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CBS Vows to Be Game Until the End

By Leonard Shapiro
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 6, 1998; Page E2



You'll pardon some people at CBS Sports, which will broadcast the XVIII Winter Olympics from Nagano, Japan, for expressing just a touch of bitterness before today's Opening Ceremonies kick off 128 hours of programming, including 54 hours in prime time.

These Winter Games are the last chance for CBS to broadcast an Olympics at least until 2010. After Nagano, NBC will ease its pangs at losing professional football telecasts for the first time in 32 years with the presentation of the next five Olympic competitions, from the 2000 Summer Games in Sydney to the Summer Games of 2008, at a yet-undetermined site.

"It's really sad the CBS network was not given a shot to continue its run to do the Winter Olympics," said Jim Nantz, now the sports division's lead voice and main studio host in Japan. "It's hard for me to understand coming off Lillehammer [in 1994], the most watched event for any TV event in history, that there couldn't be a chance for the incumbent to get to the table.

"It defied all the Olympic virtues, all those things about fair play and sportsmanship the Olympics are supposed to be all about. This is not a shot at NBC. It was a great business move by them to tie everything up. But when you have the athletes and the officials read the Olympic oath about fair play and competition, let's just say I have some reservations about that, and I'm sure the people at ABC would say the same."

That said, Nantz and many of his colleagues insisted they will do everything in their power to produce 17 days of spectacular television. Yes, the network is a lame duck despite paying a record $375 million for the U.S. rights, with TNT doing 50 more hours on cable. But CBS has every intention of soaring like an eagle in its coverage, which produced the highest cumulative household audience for any television event in history with its '94 broadcasts from Norway, with a record Olympic rating of 27.8 and a 42 audience share.

There were very obvious reasons for that, many centering on the Nancy Kerrigan-Tonya Harding sizzling soap opera that played out in the weeks leading up to the Games, and coming to a denouement during the competition. This time, the whole story should be on the ice, on tape delay and aired in prime time, the better to keep an audience that is expected to be 58 percent female riveted to the set.

Because of the 14-hour time difference, several events will be shown live, including a good bit of Alpine skiing, starting with the always compelling men's downhill on Saturday. When it's 10 a.m. in Japan, it's 8 p.m. the previous night in Washington, and obviously all skiing competition is conducted early in the day to assure the best snow conditions.

There also is expected to be intriguing hockey competition, with the NHL suspending its season for the first time to allow its best players to compete for their native countries. No Olympic event, summer or winter, may ever match the United States vs. the Soviet Union in Lake Placid, N.Y., in 1980 in a semifinal game before the Americans won their "Miracle on Ice" gold medals. But NHL officials are clearly hoping all those eyes watching the Olympics may help grow its own TV audience after the Games.

For the first time, the Olympics also will include women's hockey, with a strong American team. The women's game differs in two respects from the men's — there is no body checking and all players are required to wear protective face masks or shields.

But it's a fast, compelling sport that, like men's hockey, will mostly be shown via tape delay. Here's hoping CBS doesn't relegate the women to late night or early morning programs in much the same way NBC paid such little attention to women's softball and soccer in Atlanta two years ago. Because there are far fewer events in the Winter Games, the American women should get decent exposure, perhaps a touch in prime time, as well.

CBS will also use the tried and true storytelling formula that's been the cornerstone of most televised Olympic Games since ABC's Roone Arledge turned that concept into both an artistic and a ratings success in the '70s and '80s.

"Our approach will be the same as Lillehammer and Albertville," France, in '92, CBS Sports President Sean McManus said. "We'll tell stories and present the games in the best possible way."

And despite the disappointment about being shut out of the Olympics for at least a dozen years, 38-year-old Nantz, the daytime host for the Albertville and Lillehammer Games, tried to put a happy face on the upcoming show from Nagano.

"We're thrilled for the opportunity," he said. "There will be no somberness on our part. We're not living in a world of regret, anger or ill will toward anyone. We don't go in there with our heads down low.

"When I was a kid growing up, I remember watching the 1972 Games in Munich. That's when I wanted to grow up and be just like [ABC's] Jim McKay, and I've been pursuing that the rest of my life. I also knew that I'd be lucky just to do one Olympics. This is number three. It's more than I ever imagined, and it's still a very big thrill."

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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