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Original Issue


ABC's Olympic dilemma: too many hours, too few events

Let's face it, TV watchers, ABC's problem—and yours—is that the Calgary Games are just too drawn out, and with the U.S. hockey team eliminated from the competition, things are only going to get worse. Interest falls off when Brian, Debi and the gang are off the ice, and Brian and the hockey team were long gone as of Sunday.

These Games are the longest in history, covering 16 days and three weekends. By their conclusion, ABC will have televised 94½ hours of coverage. That's 31½ more hours than it telecast from Sarajevo in 1984, 41½ more than from Lake Placid in 1980 and 51 more than from Innsbruck in 1976. More is clearly not better for the viewer or for ABC, which paid an exorbitant $309 million for the 1988 U.S. TV rights and now stands to lose at least $40 million on the Games.

But ABC's average prime-time rating of about 19 through Sunday, though lower than the 21.5 guaranteed to sponsors, wasn't exactly the pits. If sustained, it could be enough to win ABC its first February sweeps (on which ad rates are based for the subsequent three months) since Sarajevo. But with NBC's Noble House miniseries amid the competition this week, ABC's numbers could fall off the ski lift.

Compounding the problem, of course, has been the disappointing performance of U.S. athletes, particularly the hockey team, and the repeated postponement of events. The men's downhill, for example, was to have been shown live on the Sunday of the opening weekend, but the race was delayed a day because of high winds. The two-man bobsled competition, scheduled for Sunday, was postponed when the wind blew gravel and sand onto the run. So ABC has had to use fillers: Instead of the downhill, Keith Jackson sent us out to watch Alpine training runs. Another time, there was an interview with actor Michael J. Fox. There was even a segment featuring commentators Al Trautwig and Bob Beattie eating pastries. Talk about scraping the bottom.

But we're not there yet—not by a long shot. How about Friday night's taped feature on how tongue-tied Canadians mispronounced Scandinavian and Eastern European names? Give us a break. ABC filled part of 10½ hours of coverage on Saturday with the Sweden-Finland hockey game. Maybe three salmon were watching. Then there was Trautwig's interview with Dr. Ruth, in which she expounded on the merits of skiers having sex before competition. Dr. Ruth was on the air only because ABC, desperately trying to fill time, had absolutely nothing better to show. The Q & A was in egregiously bad taste, aired as it was early Sunday afternoon, when families were watching. "A quickie" with one's wife or usual partner would be all right, she said, adding that if skiers suffered from too much sexual tension they should take "a shower or do something to relieve themselves." Great.

Advertising revenue, of course, is behind the interminable coverage. The more ABC shows of the Games, the more commercials it can air. The late-night half-hour wrap-up show brings in $900,000. Every hour of coverage on weekend mornings and afternoons is worth $3 million. Every hour in prime time—even when NBC's The Cosby Show is walloping ABC in the ratings—the network generates $5 million in ad revenues. A prime-time half-minute commercial goes for $285,000.

Early in last Wednesday's coverage, Jim McKay delivered a sermon, trying to explain why ABC had cut away from Monday night's U.S.-Czechoslovakia hockey game, thereby missing three of the first four goals scored by the Americans and the Czech goal that tied the score at 4-4 in the third period. These goals took place, said McKay, "while we were elsewhere, at other events, usually.... After all, we are here to cover the Olympics, not just ice hockey."

In this case ABC had gone to the men's downhill, an important event. What McKay neglected to say was that the race had been taped earlier in the day—and thus could have been aired between periods—and that during two of the missed goals ABC was showing commercials, not the race. The network could have reduced the hockey action to a portion of the screen while simultaneously running commercials, similar to the way NBC did it during its World Cup soccer coverage in 1986. But as ABC News president Roone Arledge, who is in charge of the Calgary coverage, said, "It was tough enough to sell commercials the way they were." Translation: ABC couldn't afford it.

"TV doesn't control Olympic hockey—and I hope it never does," McKay said. He had to be kidding. Hadn't the tooth fairy clued him in that there may have been a connection between ABC's rights payment and the U.S. hockey team's regularly getting 8:15 p.m. EST starting times, while other teams played at all hours of the day and night?

ABC does deserve applause for its high-tech pictures and sound. These are truly the You-Are-There Olympics. The super slo-mo has been used more smartly than in the past, and for $250,000 ABC has developed four two-ounce cameras and one larger POV (point-of-view) camera that give viewers a feeling of what it's like to soar off a ski jump or zoom down Nakiska at 80 mph.

And never has a sporting event had such superb sound. We have heard the breathing of downhill racers in the start house, the chatter of skis on the slopes and the whoosh of skiers leaving the lip of a ski jump. Instead of putting, say, one microphone alongside each camera at 20 positions on Mount Allan, ABC assigned three mikes to each camera.

Several moments made for memorable TV, such as the Dan Jansen story. ABC certainly had enough cameras recording Jansen and his grief, and Gary Bender's talk with the speed skater was gentle. The contrasting shots of Pirmin Zurbriggen in victory and Peter Müller in defeat right after the downhill, and the images of Brian Boitano's figure skating triumph, also were small jewels.

When not delivering sermons or sending us off to commercials, McKay, who could be working his last Olympics, has acquitted himself rather nicely, imparting his communal, almost familial, air. However, the class announcers of the Games have been Al Michaels and Ken Dryden on hockey, and Dick Button on figure skating. The intelligent, exacting Dryden may be the most perceptive hockey commentator on the continent, and no one speaks with more relish about his sport, or has a keener eye for detail, than Button. But kiss-and-cry interviewer David Santee is undertaker-stiff and can't ask a decent question. His opener to silver medalist Brian Orser, who had just come off the ice—"Brian, I have good news for you and bad news. Those were tremendous composition and style marks, but you came in second"—was woefully insensitive.

Other lowlights:

•The smart-alecky approach Trautwig too often brought to his assignments.

•The fawning buildup given to Soviet pairs skater Ekaterina Gordeeva (Didn't she have a partner named Grinkov?).

•The moment during an awkward interview conducted by Becky Dixon at Canmore when, after asking a volunteer what he was eating, she grabbed a bite of his unoffered, half-eaten bratwurst.

Finally, we would be remiss if we overlooked the saccharine-sweet late-night show hosted by Frank Gifford and Kathie Lee, whom Gifford never actually identified as his wife. The show has been more schmooze and promo than highlights or wrap-up.

As to the quality of the discourse, Gifford called Brian Orser "Orsano" one night (he quickly corrected himself) and said the "third quarter" of the U.S.-U.S.S.R. hockey game was one of the best he had ever seen. Kathie Lee called the U.S. hockey team "our boys," as though, said The New York Times, she were selling War Bonds. And after showing a tape of the POV camera following a puck, she declared: "If I come back in another life, I don't want to be a hockey puck, I'm sure of that!"