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Reality of Olympics has CBS in cold sweat

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Begin with 640 square miles of Alpine terrain that will make for terrific pictures and terrifying logistics.

Add a bunch of sports that most Americans associate with a weekend in Siberia.

Toss in a rookie Olympic co-host who knows more about the double play than the triple Axel.

Then, just to watch them all sweat, dump in an economic recession that drags down advertising rates and crunches the bottom line.

And you thought the Russians had problems?

Welcome to CBS, or the home-shopping network goes to the Winter Olympics.

After spending the past three months begging you to "share a moment with the world," CBS will bring the world of ice and snow to your living room for 17 days and 116 hours, beginning with a preview show tonight and ending with the closing ceremonies Feb. 23.

That's a lot of time to fill for an event that could be comfortably squeezed into a four-day holiday weekend.

But there are ads to sell, bills to pay and ratings to reap. If it's February, it must be a ratings sweep, which will determine television ad rates for the coming season.

"The Olympics are attractive programming," said Neal Pilson, president of CBS Sports. "If you had a chance of having the Olympics or not having them, well, I think you'd get them."

Tough talk. Let's hear what he has to say when the first blizzard hits the Savoie region of France, and prime-time coverage consists of 25 ice-dancing teams doing the polka.

Here are 10 things to think about while hearing the Olympic theme for the zillionth time:

Money

Theirs, not yours.

The last time CBS televised the Winter Olympics was in 1960. Walter Cronkite was the host and Tex Schramm, yes, that Tex Schramm, was the executive producer.

And the rights fee was $50,000.

CBS paid Olympic organizers $243 million to secure the 1992 event -- that's $65 million less than ABC paid to broadcast the 1988 Games from Calgary, Alberta.

When the contracts were signed three years ago, the deal looked like a bargain. Then, the economy went sour and CBS executives temporarily lost a grip on reality by signing that $1 billion baseball contract.

Red ink gushes. Fortunately, you don't have to pay the network's bills.

Advertisers are being asked to cough up $250,000 for a 30-second spot, and the network is still projected to lose up to $60 million, according to industry analysts.

What does that mean to you, the loyal viewer? Watch the screen carefully to see whether the former Tiffany Network continues to act like a K-Mart shopper.

One look at the CBS work space at the International Broadcast Center in Moutiers, France, may provide a few clues: the Sheetrock walls are unpainted and the concrete floor is uncarpeted.

The Tim McCarver Factor

When Lonnie Smith fails to take the extra base and gives away the seventh game of the World Series, McCarver is the man you want on the air. But can an ex-catcher who is so prescient while announcing baseball, provide the same kind of commentary on, say, luge?

"I know I'm an ex-baseball player and a current baseball announcer, but I'm curious about sports," McCarver said. "My job is to enhance the broadcast to make things clear and to enjoy myself."

McCarver and Paula Zahn of "CBS This Morning" will serve as prime-time co-hosts. Sitting in overstuffed chairs in a studio that looks like June and Ward Cleaver's living room, they'll be the cheery guides through the day's events.

Other host combinations include: Andrea Joyce and Jim Nantz weekend days; Greg Gumbel and Harry Smith weekday mornings; Pat O'Brien late night; James Brown, weekday midday.

The only one missing is . . . Jim McKay, the voice of the Olympics and ABC-TV. He'll be sitting this one out at his winter vacation home in Florida.

Tape delay

This is the not-so-dirty-little secret of the Games.

Because Albertville is six hours ahead of the East Coast of the United States, only about one-third of the CBS telecasts will be live.

Will viewers grown accustomed to prime-time war live from Baghdad, settle for tape-delayed figure skating?

Surveys say yes.

The glamour sports

Prime time belongs to figure skating, speed skating and skiing. Early risers will be treated to the Nordic events, luge and skiing.

Then, there is the hockey problem. In 1980, the U.S. team was the story of the Olympics, beating the Soviet Union and later winning the gold medal. For the next two Olympics, ABC built its broadcast package around the Americans and suffered in the ratings. CBS isn't taking any chances, dumping hockey into the morning and afternoon time slots.

Feature packages

Call this Storytelling 101.

CBS figures if you can't sell the sports, then sell the personalities. They're following the same Up-Close-And-Personal formula pioneered by ABC's Roone Arledge.

Profiles of more than 100 athletes have been assembled. They also have a few think pieces on the changes wrought by the death of European communism. Watch for "60 Minutes" heavyweights like Morley Safer, Mike Wallace and Andy Rooney to make cameo appearances in these segments.

Prime-time stars

CBS doesn't plan to wave the American flag. There will be plenty of exposure for international athletes, including the French dance team of Isabelle and Paul Duchesnay, Italian Alpine skier Alberto Tomba and Norwegian speed skater Johann Olav Koss.

But the main story line is going to revolve around the success and failure of a few American stars:

* Dan Jansen and Bonnie Blair in speed skating.

* AJ Kitt in the men's downhill.

* Christopher Bowman and Todd Eldredge in men's figure skating.

* Kristi Yamaguchi, Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan taking on Japan's Midori Ito in ladies' figure skating.

The cable alternative

For $20 million, Turner Network Television grabbed a 45-hour chunk of the Games from CBS. The TNT broadcasts will be confined to 10 weekday afternoons.

Nick Charles and Fred Hickman will be the hosts from Atlanta. John Naber, an Olympic swimming gold medalist, will be on site in Albertville.

Don't expect to see any first-rate material, unless it's two days old. CBS will embargo the good stuff for prime time, leaving TNT with plenty of live Nordic events, plus some incredibly bad figure skating that could become a staple on "Saturday Night Live."

Innovation, anyone?

Forget it. What gives this Olympics its flavor, the beauty of the French Alps, will give broadcasters fits. Just getting the pictures on the air from the 12 remote sites is a technological miracle. Besides, ABC already introduced the TV gems -- point-of-view cameras and enhanced sound -- at the Calgary Games.

"We're not reinventing the wheel," Pilson said.

Captivating announcers

Katarina Witt: Four years ago, she was a poster girl for a monstrous political regime in East Germany. Now, she's an analyst for a network groping for a new identity in a harsh capitalist system. Only in America.

John Davidson: He's the former New York Rangers goaltender, not the washed-up Las Vegas star and Hollywood Squares host. For the 240 million Americans who have never watched a hockey game, Davidson's wit and wisdom will be a revelation.

Andy Mill: Before he became Mr. Chris Evert, he was a downhill racer and two-time Olympian. Mill's expertise and humor are broadcast assets.

Maybe not-so-captivating

McCarver and Zahn. They're just the latest to try to measure up to McKay's Olympian standards. At the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul, South Korea, Bryant Gumbel showed up for NBC, played it straight and serious, and was savaged by critics.

Can a catcher and a newscaster succeed where Gumbel failed?

You decide.

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