotation of the men's all-around Wednesday could have been taped after the event. How prescient was this? "We're talking about a championship that can be decided by hundredths," he said. Paul Hamm won the gold by 0.012.

We should be accustomed to the ubiquitous network logo on screen by now, but when it's combined with a local station's ID, the effect reaches the annoyance level of pop-ups on your computer. During the medal ceremony for the women's 800 relay swimmers, the NBC and Channel 11 logos covered Sandeno's face.

Non-Olympic zone

Digital cable customers of Comcast should see the NFL Network in their channel lineup. An NFL Network spokesman said it hopes soon to have a deal that will put the channel on Adelphia systems. Rich Eisen, welcome back. ... The team from Preston, Md., will be on ESPN2 at noon Saturday and at 8 p.m. Sunday and on ESPN at 3 p.m. Tuesday in first-round coverage of the Little League World Series.

Contact Ray Frager at ray. frager@baltsun.com.

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