CBS's Olympic Coverage: Very Shaky
By Leonard Shapiro
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 23, 1998; Page C9
It seemed thoroughly appropriate that Friday night's prime-time CBS Olympic broadcast was interrupted, very briefly, by a mild earthquake with an epicenter said to be 120 miles from Nagano. Even more telling was the CBS response a quick quake note from host Jim Nantz, live in the studio, and now let's go back to the figure skating.
The next day, during a taped broadcast of the men's slalom, we heard ski announcer Tim Ryan's call of the first run of the race, including an astonished "Holy Smokes" when he felt the ground shake beneath his feet. Later, American Matt Grosjean was asked about the earthquake, and his response also struck a chord.
"We're in Japan," he said. "You've got to be ready for anything."
During the past 17 days, CBS Sports clearly demonstrated that, at times, it was woefully not ready to react to the vicissitudes of weather or the emerging stories of the Nagano Olympics. It began with the Opening Ceremonies, when the network delivered a mostly flat, discombobulated show dominated by huge chunks of commercial and promotional interludes, and the pattern rarely changed.
For many viewers, CBS's coverage was a major turn-off. How else to explain far lower than expected overall ratings? With final numbers due today, they'll finish about three points below what advertisers had been guaranteed, 40 percent off from the '94 Games in Lillehammer and 13 percent behind Albertville in '92.
Network spin doctors have been explaining away the ratings by saying they've been plagued by dreadful weather causing so many postponements of riveting events. They moaned there weren't that many compelling stories involving U.S. athletes in Japan. And oh yes, they added, Olympics in Asia 14 hours away don't do that well anyway.
But the fact is, CBS should have done a better job promoting the Games in the weeks before they began. And the networks also should have been far better prepared for those weather delays by devoting more time to other events and paying less attention to figure skaters working out in the practice rink. Just as an example, CBS covered Michelle Kwan's first practice session as if it were a major event, with a camera following even her walk to the arena.
When she took a fall on an early spin, analyst Scott Hamilton pooh-poohed it by saying it was only her first workout, and the spill was no big deal. If so, then why did CBS take viewers there in the first place?
As far as compelling stories, the last time we looked, U.S. athletes tied a Winter Games record with 13 medals, including the gold medal won by the U.S. women's hockey team that was virtually ignored in prime time save for the mandatory highlight package. That wasn't enough.
Only H.G. Wells could have been proud of CBS's time-warping coverage, which often included staying away from live action in prime or late-night shows to air tape of major events 24 hours or more after they occurred. Why not show it live if at all possible, then air it again on tape the next night? Men's hockey, despite the U.S. team trashing and thrashing on and off the ice, produced several classic games, all on well past midnight in the East, then barely reprised the next night in prime time.
CBS had other problems. Main studio host Jim Nantz loosened up a bit after the first week but never seemed comfortable in the role made famous by his idol, Jim McKay, ABC's longtime Olympic host, and taken to the same level by NBC's Bob Costas.
Usually the consummate pro on golf or NCAA basketball, Nantz should have been taking lessons from his friend Jim Lampley, a big-time joy on TNT's far more palatable afternoon shows and a man NBC ought to grab for its own coverage of the next five Olympiads. Wouldn't it have been nice if CBS Sports President Sean McManus, the son of Jim McKay, somehow could have gotten his dad, still an ABC man, to play a role in these Olympics? If not, Bryant Gumbel, now on the CBS News payroll, or even his brother Greg, who recently re-joined CBS, might have been a better choice than Nantz, or at very least a studio co-host.
It was also a curious decision to put Rick Gentile, more of a programming specialist than a producer, in charge of the production. Gentile will leave the network after Nagano because McManus wants his own man, Terry Ewart, to take over and to change the look of a division whose events often seem stuck in the production mode of the 1980s.
Still, it would be unfortunate if Gentile became the scapegoat for the network's poor Olympic ratings. McManus would have been far better served using Ewart who spent the Games in New York or an experienced Olympic producer, such as TNT's brilliant Mike Pearl, to take charge of the last Olympics CBS will air for at least 10 years.
The news was not all bad for CBS. There has been compelling Olympic programming during the last two weeks, just not nearly enough. Sunday night included a stirring 35-minute story, reported by CBS News's Bob Simon, of a former Olympic runner who spent time in a POW camp near Nagano at the end of World War II. Why did they wait so long to air a piece that would have been perfect in the first week?
Despite disappointing ratings, the Olympics nevertheless won CBS every night in prime time in the last two weeks during the February sweeps. CBS affiliates also reported significant rating bumps for local news with an Olympic lead-in, which also translated into higher numbers for David Letterman, even if he was mocking the Games every night.
For Olympic viewers, the fact that NBC Sports now becomes a monopoly for the next five Games should be viewed as a mixed blessing. NBC Sports President Dick Ebersol grew up at the feet of ABC's Olympic pioneer, Roone Arledge, and views the Games as a sacred trust, not to mention his own legacy.
By the same token, the Sydney Games in 2000 will be a taped production because of a similar time difference, with supplemental coverage on CNBC and MSNBC cable. But Ebersol, who is actually the Games's executive producer, also knows how to tell stories and to keep an Olympic broadcast moving right along.
During the last two weeks, CBS never quite figured that out. The 1998 Nagano Winter Olympics, not to mention American viewers back home, deserved better.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company
Olympics Front | Sport by Sport | Gallery | History | Nagano | Countries