One wants to be charitable and hope that Dick Button gets out of Calgary without sustaining a rap in the mouth. But he did seem to be asking for it with all those snotty remarks about women figure skaters as ABC Sports wrapped up its Herculean coverage from Calgary this weekend.
Button and anchor Jim McKay went overboard dismissing and deriding skaters who were not in medal contention during Saturday night's melodic thriller, perhaps as a way of hyping the front-runners who'd appear later. But when top-ranked Debi Thomas of the United States kerplopped near the finale, Button and McKay suddenly suffered fits of charitability.
Wouldn't it have been humane to be as forgiving of the lesser lights as of the big stars? The commentators didn't seem to realize how impressive even the lower-scoring skaters are to those of us klutzes who can barely walk outside and fish the morning paper out of a mud puddle without some sort of life-threatening mishap.
Earlier, McKay sniffed of a Canadian skater that she was merely "competent." He and Button pooh-poohed three or four of them. Button was in there braying whenever anyone made the slightest mistake. "We are seeing some weak performances tonight," he moaned. He was right; the weak performances were his and McKay's.
Button referred to many of the skaters as "girls" and called a Soviet skater "this poor gal." Peggy Fleming, also commenting, was more compassionate and intelligent.
Even a dunce like Button recognizes a crowd-pleaser when he sees one, and 18-year-old Midori Ito of Japan gave the night's most ingratiating performance. Button had to horn in with flaunted expertise, of course. "Jim, this program is a triumph of athleticism!" he cheered. "Jim, you simply must realize this is an athletic program!"
Jim? You there, Jim?
But then Ito finished up her breakneck routine and as the crowd cheered, she wept, and the ABC camera was there for a screen-filling, heart-tugging close-up. And this, we were reminded again, was what the Olympics were all about and what made ABC's coverage the glory that it was.
Television is a constant battle between words and pictures. Hardly any of the words at the Olympics were memorable. The interviewed athletes tended to come up empty, whether the questions were inane or pertinent. Those fascinating facts we learned about Swiss bobsledder Hans Hiltebrand are, gee, kind of hard to recall right now.
But the pictures? Fantastic, whether from a ski-cam or a sled-cam or a chopper-cam -- intimate views of the pain or joy on the competitors' faces, or sweeping views of snowy mountains' majesty in rugged Alberta.
As the skating competition twirled on Saturday night (the best part of it didn't get going until 9:30, an inadvertent convenience for viewers who needed their weekly fix of "Golden Girls" on NBC), Button seemed to realize he was sounding like a real drag. So he tried to rationalize his crabbiness to McKay.
"You know, Jim, sometimes we criticize, in our commentary, some of the mistakes of the skaters," he said, "and that may seem a little bit unkind. But it is unkind to skaters that are struggling to do well today and who do skate well not to see the true story told about the other skaters when they don't skate so well."
Why yes, of course! It all makes perfect sense now!
Then near the very end, he offered a hint of apology, saying of the skaters, "Even when they're not so good, they're still wonderful."
Actually, by Saturday, the commenting was less obnoxious than it had been. Perhaps, like some viewers, the announcers were exhausted. Or maybe negative feedback had reached them in Calgary, inspiring them to curtail chatter.
After all, Johnny Carson did get an awfully big laugh the other night when after a particularly appreciative ovation from his studio audience he chided them, "I know what it is. You're just so damn glad I'm not Jim McKay."
McKay is nothing if not a trouper, however, and he ought to get some points just for bearing up. And sitting up. McKay was behind that desk throughout. We'll never really know if he was wearing pants.
Some hard-core sports fans stick up their noses at the Olympics. Like the Super Bowl, it is more than a sports event; it's a social, cultural, entertainment event as well. ABC covered those angles, scrupulously. The fact that more than one skater was using music from "Carmen" inspired a short piece that included a scene from the opera. This is probably the only way "Carmen" will ever make it onto prime-time network television.
"Are Debi and Kati like Carmen?" asked McKay, referring to Debi Thomas and Katarina Witt. "Well, yes and no." That cleared that up. Jack Whitaker summed up the evening at the conclusion and added that it had been "a heckuva night for Bizet," which was fine, but it was discouraging when the normally erudite Keith Jackson stole the thought yesterday by saying, "For sure, Georges Bizet made a heckuva comeback last night."
The "up close and personal" profiles were indeed irritating, and they included some of the hokiest fakiest "real-life" footage since the old "March of Time" theatrical newsreels. But they were not the worst thing about ABC's Winter Olympics coverage. The worst thing was the daily late-night recap report hosted by Frank and Kathie Lee Gifford.
First off, the reports did not recap the day's highlights. They seemed designed primarily to display extraneous filler material that couldn't be squeezed into regular coverage.
Then there's the charisma quotient of Frank and Kathie Lee: zilch, zero, zip, nada, pas de tout. If they cohosted a morning program it would have to be called, "Go Back to Bed, America."
On Friday, Frank Gifford announced at the start of the broadcast that his wife would not appear that night because of a "long-standing prior commitment." One suspected that was a euphemism for "ABC News and Sports President Roone Arledge has come to his senses." Gifford said he would press on alone but lamented that the program would suffer "cosmetically" without Kathie Lee's presence, thus insulting her even as he attempted to praise her.
It's too bad, because the late-night show could have been organized as a truly visual replay of victorious, dramatic and emotional moments from the day's competitions -- a boon for those who missed the daytime or prime-time stuff and a blessing for those who wanted to savor the replays.
However some viewers complain, most would indeed be uncomfortable if commentators went silent for long, long stretches during the events. But the late-night show could have been conceived as a treat for purists and a showcase for the spectacular work of camera operators, editors and producers.
Instead we got two marshmallows by the fire.
McKay noted that ABC had more than 10 1/2 hours of coverage scheduled Saturday and 11 hours on Sunday. That meant, between them, probably two or three hours of commercials. Some of the commercials were well worth watching more than once, however -- although the abandoned husband wandering through a K mart and calling out a plaintive "Val-er-ie" paled as a delight after about the first 130 exposures.
Yakov Smirnoff, the Soviet-born comedian, seemed a particularly poor choice to sell Plymouths and his shouts from the Grand Canyon were wearying at first encounter. By contrast, the best commercial produced for the Olympics seemed the least played: Budweiser's eloquent and moving "Brothers? Yes, We Are Brothers" spot, something akin to a Madison Avenue masterpiece.
Toting up the mistakes, miscalculations and excesses perpetrated by ABC Sports in its Olympics coverage is relatively easy. The high marks for technical merit still tend to obliterate the occasional low marks for artistic impression.
Normally what one longs for in the dead of February is a breath of spring. What ABC proved, among other things, is that a breath of winter could be just as refreshing.