Roone Arledge, president of ABC News and Sports, was so upset, when NBC won TV rights to the 1980 Moscow Olympics that he planned to stay on his boat during the entire run of the games. That way he would never have to see any of the competition's coverage and could pretend the Olympics never happened.
Now it looks as though the Summer Olympics may never happen indeed -- not on American TV, anyway -- so Roone can leave the Good Ship Wawa (not its real name) in dry dock. It may appear as if Roone thinks he owns the Olympics. In a way, he does. ABC Sports sets the standards for virtually all sports events on TV, especially Olympic ones.
The network's telecast of the Winter Olympics this year raises the possibility, however, that having set those standards ABC is now content to settle for them. ABC hasn't broken any records for gold medals in coverage, even though the technicians directors, tape editors and cameramen have delivered some spectacular performances of their own.
A quick survey of prominent TV sports experts -- admittedly Arledge's competitors but also frequently his admirers -- finds a consensus of sorts about flaws in the ABC team's showing. Among them:
Jim McKay may have a few too many Olympic miles under his belt and his monologues sometimes turn into lullabies.
Scheduling 51 1/2 hours of Olympic coverage was overreaching, and too much air time had to be filled with marginalia, jabber and trivia.
And, because the excitement level wasn't what it might have been, ABC should have brought in the heavyweights, the George Bernard Shaw and Al Jolson of sports commentators, the eighth and ninth wonders of the world, Howard Cosell.
However, Himself has a few words about that.
"I didn't work Grenoble, I didn't work Innsbruck and I certainly didn't want to work Lake Placid," says Cosell, recuperating from flu at his New York home. "I specifically kept the Winter Olympics out of my contract, which was just recently renegotiated with ABC."
Chester R. Simmons, the former NBC Sports president who now runs the pioneering ESPN all-sports cable network, says, "If I was Roone, I would damn well want Howard there."
During last night's skiing competition, one of the spectators could be seen holding up a large sign that read, "Where the hell is Howard?"
But a spokesman for ABC Sports in Lake Placid says that the question of "Where's Howard?" is hardly news. "Roone's standard answer," he says, "is, 'Have you ever seen Howard in stretch pants?'"
" well that's borrowed from something I said years ago," counters Cosell. "Roone and I had closed out our late and unlamented variety show, and I agreed I wasn't going to go to Innsbruck. And someone asked me what to tell Roone and I said, 'Tell him I'm unsightly in ski pants the way he looks in a bathing suit.' But now you see he only uses half of it."
Cosell's aversion to the Winter Olympics stems partly from the fact that "I don't like bitter cold," but he was particularly aversacious (not a real word) to this year's games.
"I was dead set all along against the Winter Olympics' being held in Lake Placid," Cosell says. "I predicted you would have a disastrous scene when it came to the transportation, when it came to the pricing, when you have 2,700 people in the Olympic village and only one road ingress and one road ingress. I thought Denver was dead right years ago when they turned the Winter Olympics down.
"Like it said in a newspaper the other day: 'Lake Placid is disgracing America.'"
Cosell would obviously have added a punch to the coverage that he feels it has lacked. Howard has a punch like Three Mile Island.
"I haven't seen much of the coverage," he says. "But what I did see surprises me. Here Roone is president of the news department and yet I don't understand who they didn't get more into the issues -- Taiwan, and the Moscow situation, and that terrible traffic disaster. [New York Gov. Hugh] Carey should have been on talking about it."
Also, Cosell thinks, the ratings were not as high as anticipated. "I get bigger shares with a prime-time fight." He means a boxing match.
Robert J. Wussler, former president of CBS Sports and now head of Pyramid Enterprises, which has film rights to the Summer Olympics (if any), says he thinks part of the problem was that Arledge personally rolled up his sleeves and became king of the booth at Lake Placid. "He does like to get his hands dirty," the ABC Sports spokesman said.
"Roone never really hired a producer," says Wussler. "He wanted to do it all himself. If he was going to be the executive producer, he should have been up there a month earlier than he was, to get ready, but he was too busy running the news and sports departments. They should have been getting shares in the 40s instead of in the 30s."
Wussler thinks 51 1/2 hours of Olympic air time is too Olympian. "In the main, they were having a hard time filling all those hours. There was far more feature-oriented material then ever before. The coverage of the events themselves was terrific, but there just weren't enough events."
ESPN's Simmons says he found the coverage "basically uninspired -- not bad, just ordinary," but adds, "Maybe we've come to expect too much of ABC Sports. Maybe when I say 'ordinary' I just mean their usual damn-good. But I felt the lack of a l ittle bit of spark. I just didn't find any spark to it."
It could be, says Simmons, that this was "one too many Olympics for Jim McKay," the doggedly tireless anchorman for the games who may have broken the world's record for number of words spoken in a single week. "It may be time to get him out of that control room," Simmons says.
Sometimes it seemed McKay was trying to keep up not so much a steady stream of information as a steady stream of noise. During the opening ceremonies he inundated the ambiance with such facts as the cost of fur coats worn by former U.S. gold medal winners and the ancient origins of the tune played to pipe Vice President Mondale aboard the dais.
When the camera showed a West German athlete giving a happy wave to the crowd, McKay quickly labeled it "a happy wave to the crowd," and when the doves were released he announced, "There go the doves."
But NBC Sports president Don Ohlmeyer, who used to be one of the brightest lights in Ronne's tree at ABC, thinks McKay still rises to occasions. "When he did that recap on [skaters] Tai Babilonia and Randy Gardner, I had tears in my eyes," says Ohlmeyer. "Of course, I cry at cartoons. But still, that's what McKay is so great at. That's where he really shines. He gave me goosebumps!
Some viewers may have been put off not just by excessive chatter but by the scattershot technique of jumping from one event to another and back again, of making most events bite-size rather than staying with them. This, however, is the essence of the Arledge sports philosophy, and it is designed to hold onto viewers who might otherwise change channels during events in which they aren't interested.
There was another kind of fractionalization that took place during the coverage that, was anything but bad, and that is the knack of directors and cameramen for catching faces -- of participants, of competitors, of athletes to its aftermath.
Some of us who couldn't care less about who wins how many gold medals and who find much of the pageantry a little ridiculous can still get tremendous enjoyment from seeing closeup the tension, the pride, the hope and sometimes the despair in those faces. There should have been more of this.
Television doesn't present that many opportunities to see people working their hearts out to do the best they can. Certainly there is no excess of such people in the TV business, though one can sense in ABC's coverage a group effort to put on the best possible show under the circumstances, if not always succeeding.
Finally, no matter how many criticisms can be made of the ABC Sports coverage of the Winter Olympics, it is worth remembering something that practice and precedent have proved fairly conclusively: Nobody does it better.