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Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 12, 2008; 1:00 PM

If it's on the dial, over the air, on the cable, or just plain Out There, it's fair game for 'Station Break with Paul Farhi.' Bring your comments to the conversation on America's Fastest Growing Pop Culture Chat.

After years of grueling training and selfless denial, Farhi is ready to take on NBC's Olympics coverage. Chat about swimming, gymnastics and everything else about the Games. Playback: The Games on TV Plus, the end of an era: Tony Kornheiser leaves the local radio scene. Tuesday, Aug. 12, at 1 p.m. ET.

A transcript follows.

Farhi is a reporter in The Post's Style section, writing about media and popular culture. He's been watching TV and listening to the radio since "The Monkees" were in first run and Adam West was a star. Born in Brooklyn and raised in Los Angeles, Farhi had brief stints in the movie business (as an usher at the Picwood Theater), and in the auto industry (rental-car lot guy) before devoting himself fulltime to word processing. His car has 15 radio pre-sets and his cable system has 500 channels. He vows to use all of them for good instead of evil.

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Paul Farhi: Greetings, all, and welcome to our special Olympics edition [cue trumpet flourishes and helicopter flyover shots of the Great Wall]. Our story so far: Awe-inspiring Opening Ceremonies, followed by much swimming and gymnastics. Overall, I'm loving it--I have confessed my Olympics geekiness before--but I do have a few cranky comments and questions for NBC (for those, please see my Olympics TV blog elsewhere on washingtonpost.com). Okay. Enough warmups. Let's toe the line and/or go to the phones...

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washingtonpost.com: Playback: The Games on TV

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Cleveland Park, Washington, D.C.: Paul --

In watching the swimming and diving competitions, have you noticed any of the athletes using the Shamwow to dry themselves off?

Paul Farhi: Haha! It looks that way, doesn't it? NBC got around to explaining why they take those showers. I thought the divers just hated chlorine (or maybe there was something icky in the pool water). Turns out it has something to do with warming up after hitting the water. Or something like that. Seems like a weird fetish--I mean, how much difference could a few seconds in the shower make?--but I don't know much about diving.

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Fairfax, Va.: I just learned this morning that a portion of the Olympic Opening Ceremony fireworks was computer-generated and not live/real. I've been cognizant of what's presented on TV not being fully "real" (e.g., time delay, timeshifting, video and/or audio augmentation), but this really hits me hard, that there's no limit on the seamless processing that can be done after a scene has been captured by a camera and microphone. Is there any hope for "raw reality" on TV anymore?

Paul Farhi: NBC disclosed on the air that the scene in question--a series of fireworks bursts that appeared to be giant "footprints" walking across Beijing--was computer generated. So I'm not sure what the problem is there. As for the time shifting issue, it is hard to know what's what (and NBC isn't being very helpful about it). At least there's a "live" bug on the screen at times. But I imagine this is far worse on the West Coast, where even the "live" stuff is actually tape delayed.

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NYC: I must say the questions you raised in your TV blog are great and ones I have wondered as well. I have a comment to share with your readers. After much annoyance with NBC's Web site and the ability to watch video's live or otherwise I found this on the site: Weightlifting Trials Encore

Great way to kill an hour or two at work. Also, women's field hockey is off the hook. Those women are tough, smart, and aggressive. Great sport that we'll never see on TV. And one more little discover is 17-year-old Charlotte Craig in Taekwondo fly weight. I'll be following her and her one kidney. She is a really great story that NBC is missing.

Paul Farhi: I'll say this for NBC--you can find just about any sports online or on TV during this Olympics. I'm not a fan of Taekwondo, or even many of the Olympics sports, but if field hockey or modern pentathlon are your thing, it's there for you...As for the kidney lady, I'll bet that NBC catches up to her sooner or later. They love nothing more than an overcoming-adversity story.

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Rockville, Md.: So what's the deal with the Globe, which seems like it's reverted back to its old 'classic' rock self. Less progressive, more Cars, Boston and Jackson Brown. What gives?

Paul Farhi: It has. They've quietly tweaked it in the past week or so. The old semi-eclectic format wasn't really working. So now we've got three nostalgic rock stations on the dial (100.3, 105.9 and 94.7), though I guess 94.7 is still more album oriented than the other two.

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Silver Spring, Md.: Is it for money or for money? It seemed that NBC-broadcast was the only primetime Olympics option on Sunday. Is this their plan for the duration?

If so, are they doing this because the usual evening ratings for MSNBC and CNBC are so fantastic during August or is it to maximize the ratings on the broadcast channel?

Paul Farhi: Actually, NBC has nine networks carrying Olympics stuff of one kind or another. Let me see if I can recite the entire list: NBC, MSNBC, CNBC, Telemundo, USA, Oxygen, Universal HD, and two special added attractions--an all-soccer digital channel and an all-basketball digital channel. Plus, the streams of every sports online. If nothing else, this will give people an education in media conglomerization, as practiced by GE.

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Glen Burnie, Md.: I wasn't a huge listener of WWWT, mostly Mr. Tony in the off season and during brief dial changes during the morning drive. Yet, station changes made this morning were almost breathtaking (at least for the few who tuned in). Yesterday Dave and Jessica were saying how refreshed they were after their vacation. Looks like they've got an extended refresher. Probably rhetorical: Did anyone see this coming?

Paul Farhi: Burd and Doyle were the bright spots on WWWT (okay, Tony K. was, too, when he was on), but yes, you could have seen this coming (this, btw, is the demise of WWWT). The latest ratings for the station were half--HALF!--what they were when it was Washington Post Radio. And as much as I liked WaPoRadio and thought it a noble experiment, I couldn't justify keeping it around with its ratings. You certainly can't justify doing half those numbers...

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Arlington, Va.: Paul, how were Tony K's local numbers on 3WT? Does he have enough of a local following to be picked up by another station or do you think he'll be an XM exclusive?

Paul Farhi: Tony's ratings during the latest book (spring) were not good, and I think people at the station were disappointed that he didn't do better. As for where he'll go next, he has few local options. Dan Snyder controls sports talk radio in Washington, and I'm not sure Kornheiser wants to work for him (though Bruce Gilbert, who actually runs Snyder's stations, is very well thought of). So SiriusXM is the likely place, if anywhere. Tony is a national figure and would fit in just fine there.

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Arlington, Va.: Some of the Olympic sports have to go. Women's field hockey who cares. Synchronized anything has to go. The IOC should allow sheep herding trials at the Olympics. Allow all herding breeds. Various courses to test human and dog. And it's more difficult than it looks. Tougher than playing rugby for the U.S. team and racing down Mulsanne in the rain at 200 mph at night in the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Have done all three rugby and Lemans with some success and herding trials we are working on. Herding trials are way tougher!

Paul Farhi: I think you're right. The Olympics have become so expensive (China reportedly spent $100 million on the Opening Ceremonies alone) that few countries can afford to host them. Paring back some of the sports would be a smart cost-saving measure (softball, unfortunately, is getting the boot after these games). But any additions/deletion will be driven by one thing: TV ratings. I find synchronized anything ridiculous, but apparently I'm in the minority, since it's getting primetime play on NBC.

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Bethesda, Md.: Hi Paul --

DirecTV said we can't get reception due to our trees, so now we're forced to choose between FIOS and Comast. Any preference? Anyone else out there have recommendations/experience to share?

Paul Farhi: An age-old question on this channel. Since I can't get FIOS (I have Comcast but would like to change), I'll recuse myself and throw it open. Anyone have a recommendation?

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Frederick, Md.: How is Imus doing in the ratings on the new Oldies 105.9?

Paul Farhi: Awfully. He's disappeared...Actually, he's never really appeared in this market, so I guess he continues to be ignored.

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Arlington, Va.: Some have pointed out that what NBC labels as "live" with their graphic bug isn't really live as in "happening right now". Some of it is apparently up to an hour or so old yet is called live. How are they getting away with that? I thought it was weird that the commentators noted that the current time was actually about 10 minutes ago on my clock and that Phelps had to be back in the pool in 20 minutes for his heat or something along those lines. Very odd. I guess trying to squeeze in events that are happening simultaneously is a big challenge.

Paul Farhi: I was curious about this, too. I noticed a clock ticking in the background during an interview the other night and saw that the broadcast was marked as live. Yet the background clock didn't match my time (Beijing is 12 hours later than EST). So, NBC may be playing a few games with "live." Worth checking.

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Arlington, Va.: I would think that Mr. Kornheiser's Spring book went down in part because of his sabbatical and people simply developed other listening habits, and in part because of the change of the station overall. You can only do so many comebacks and revivals of a show and of a station.

Paul Farhi: That's true. Continuity is a big deal for anything on the air. But I think Tony had something like a loyal following. People liked his show a lot and were willing to wait for him to return. Though obviously there weren't enough of them.

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Opening Ceremonies: For crying out loud can we get someone with an artistic eye to cover the opening ceremonies? The opening ceremonies are not a sporting event. It's a highly sophisticated performing arts spectacle. Matt Lauer is a generalist and Bob Costas won't do. How about somebody with some expertise in the arts? I don't know exactly who this would be but THEIR commentary was lackluster.

Paul Farhi: What I disliked about their commentary had nothing to do with the arts and everything to do with the facts. They kept oohing and ahing over stuff and never once explained the "how" of it all. Example: The Chinese unfurled some kind of massive image-emitting screen on the floor of the stadium. Matt (or maybe Bob) called it an "LED" set. What? An LED set that rolls out like a carpet? How did the Chinese coordinate those amazing block movements? How do you rig up a guy to fly around the perimeter of a stadium? Etc. The commentary on the average Rose Parade ("the Chamber of Commerce float has 6,598 carnations and 3,457 pink roses...") is more factually satisfying.

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Arlington, Va.: Ah, FiOs vs. Comcast. The two evil empires! I have Comcast and other than the fact is is wildly overpriced and getting more so all the time I do like my digital cable. More and more HD channels all the time. If I had the choice I would probably change to Fios and get their highspeed Internet and TV together. A friend of mine has FIOS and he loves it. I think the last time I saw that FIOS was more reasonably priced.

Paul Farhi: Thanks. I want Fios for the phone-TV-internet package; I have Comcast for my cInternet internet but I don't trust them with my phone service. Yesterday, for example, both thInternet internet went down for most of the day. I shudder to think of that happening when I need to call 911.

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Some of the Olympic sports have to go: On the other hand, what a thrill to watch French-born Benjamin Boukpeti win the Bronze in Whitewater Kayaking for his father's native Togo! I enjoy it so much when someone representing a small nation does well. (Plus, no doubt a lot of ignorant Americans will learn where Togo is on the map today).

Paul Farhi: Well, I guess. But a lot of ignorant Americans don't care where Togo is, and the Olympics aren't really going to change that.

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Arlington, Va.: Are you as surprised as I am by how much NBC has made reference to the human rights issues? I was rather pleasantly shocked that they weren't just putting a happy face on everything.

Paul Farhi: Really? I'm surprised how LITTLE is being said about that. Bob Costas brought it up in his interview with President Bush the other night, and I think they mentioned it during the Opening Ceremonies, but mostly NBC has whitewashed the political issues. What did I miss?

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Olympic oath: Did I miss coverage of the athletes taking the Olympic oath en masse at the opening ceremonies? Or did NBC decide not to air it? (Maybe they think it's just a big joke now?).

Paul Farhi: That didn't make the cut. A bunch of countries marching in didn't, either.

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Gymnastics coverage: So are you going to do something about Al Trautwig? He is AWFUL. Someone needs to do something about his announcing -- last night on the men's gymnastics he sounded half asleep and didn't know anything about what was really going on. The other two announcers -- former gymnasts -- ignored him throughout the telecast.

Paul Farhi: Please see my blog. He was Public Enemy No. 1 for me, starting with Saturday's gym preliminaries. The man never met an event he couldn't hype to death.

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Silver Spring, Md.: What's the deal with Chris Collingsworth hanging around the Olympics? He has next to nothing to add. Is he there to make the Amercian male viewer think he is watching an elaborate version of an NFL Training Camp? President Bush actually did a better job of portraying the average American sports fan at the Olympics than Collingsworth. By the way a much better role for Dubya than POTUS.

Paul Farhi: I think he's there basically to remind viewers that NBC has Sunday Night Football. Last night, he was sitting next to Michael Phelps' mom at the swim arena (wonder how they convinced her to let Chris horn in and be human product placement). Other than that, he has indeed been useless.

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FiOS vs. Comcast: Arlington, Va., here: we started out with Verizon DSL, but after we moved from one part of Arlington to another, our DSL service went to pot, so we switched to Comcast. Their service was okay, though remember cable is like a party line (at least it used to be): the more users on-line at any given time, the slower the service.

Comcast lost our business after we started experiencing intermittent Internet outages and had four no-shows in a row on service appointments. Just got FiOS, and it seems okay. Not blindingly fast compared to Comcast, but that may be our antique desktop computer. Customer service? The installer was supposed to come between 8:00 a.m. and 5:00 p.m.; he showed up at 9:50 a.m. and was done by 3:00 p.m., professional, courteous, and as far as I can tell, did it right.

Paul Farhi: Thanks. I guess there are horror stories about both the cable and phone companies. Perhaps they exist to remind people of what customer service was like in the Soviet Union.

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Opening Ceremonies: I was not going to get sucked into the hype of the Opening Ceremonies for the Beijing Olympics.

But the parade of nations is always fascinating. I consider myself a trivia buff but I learned much about small countries from Costas and Lauer.

I also had no idea Kobe Bryant was as big an international celebrity as his exit from the natorium proved. Americans would not mob him like that.

Paul Farhi: I like the parade, too, and the random/bizarre factoids that NBC's researchers feed to the announcers about each country (did you know that Madagascar is the fourth largest island in the world? Me neither!).

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Baltimore, Md.: Comcast had been on my hit list for years after repeated failures to fix some channels where I had poor reception. Then AMC was dropped from basic cable in Baltimore, so I thought I would get satellite. But Comcast had a special offer on digital cable so I made an appointment online for a Saturday morning installation.

Here's the punch line. Installer showed up on time, got the box hooked up pronto, showed me how to use the remote. He left. Ooops. Lost signals on all channels. Called Comcast. Got pleasant service person who someone sent a signal remotely to be box, service restored, no problems since.

I know...I know... I couldn't believe it either. But now, with the On-Demand feature, I can watch Mad Men whenever I want. Who'd a thunk it?

Paul Farhi: Gotta say I love OnDemand, and I dig the many digital channels. When this stuff works, it's a pleasure. When it doesn't, all bets are off.

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Charlotte: Agree with Silver Spring concerning Sunday's limited coverage. Was watching weight lifting on USA, and at 2 p.m. they stopped coverage and said they would be back at 2 a.m. for more. I guess showing yet another rerun of Law and Order was more important. If any other channel had coverage,I never found it. I was peeved so I just turned off the TV.

Paul Farhi: Those pre-emptions drive me nuts, too. I was watching the women's cycling race on Sunday afternoon, and at several critical points, they cut away for some other damn thing. They do this in track, too--any race over 1,500 meters is pre-empted. By the time they return the entire race has changed. I guess this is why God invented streaming video...

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Rockville, Md.: Of course, we have to note that NBC faked part of the opening ceremonies, and the Chinese and NBC faked the singing of a little girl, and NBC used "live" at times when things really were not live, and many more people than you suspect actually can't stand Bob Costas, and NBC STILL insists on running those horrible "feature" things with wimpy music and over-done theatrics. NBC: Just show the sports, without all of the crap. It's no wonder that many people don't watch these things any more. It's not all rose-colored glasses with the Olympics.

Paul Farhi: Well, in fact, a LOT of people watch the Olympics, especially this one (the ratings so far are the highest for a Games not held in the U.S.). And NBC knows exactly what it's doing. It has covered the Summer Olympics continuously since 1988, and has researched the heck out of it. They know this: the Olympics on TV aren't really about sports, per se; they're about "story lines." In essence, they're really a packaged dramatic show. So the real target isn't sports fans; it's female viewers, who don't typically watch much sports (again, see my blog for more on this).

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Washington, DC: I'd love to read your blog. How do I find it? It's not listed at blog.washingtonpost.com. Is this discussion your blog? (I thought this was a "chat")

washingtonpost.com: Go to Arts and Living and then when you get there, click on Television or Style. Paul's blog is there. Playback: The Games on TV

Paul Farhi: Thanks for asking. And thanks for posting that link, Mr. Producer.

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Brooklyn, N.Y.: God invented disease. A scientist invented streaming video.

Paul Farhi: Well, not to go all fundamentalist on you here, but God invented the scientist who invented streaming video (I think this is in the Bible, Farnsworth 4:12). So God gets some of the credit, no?

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Sure sign the candidates have too much money: They're advertising on the Nats' games! Who knew we 9,000 were so important.

Paul Farhi: And McCain is all over the Olympics. He's outgunning Obama 2-to-1, I'd say. Though maybe those are local ads, running on WRC (not going network)...

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Houston, Tex.: It's Cris Collinsworth, by the way. Not Chris Collingsworth.

Paul Farhi: Who is?

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Silver Spring, Md.: As a client of El Zol 99.1 I have had tremendous results, yet people have told me that El Zol still does not reach a key demographic which Is the older generation Hispanics who would likely listen to regional Mexican..is there any American station that is considering flipping to Spanish format following the success of El Zol?

Paul Farhi: If so, I haven't heard of it.

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Bethesda, Md.: Part of the problems with Mr. Tony's ratings could be that he no longer does the show his longtime fans used to enjoy.

IDOL talk drove away many fans.

Paul Farhi: He sure was geeked out about "Idol," wasn't he?

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Station broke: Paul, is this a tape-delayed chat in honor of the Olympics? Would you kindly explain why NBC and/or the IOOC are so militant about getting Olympics clips taken down from YouTube? Because I see 15 seconds of the opening ceremony in the afternoon on my computer I'm not going to watch it on HDTV that night? That's just dumb.

Paul Farhi: NBC has been a tiger about ALL of its copyrighted material appearing on YouTube, not just Olympics stuff. Ever since NBC started its own clip site (Hulu.com), and frankly before then, too, the GE-NBC lawyers have been all over YouTube, weeding out the SNL and Seinfeld clips.

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Re: Bob Costas: From your blog: "Is that Bob Costas's real hair color?"

Dude, are your eyes that bad? Isn't it obvious? He's going to the same barber as Paul McCartney...

Paul Farhi: Naw, Paul's sticking with the pixie do. Bob's more into feathering...

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Cleveland Park, Washington, D.C., again: Re: random facts

Heck, I still remember that Albania's chief export is chrome from a "Cheers" episode many, many years ago.

Paul Farhi: Excellent source! And I learned about Kazahkstan's potassium industry from "Borat."

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T and F: I like track but hate field.

That is all.

Paul Farhi: An old, old Dan Jenkins line from "The Tonight Show" that I somehow still remember: "The only thing more boring than track is field." Others, as they say, disagree.

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Imus?: As a former Imus fan, is it that difficult to wonder why people aren't listening to him on an Oldies Radio station? Only so many people will go out of their way to listen to one specific show on a station you wouldn't otherwise listen to or watch.

If Imus wasn't already an institution on WNBC in New York when it changed format to sports talk radio WFAN, it's hard to imagine how many people would have listened to him if he simply "showed up" on WFAN in the middle of "Charlie from Brookly, what's your take on Mike Tyson, Olympic skateboarding, and how 'bout those Mets will ya'."

Paul Farhi: Imus, oddly, has never caught on here, going back several years and several stations. Odd, because his show has been so stocked with Washington types (politicians, Matalin and Carville, the late Tim Russert, etc.).

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Washington, D.C.: The Globe has gone steadily downhill. I thought they were great at first, but now I can't stand it. The same Pretenders and Tom Petty songs every hour. Too bad money can't be made on a station formatted like olden day WHFS.

Paul Farhi: It proves, for better or worse, the wisdom (if any) of conventional radio programming--that people like consistency and hate to be "surprised" by music on the radio. They want familiar songs, in reasonable rotation. They don't want music they've never heard, or music that isn't within the "core" format. Boring, but true.

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Silver Spring, Md.: Okay, so I guess the lesson is that we are a lousy market for sports radio and TV. The Redskins coverage is adequate but the silencing of dissent is troubling.

Do people get their fix on the Internet/blogs or are we just not in the same sports media league as Philadelphia?

Paul Farhi: Well, I'm not quite sure about the silencing of dissent part yet, but Mr. Snyder certainly has been strategic in his accumulation of media assets. But dissent-wise, I have to put in a plug for my very own newspaper: We're among the last major media outlet in town NOT owned by, or closely allied with in a business sense, the Redskins.

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Takoma Park, Md.: I grew up in the D.C. and am back after being away for college and then grad school in the Bay Area. Has D.C. radio actually gotten worse over time? I point to the existence of sports talk shows on the FM(!) dial as the most egregious example. Bay Area radio isn't great, but you can at least listen to KFOG and 10 at 10.

Paul Farhi: Well, I don't really know how you'd measure such a thing. Better? Worse? Certainly, there's more consolidation of station ownership, and less experimentation in formats (buh-bye, Globe). I will say I was struck by how much more interesting radio in the Bay Area seemed when I was there a few months ago. It could be the new-to-you factor, but it did seem to offer more variety than here.

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Chevy Chase, Md.: The Olympics are for women? You must be kidding, right? Since when do program executives care about what women watch? I mean, we are 51 percent, but since when did that influence anyone? I guess those guys who hate women's sports will just have to put up with them.

Paul Farhi: Since when? Since the beginning of television. Women have always watched more TV than men. More important, women are the target of the majority of TV advertisers. Always have been. That has made TV a female-centric medium from the get-go.

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Paul Farhi: And on that note, I'll return to my Olympics Cave for another two weeks of badminton and kayaking (maybe we could combine some sports--badminton AND kayaking?). Did I happen to mention that I'm writing a blog? Oh, funny you should mention it, yes, I am. So please check in there and we can continue the dialogue. Also, we'll do this chat thing again in two weeks. Tune in then for our quadrennial Olympics Wrap-Up and Back to School Special (special guest star: Joey Heatherton). In the meantime, regards to all...Paul.

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washingtonpost.com: Playback: The Games on TV

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