The hottest item out of the Winter Olympics isn't going to be Scott Hamilton, Vuƒçko the mascot or the U.S. hockey team. It will be TV glitz—that is, the special-effects, hotsy-totsy cameras and whoop-de-do gadgets ABC will use to make the Games glitter and dazzle. For too long folks have been dumping on glitz. It's not fair. Sure, excessive slickness can turn a telecast into an exercise in gimmickry. But the new TV also can make sports more understandable and entertaining.
ABC will air 63½ hours of the Games, almost flat out through the prime-time hours and weekends, and there will be no end to the visual effects. It'll be like Star Wars. Less than a minute after a hockey goal is scored, a computer-created replay might come up showing how the puck went from player to player. The first time 100 reporters saw a demonstration of this in Sarajevo last November, they gasped. "Three-D" snowflakes in the style of the Sarajevo logo (below, left) will zoom right at us from within the screen. ABC will take a freeze frame of, say, the women's downhill mountain, put it in the computer and turn it into a drawing. Then the computer animators will cut it in two and present a cross-section of the hill, showing us how steep it is. And the network will have an ultra-light camera on the helmet of a skier and send him down the inrun of the 90-meter jump in a demo run, just to let us timid telly watchers know what it's like. This is glitz with a capital G, folks.
The man we'll call Dr. Glitz, ABC's Olympic coordinating director, Roger Goodman, uses the new tech for two reasons: It's fast and it elucidates. Each night of the Games, Goodman will mix videotaped segments for later showing that day in the U.S. Goodman, who's responsible for ABC News's bold "look" of the last few years, also is director of the network's Olympic creative services unit. He has already designed everything from the studio set to the animated graphics to the Olympic-logo umbrellas the network will hand out to clients. His big baby now, though, is the Sarajevo look, for which he'll use some phenomenal machines that can do everything but tie the knot in Jim McKay's necktie.
First, Goodman has something called the CBG (character background generator), the most revolutionary development in television since the debut of the handheld camera nearly 10 years ago. Also known as the Dubner, after Harvey Dubner, who developed the machine in 1978, the CBG creates graphics that look like cartoon shows or video games, except with much greater resolution. You want a schematic re-creation of the bobsled run as it unfolds turn by turn? Ask the Dubner for it. How about multiple shades of red that make a graphic of the U.S.S.R. flag not only appear to be in 3-D but also made of fabric and waving? Or maybe you'd prefer an animated comparison of an NHL-sized rink with the larger Olympic rink?
Goodman also will rely on an electronic system called the paintbox, which ABC experimented with at the '83 Kentucky Derby. Feed a picture into this thing and the machine will digitize it. Then the paintbox will recompose the picture on a computer screen, allowing an artist with an electronic stylus and electronic palette of 64 hues to play with it. Say ABC has a tape of an interview with Phil Mahre that was done at the slalom course with a crowd in the background. In seconds, an artist can remove the crowd and paint in a neutral background. Presto, the network can now drop Mahre's picture over McKay's shoulder as he gives the slalom results.
Then there's the latest in fancy cameras. Last year some TV engineers predicted that minicams would be put on athletes' heads (SI, July 18). They've arrived. Over the last several months, ABC has attached a 12-ounce "point of view" camera to skiers' helmets, to the blade of a hockey stick and to a bobsled and a luge. We'll see the result in conjunction with these events at Sarajevo. The camera is powered by a battery pack, which the skiers and hockey players wore on their backs and which was affixed to the sleds. ABC won't use the camera during Olympic competition. However, it hopes to use a small camera called Skycam, which can be raised, lowered and moved sideways by computer along cables stretched over the ice at Zetra arena. It would take shots of competitors from spots where hand-held cameras can't go.
According to network dogma, flash plus slickness equal ratings. Used carefully, though, the new tech also can enlighten. "We're trying to make the Olympics comprehensible," says Julius Barnathan, president of ABC broadcast operations and engineering. "Most people aren't knowledgeable about the sports we're dealing with. So we've got to educate them quickly and dramatically and interestingly.
"This technology is like fire," continues Barnathan. "It's a great tool but a lousy master. Somebody takes something and flips it just for the sake of flipping it. You say, 'Why? Who needs it? That's gimmickry.' We're not going to be doing things for their own sake. I hope not. I sure hope not."
ABC's "point of view" pleases Barnathan.