Skip to main content
Original Issue


It's a great show on Soviet TV—13 hours of programming on the national channel during the average Olympic day, all suitably edited to keep it fresh, exciting and relatively un-controversial. During the opening ceremonies, the cameras briefly showed the protesting British chef de mission marching alone and carrying the Olympic flag, instead of the Union Jack. The commentator snapped in disgust, "There is the clumsy plot that you all can see against the traditions of the Olympic movement." And that was that. Soviet viewers were given no further coverage of "the clumsy plot."

In non-boycotting nations, the show ranges from desultory (one or two hours a day in France, for example, over the 16 days of the Games) to a deluge (230 hours in Mexico). Coverage so far has been relatively straightforward, though there has been predictable emphasis on events and incidents involving hometown personalities. French television expressed outrage over the actions of Soviet customs agents who, upon finding a pair of typically brief red Gallic men's undershorts in the luggage of a French 800-meter runner, detained him and grilled him about why he was bringing ladies' panties into Russia. In Mexico City, partisans were so angered by what they saw and heard on TV concerning the disqualification of Daniel Bautista, the 1976 Olympic champion in the 20-km. walk, for running, and the disputed second-place finish of a Mexican platform diver that 250 uniformed and plainclothes police were dispatched to guard the Soviet embassy against possible mob assault.

But in countries that backed the boycott, the Games were given short shrift. The Asahi National Broadcasting Corporation of Japan, for example, showed one hour of action a day, but it was split into two half hours—the first in what one Asahi executive called "the miserable minutes" of 7:15 a.m., the second in the "even more miserable minutes" of 11:20 p.m. Predictably, ratings have been horrible—about 4% of the audience. Still, Asahi planned a total of 44½ hours of coverage over the Olympic period; compared with NBC's schedule for the Games, that's a veritable electronic marathon. Where NBC once announced with considerable fanfare that it would present an unprecedented 152½ hours from the U.S.S.R., it has now reduced its coverage to a mere daily eye-blink, averaging eight or nine minutes on the Today Show, with sporadic glimpses of action on The Nightly News. ABC and CBS, which are handling the Olympics with small news crews, may report on bona fide non-sporting news stories as they occur at the Games, but are effectively barred from coverage of the athletic events by the IOC's rules. They stipulate that any American TV organization—except NBC, which paid $87 million for exclusive rights to the Olympics—is prohibited from showing so much as a snippet of Olympic action until 24 hours after it has occurred. Once that span has elapsed, the IOC's 3-by-2-by-3 Rule goes into effect; it limits the telecaster to no more than three pieces a day, and those pieces are to be no more than two minutes long and they must be broadcast at least three hours apart during regularly scheduled news programs.

Boycott or no, NBC has the right to show all the Olympic action it wishes. As Don Ohlmeyer, executive producer of NBC Sports, says, "We could go wall-to-wall if we wanted." But by the time the Games are over, Ohlmeyer says, NBC will have aired "way under 10 hours" and will probably have done only one long show—that being a projected 45-minute "historical" wrap-up on the Sunday magazine show, Sports World. NBC doesn't plan a minute of prime-time coverage. Even last Saturday's potentially historic 800-meter race between Sebastian Coe and Steve Ovett was dealt with rather offhandedly as a taped part of NBC's pregame baseball show.

The decision to give the Olympics the onceover-lightly was made by the top brass of RCA, the network's parent corporation. Beyond patriotic and commercial considerations—advertisers stayed away in droves even from buying time on NBC's programs covering U.S. Olympic Trials in various sports—the rationale for such light coverage, according to Ohlmeyer, is: "Without the U.S. in the Games, the average peripheral American sports fan doesn't care about these Olympics. With the single exception of Nadia Comaneci, whom the fans remember as the cute little doll from Montreal, there is no interest. Even the Coe-Ovett races don't hold a lot of interest, except for track-and-field fanatics. To most Americans the Olympics have come to mean a magnificent spectacle where all of the top athletes in the world get together. They're not all there in Moscow now, and therefore, the general American interest is very meager."

Equally meager is the NBC Sports crew in the U.S.S.R.—25 technicians, editors and producers—a far cry from the 640 originally planned. And they are working entirely with the Soviet feed; there isn't an NBC camera or commentator in Moscow.

There would seem to be plenty of room for bitterness at NBC Sports, but Ohlmeyer is philosophical about the boycott. "NBC lost some money, yes," he says. "It's a tremendous disappointment. But we're big boys. We have other things we've already done, and there are other things we'll go on to do. But for the kids, the athletes, this was their lifetime. They had to sacrifice their dreams, they had no other place except these Olympics to do what they can do. They're the big losers."