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For Openers, Many Eyes Were Closed

By Leonard Shapiro
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 8, 1998; Page D1




As the Winter Olympics go full speed ahead at venues in and around Nagano, CBS Sports has 15 more days of competition to recover from a drearily dull three-hour Opening Ceremonies show on Friday. The mostly live telecast was devoid of many redeeming qualities, marred by technical glitches, insipid interviews and a ho-hum lighting of the Olympic cauldron in what has almost always been a memorable moment in previous Games.

A show that started at least an hour too soon often offered a good excuse to channel snowboard elsewhere. Some of the commercials — particularly obscure athlete profiles in several IBM spots — seemed more compelling than the muddled hodgepodge we were seeing live from Nagano.

Hosts Jim Nantz and Andrea Joyce tried their best to guide viewers through it all. Opening Ceremonies are usually best seen (and appreciated) up close and personal in the stadium. But even the mostly Japanese audience didn't seem particularly moved.

Perhaps it was a cultural difference, or maybe just lousy sound produced by CBS microphones. But you never heard a great roar from the crowd, not when the flame was lit by former silver medal figure skater Midori Ito, not even when the Japanese team marched into the stadium.

Nantz and Joyce did well in explaining the traditional rituals that were the centerpiece of the mostly understated ceremonies. That included a heavy emphasis on behemoth shirtless sumo wrestlers who seemed strangely out of place at an event that will be dominated by hard bodies in Spandex or hockey gear.

Judging from the overnight ratings, this was not blockbuster programming by any means. Friday night's ceremonies had a decent 17 rating and a 28 audience share and easily won the night from its network competition. But those numbers were down 19 percent from Lillehammer, Norway, also on CBS four years ago.

Lillehammer was the site of the Tonya Harding-Nancy Kerrigan Games, a prime-time, sequined soap opera that helped CBS achieve the highest-rated Olympics ever. America was constantly reminded about perhaps the most sordid tale in Olympic history this past week, both by CBS in its Tuesday night preview and by Fox on Thursday in "Breaking the Ice: The Women of '94 Revisited," a bizarre two-hour show that seemed thoroughly appropriate on Rupert Murdoch's sometimes-trashy network.

Fox promoted it as the first face-to-face meeting between Kerrigan and Harding since Kerrigan's knee was whacked by a paid thug six weeks before the '94 Games. It was a plot hatched by Harding's now ex-husband (with Harding's approval, according to most evidence).

Kerrigan's body language needed little translation. She obviously didn't want to be there, but for that kind of money — each was reportedly paid $100,000 — sat in her green satin chair and heard Harding say, "Nancy, I want to apologize for being in the wrong place, at the wrong time, with the wrong people. If I had known, I would have done anything I could to stop it. I say it from the bottom of my heart, I really do."

Said Kerrigan, "I just hope she can learn from it, better her life and not hurt anyone else." Later, she added, with not a lot of conviction, "I hope you can find happiness."

In true Olympic tradition, the interview was saved for the last segment, the better to keep the audience watching all night. Viewers also can expect the same from CBS, which will bring us a mostly taped Olympics over the next two weeks because of the 14-hour time difference.

Harding and Kerrigan aren't competing, but if there was any doubt about what sport would dominate in prime time, here's a clue. The first three athletes interviewed during the Friday telecast were figure skaters. The only U.S. athlete miked during the parade of nations was skater Tara Lipinski. And the longest live interview of the night was done with Michelle Kwan from her California home.

It's the figure skating, stupid.

Oh yes, you're also going to see a lot of Nike swooshes the next two weeks. On athletes, and sadly on the parkas of CBS Sports announcers. Nike is one of the network's largest Olympic sponsors, and as part of a promotional deal, they threw in the jackets, too, a revolting development.

On Tuesday night's Olympic preview, CBS News reporters Harry Smith and Bill Geist, assigned to do feature pieces, also were wearing the Nike jackets. According to a network spokesmen, when CBS News vice president Ted Savaglio showed up in Nagano a few days later, he ordered his men out of the swoosh and into more appropriate attire for the duration.

So far, it's the best thing CBS has done all week.


© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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