washingtonpost.com  > Columns > Tom Shales

On NBC, The Soaring And the Silly

By Tom Shales
Saturday, August 14, 2004; Page C01

Thank heaven there were no serious unforeseen incidents, thank heaven the program went off smoothly, and thank heaven it's over.

The opening ceremonies of the 2004 Olympic Games, aired via tape-delay from Athens on NBC last night, had the requisite amounts of Greek pride, luminous pageantry and demonstrations of global-village camaraderie -- and more than the requisite amount of formalized, ritualized tedium.

The Opening Ceremonies included a performance by Icelandic singer Bjork, above, and an airborne artist evoking ancient Greece. (Mark Baker -- AP)

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"Thank God for the commercials," said a talented and usually patient young woman who was among those I watched the show with. The ads were indeed sometimes dazzling and scenic and star-studded. And the first 30 or 40 minutes of the Opening Ceremonies were soaringly imaginative, too, beautifully captured by NBC cameras. Viewers who were able to see it in HDTV must have enjoyed it much more than those stuck with an old 19-inch clunker.

The spectacle cried out for the display of a really large screen -- larger probably than even the biggest of the relatively new "home theater" high-tech sets. On the other hand, hosts Katie Couric of the "Today" show and Bob Costas, who has his own sports series on HBO, didn't take up much space at all -- if, that is, we're talking about space in the brains of viewers. Their largely canned banter got laboriously goofy at times.

"Our thoughts are with those in Florida who have to deal with Hurricane Charley," Couric said inappropriately at the outset. It's really not the role of an anchor to be sending out get-well greeting cards to people who probably, at such a moment, are not watching her anyway.

Costas can easily be more inane than Couric at her inaniest. His commentary was riddled with remarks either facetious or fatuous; you couldn't always tell which. "The very quotable Archimedes . . . was an excitable guy," Costas said as if talking about another of his chumpy sports chums. "But we must make allowances for genius, I guess." The stadium grounds were populated with strikingly executed human statues, which inspired Costas to recite the plot of "Oedipus Rex" -- how he murdered his father and married his mother, with Costas adding that this was "a sequence of events that seldom turns out well."

Wry and amusing? Or a flailing attempt at cheap comedy? Soon after Costas was saying how fortunate that Alexander the Great earned the historical nickname he had, since who would want to be known as "Alexander the So-So"? Costas, like all of us, has bad days, and this was one of them. To call him "Costas the So-So" under these circumstances would be too, too kind. Costas was inspired to crank down the hype once the whole shebang was finally concluded, however, and the audience seemed to be breathing a sigh of relief rather than an ovation of acclaim. Costas called the pageant "very well-conceived and satisfying."

Thus did the first Summer Olympic Games of the Terrorist Era get off to a timid and hesitant beginning. Perhaps the extreme security measures stifled creativity and a spirit of adventure -- though one part of the show, a man navigating his way around a suspended giant cube, was enthrallingly worthy of oohs and ahhhs.

Those commercials, meanwhile, were the cream of the crop for the most part, with premium sponsors shelling out premium prices to be seen on Olympic telecasts. HDTV helps those look better, too (Lance Armstrong is honing his career as a shill with relatively new spots for Coke's Dasani drinking water, which comes out of a tap and not out of a spring, by the way). But there were at least five times too many of them. Taping the ceremonies gave NBC the ability to edit in as many spots as the network wanted and still not miss the action, such as it was, on the field.

Once Couric and Costas shut up and put aside all the notes about Greece that NBC Sports researchers had assembled for them, the pageant had other inspired touches besides Cube Man. The huge stadium seemingly turned into a large man-made lake for costumed performers to skate on. A 9-year-old boy had the thrill of gliding around on the pond in what looked like a giant paper hat. It eventually broke into several pieces that were suspended by wires and dangled up into the stratosphere, or near it. Ever-ready with the concise acerbic remark, Couric looked at the kid and declared, "He's so cute!"

From one of his note cards, meanwhile, Costas divulged, for our edification, that no part of Greece is more than 85 miles from water. Hardly had a viewer digested this fascinating fact than it was time for another station break -- this one, like an uncountable number, devoted to promos for NBC's forthcoming schedule of "new" fall shows, or returning hits. In arguably the most obnoxious of these, Donald Trump looked into the camera and asked annoyingly, "Didja miss me?"

NO! And for good measure: You're fired.

The pageant even included sexy moments such as would be hard to find in an American Olympics ceremony, unless Janet Jackson were on hand to do some ad-libbing. Paying tribute to the Greek gods eventually brought the producers to Eros, represented by a very scantily clad and physically impeccable couple rolling and rollicking about in the shallow water.

At any rate, it went on and on and on. The kind of calamity most dreaded -- be it an attack by barbarians or some glaring piece of evidence that construction crews still hadn't finished building the long-delayed facilities -- mercifully did not materialize but neither, really, did anything that might pass for scintillatingly exotic television. The Games deserve the benefit of the doubt, of course, and things are bound to improve in the coming days, nights and weeks on NBC and the subsidiary cable networks on which it will air Olympic events. If they don't, the Summer Games will go into the record books all right -- the record books of international television fiascos.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company