Give Ted Turner this: The humble, unassuming ol' boy we have come
to know and cherish finally got his Goodwill Games up on the
satellite. Unfortunately, what goes up must come down to the earth
station. The TV coverage of the made- for-TV games has, for the most
part, been painfully inept. Although some of the events have been
compelling, almost nobody has tuned in. The average prime-time rating
for the games' first five nights was 2.2 on superstation WTBS and a
network of syndicated stations.
One of the problems is Turner's own conflict of interest: creating
and - promoting the games, and, last weekend, even acting as an
expert commentator on the yachting competition. Is he selling or
reporting? How objective can someone be when he's reporting on his
own pet project? Is television in this case serving the sport, or
Last Friday, Bob Neal, the Turner network studio host in Moscow,
asked Peggy Fleming, the figure skating commentator who had just
arrived in the U.S.S.R., what kind of reception the games were
getting in America. ''Everybody's excited about it,'' Fleming said.
Now, Peggy, who are you kidding? Then there were the features about
life in the Soviet Union. While Turner's Goodwill concept is
certainly laudable, I didn't hear a single word about Soviet life
that deserved any less than a 9 on the sympathy meter.
A larger failing, at least in TV terms, is the puzzling absence of
substance or human drama in the telecasts. The events themselves
haven't been bad, but the lead-ins have been tense and contrived, and
some of the announcers seem not to have a clue about the sports or
the athletes they're covering. Neal is a comfortable presence behind
the host's desk, co-host Nick Charles has done his homework, and Skip
Caray's tongue-in-cheek coverage of motoball has been delightful. But
the jock commentators are so amateurish they might as well be high
school students playing broadcaster -- with the notable exception of
Bob Knight at the men's world basketball championships in Spain,
which are being included in the Goodwill coverage.
TBS, which airs 7 to 10 hours of Goodwill programming each day,
certainly has the time to draw viewers into each sport and explain
its nuances. Instead, what it generally has done is slap on a tape
and let viewers fend for themselves. Because of the time difference,
no more than 30% of the competition is being covered live, and TBS's
budget is tiny compared with what a major network would spend on such
a large event. The truth is, we've been spoiled rotten by ABC's
coverage of past Olympics. TBS may be full of goodwill, but 129 hours
of multievent television is too daunting a task for a network still
in knee pants.
For much of the first week TBS, which has only 14 cameras of its
own (Soviet TV is furnishing the main feed), lurched from snafu to
disaster. The nadir was an Abbott and Costello-like studio interview
conducted by hostess Mary Anne Loughlin with three female U.S.
swimmers. Loughlin repeatedly mixed up the identities of her guests,
botched a recital of their records and had to be saved by a stage
whisper from one of the women (''No, that's Janet over there!'').
There were people talking and giggling over open mikes, heavy objects
dropping in the studio, announcer errors and enough airhead interview
questions to keep viewers floating in a state of confusion. Why
interviews are conducted when interviewers don't know what to ask is
simply beyond reckoning.
As the games' second week began, TBS's coverage was improving. But
I felt sad for Loughlin and other TBS commentators who wanted their
show to be special but were in far over their heads. Goodwill does
not necessarily make good television. END
JERRY COOKE Turner and Soviet television honcho Henrikas Yushkiavitshus were all smiles in Moscow.