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Olympics' Shining Lights Remain Dim on CBS

By Leonard Shapiro
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 20, 1998; Page D11

Rick Gentile, the lame duck executive producer for CBS Sports Olympic coverage these past two weeks, has been making some remarkably candid public statements about the failure of the Nagano Games to ignite the interest of the American public.

Gentile has not been asked to stay on in his job by the new top management of CBS Sports and will leave the company when the Olympics are over. With sagging ratings well below CBS's expectations, he was quoted in Thursday's Wall Street Journal as saying, "This Olympics so far has had no charisma, no personality. I've done enough of these things to know that when a story emerges, we're on it, we'll beat it to death. There just hasn't been one."

Excuse me, but didn't the U.S. women's hockey team just win the gold medal in a sport being played for the first time in Olympic history? Weren't the accomplishments of this intriguing American team trumpeted in the American press for weeks before the Games?

Wasn't each game in the tournament worth a large headline in the sports sections of this and many other U.S. papers?

Yet, CBS's coverage during the last two weeks, with little live action and mostly short taped packages in prime time, hardly reflected the growing interest in a team now being ballyhooed as the feel-good American story of the '98 Games.

Sadly, the International Olympic Committee scheduled the women's gold medal game at 4 a.m. EST on Tuesday (6 p.m. in Japan). It was on too late to be aired on the network's late night show, so CBS used its two-hour morning show to air most of the contest on tape delay. The show got a modest 3.4 rating, slightly higher than its average of 3.1 during the Games so far.

At that hour on a school and work day, you wonder how many little girls, boys or anyone else could have seen very much of the women in action. It's hard enough to get the kids up, dressed and fed before they go off to school without having one of the more compelling hockey games in recent history get in the way.

(Memo to Frank Herzog, Channel 9's morning sports guy, who did not provide the women's score at the 6 a.m. hour because he said he'd been told not to by station executives: Next time, give it anyway. Viewers even remotely interested in knowing the outcome merely had to tune in ESPN, CNN/SI, CNN Headline News, Fox Sports News or any of a dozen more sources — radio, the Internet or a newspaper sports score service. It was bad form not to announce the score, which easily could have been preceded by the standard "turn down the sound if you don't want to know.")

CBS did the right thing by airing the game as soon as possible, even if considerable action in the first two periods was cut and, at one point, nearly a nine-minute break was taken for commercials, promos and studio fluff.

The network also could have done even better by devoting the first hour, if not longer, in prime time Tuesday night to showing larger taped portions of the game. The Great Gumbel — Bryant, that is — was assigned to narrate the gold medal game highlights, including a rollicking team interview and the moving medal ceremony and anthem. But it just wasn't enough for a pioneering team that many already are comparing to the men of the 1980 "Miracle On Ice" in Lake Placid.

The women's hockey saga comes after a series of infuriating time-warping decisions, most of them involving CBS not airing major stories for 24 hours or later in the prime-time show. It began early on with Picabo Street's victory in the Super-G that could have been shown live in late night and has continued ever since. At least CBS has been consistent, just as it also occasionally has been disingenuous on a few other fronts.

Two quick examples: After Norwegian speedskater Gianni Romme shattered the world record in the 10,000 meters by 15.22 seconds, studio host Jim Nantz told viewers Romme would have beaten Eric Heiden, who won five golds in Lake Placid (including the 10,000) by two laps.

What he didn't say was that Heiden was skating outdoors, on a bitterly cold day over a far rougher ice surface without the benefit of the new clap skates that have made a mockery of all records. Romme performed indoors, with perfect ice, no wind or bone-chilling cold on far faster skates. He clearly deserved to be cheered, but not at Heiden's expense.

On Thursday night, it was Gumbel's turn not to tell the whole story. He handled a feature on the four-year anniversary of Dan Jansen's stirring gold medal victory in the 1,000 meters at Lillehammer in '94. It was another chance to milk one of the great stories of those Norway Games, just as the network had reprised Tonya-Nancy '94 with a highly entertaining, though "Hard Copy"-ish 15-minute piece on Tuesday night.

Never mind that Jansen is now a CBS Sports speedskating analyst. Lauding one of their own would not have been a problem if Gumbel had been straighter in his reporting. In the four years since Jansen skated a victory lap while carrying his infant daughter, he also has split up with his wife, Robin. Last week, Robin Jansen filed divorce papers in Charlotte, accusing her husband of adultery and abandonment.

A court ultimately will decide the issue, but there was no mention of any of that in Gumbel's syrupy report. Then again, CBS has been leaving out plenty more in its spotty and occasionally maddening coverage of the '98 Winter Olympics.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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