If Roone Arledge invented the modern TV Olympics, Dick Ebersol has imploded it. Everyone wants to watch the Olympics, but they're just too unwatchable -- too much, too fragmented, too staged, too jingoistic, too hyped, too commercialized, too long, too everything. The Olympics no longer feel Olympian. They feel like a sweeps-week sports reality show.
(Excuse me, but how am I supposed to watch all these hours of Olympics anyway? I never realized NBC had so many networks with so much programming to fill -- no wonder they put John McEnroe in prime time. Heck, if NBC buys any more networks, Patrick McEnroe will have his own show.)
(Still, doing due diligence as Couch Slouch, I tried to record it all, but by Day 3 of the Games, my TiVo filed a workman's comp complaint, and a local court, siding with TiVo, barred me from tuning in to MSNBC or Bravo again until Sept. 1.)
Here's all I'll say about the announcers, and then we'll move on to more important matters:
The studio hosts -- Bob Costas, Jim Lampley, et al -- are very, very competent. On the other hand, if Rowdy Gaines ever leaves swimming behind, I think his voice could help induce labor among expectant mothers.
Ebersol, the NBC Sports chairman, uses a simple, cynical formula to broadcast the Olympics:
1. It's all about America.
2. It's all about overcoming adversity.
3. It's all about keeping us waiting to watch what we want to watch.
When we cover war on TV, we're the good guys and others are the bad guys. When we cover the Olympics, we're the only guys; the rest of the world is cast as extras.
(By the way, I'm as American as the next tax evader, but if I hear the national anthem one more time in the next week, I'm swimming to Cuba and seeking asylum.)
Meantime, every single athlete has overcome some kind of childhood misfortune, family hardship or near-fatal disease to make it to Athens. To which I say: Hey, everyone's got problems, pal. For instance, I was stuck in a DMV line last week and, frankly, was not in the best of moods to write this column today.
Most exasperating of all is Ebersol's stop-and-go, now-you-see-it-now-you-don't presentation of the Olympics.
Every time we get emotionally invested in an event, NBC will break away from it, telling us, "We'll get back to the weightlifting a little later, but first . . . " This one-from-Column-A, two-from-Column-B approach might work well in a Chinese restaurant, but it is endlessly frustrating for an Olympic viewer.
Even the graphics reminders to help the clicker culture -- "Coming Up in 12 Minutes: Michael Phelps" -- are cruel concoctions. Because, inevitably, 12 minutes later, NBC is in commercial, just before the promoted event.
This is no accident, this is Dick Ebersol.
(I don't trust Ebersol. International Broadcast Center, my foot; for all I know, Costas is sitting in a studio in East St. Louis.)
On NBC's Olympics, everything is packaged, microwaved -- and drawn out over an entire night. In search of every extra tenth of a ratings point, Ebersol has sucked the drama out of the Games. Tension doesn't build, it withers. It's just a question of whether a gold medal is decided before or after the next commercial break, or maybe just at the stroke of midnight.
That's why, even though track and field holds some interest for me this week in Athens, I'll opt instead for TV Land, where I know what time "Bewitched" starts, I know what time "Bewitched" ends, there's always a surprise or two between Samantha and Darrin, and it's over in 30 minutes.
Ask the Slouch
Q. Who is your favorite play-by-play/analyst duo? (Tom Strong; Fort Lauderdale, Fla.)
A. In baseball, ESPN's Jon Miller and Joe Morgan; in basketball, TNT's Marv Albert and Mike Fratello; in football, ABC's Al Michaels and John Madden; in poker, the Travel Channel's Mike Sexton and Vince Van Patten or ESPN's Lon McEachern and Norman Chad (no relation).
Q. Would you vote to legalize gambling and prostitution if it ensured a legitimate rebound in the economy and a solid financial foundation for decades to come? (Jasyn Kemppainen; Oakdale, Calif.)
A. I would vote to legalize gambling and prostitution if it ensured me a dice game and a dame on the same night.
Q. Given all of the synergy between ABC and ESPN, how long do you think it will be before we hear Peter Jennings say, "Kofi Annan, you're on the Budweiser Hot Seat"? (Gary Duncan; Washington)
A. Pay the man, Shirley.
Q. I have not seen your column in several weeks. Are you on vacation or is this your way of saying thank you to your readers? (Kevin Pelch; Raleigh, N.C.)
A. Actually, several readers had politely suggested I take a short break.
You, too, can enter the $1.25 Ask the Slouch Cash Giveaway. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org and, if your question is used, you win $1.25 in cash!