NBC gets its Olympic picture right by focusing on coverage of events

ON MEDIA

August 27, 2004|By RAY FRAGER

THE OLYMPICS will flame out Sunday, and the Athens Games have been largely an artistic and ratings success for NBC.

Through Wednesday, NBC has averaged a 15.8 rating in prime time, up 9 percent from the comparable days in Sydney.

By packing more event coverage into each telecast at the expense of features - and doing it across six outlets (HDTV doesn't count, because it was replayed coverage and because I don't have a high-definition set) - NBC presented perhaps our most complete picture of the Games ever on American television.

This week, for example, NBC took up a huge chunk of the last hour of its prime-time Wednesday with uninterrupted diving and track.

Notable during the diving were comments of analyst Cynthia Potter. Her observations often seemed at odds with the scoring. If a former Olympic diver can't match what she sees with the numbers put up by judges, is it any wonder the Games feature more protests than a World Trade Organization site?

The judicious use of taped pieces featured short interviews with sprinter Shawn Crawford before the men's 200-meter semifinals and Allyson Felix before the women's 200 final.

Otherwise, it was lots of running and jumping. ...

Three of the five highest-rated Olympic nights on Baltimore's NBC affiliate, WBAL, came on nights featuring Michael Phelps. The No. 3 and No. 4 nights featured gymnastics and track. ...

Sometimes, knowing the result can drive you to the set. Well before prime time Tuesday, the news was out about the fabulous men's 1,500 meters, won by Morocco's Hicham El Guerrouj.

Though I'd already read an account of the race and El Guerrouj's emotional reaction to a long-awaited Olympic gold, I wanted to see him make that stretch run. It was every bit as thrilling as I expected. The pictures were the story. I couldn't tell you what any of the announcers said. ...

On the other hand, Israel's first gold medal ceremony felt flat on NBC, coming at the end of prime time. Reporters described a venue bursting with people singing Hatikvah, Israel's anthem, as wind surfer Gal Fridman received his medal. In this case, reading about it was better than seeing it. ...

If the network seemed to go a little heavy on women's beach volleyball, it was balanced by dressage on another channel. You know dressage; it rhymes with fromage, French for cheese, which may be apt for a competition featuring riders in top hat and tails.

Kickin' it

ESPN carries college football's opener tomorrow at 8 p.m., USC vs. Virginia Tech from FedEx Field in Landover. Tonight at 7, ESPN previews the season with its College GameDay crew, Chris Fowler, Lee Corso and Kirk Herbstreit.

Feeling Flushing

Wimbledon inspires reverence. The U.S. Open inspires combativeness. That seems to go for the announcers as well as the players, which can make USA Network's coverage of the tennis championship such a treat.

The U.S. Open's two-week run begins Monday, with daily telecasts at 11 a.m. and 7 p.m. Maybe you think you can skip the first week because it's a bunch of unknowns losing early-round matches to seeded players. But that's where the fun comes in.

Sometimes without a need to offer analysis of the play on the court - and sometimes with little knowledge of a player whose name and country are a mystery - commentator John McEnroe can be at his off-the-wall best. Unafraid to say just about anything about anybody, unconcerned about pretending to give each player his due, McEnroe can be more entertaining than the match.

Hey, maybe somebody ought to give this guy a talk show.

Live from Williamsport

ABC (channels 2 and 7) picks up the Little League World Series from ESPN tomorrow with the U.S. championship game (7:30 p.m.) and Sunday's world championship (6:30 p.m.). Covering the kids will be play-by-play man Brent Musburger (that guy down the street who will retrieve your ball, but insists on telling you a long, involved sports story before giving it back), analyst Harold Reynolds (the man who will hit you grounders and give you neat fielding tips) and reporter Sam Ryan (the coolest mom on the block). ...

Get your hockey now, before the NHL work stoppage. ESPN carries the World Cup of Hockey, running Monday through Sept. 14. The Philadelphia Flyers' Jeremy "The Greek" Roenick will be among the analysts.

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

Top-rated sports

Highest-rated sports programming for Baltimore from Aug. 18 through Aug. 24 (ratings measure the percentage of television households watching a program):

Program Day Ch. Rtg.

Olympics-a 8/19 11 21.3

Olympics-a 8/18 11 19.5

Olympics-a 8/23 11 16.2

Olympics-a 8/22 11 15.9

Olympics-a 8/21 11 14.9

Olympics-a 8/20 11 14.6

Olympics-a 8/24 11 14.4

Ravens-Eagles 8/20 13 12.7

Olympics-b 8/22 11 8.4

Olympics-b 8/21 11 7.7

a-prime time. b-afternoon Nielsen ratings courtesy of WBAL-TV.

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