TV Made Conventions Boring Are Olympics Next?


It's like an old Hollywood soap opera. The tube will make you a star, milk you for all you're worth, than toss you aside as a type-cast has-been.

It happened to the political conventions. And, as NBC' coverage ends today, you have to wonder if it could happen to the Olympics.

It wasn't that long ago that the conventions were a genuine Big Deal, a television event that kept the nation glued to its sets for a non-fiction mini-series.

Now look at them. As the Republican convention approaches, other than political junkies curious about George Bush's strategy, most are no more interested in this pre-packaged coronation than they were in the Democrats' version.

What happened is simple. TV covered the conventions because something actually happened at them. They were dynamic, unpredictable.

But then the political parties -- Republicans first -- realized that there was a better way to use all that free prime time. In 1972, while the Democrats stumbled through a disorganized nomination of George McGovern, the Republicans brought you "The Richard Nixon Show," everything from the keynote speech to the balloon drop right on schedule.

Indeed, over the next few quadrennial gatherings, political pundits derided the Democrats for their inability to control their convention. How could they run the country if they couldn't get their candidate's acceptance speech on in prime time?

So, eventually the Democrats started conducting not a political convention but a TV show.

But that just caused the audiences to dwindle. Why watch if you know what's going to happen?

And that meant that the networks -- whose gavel-to-gavel coverage had caused the parties to adopt their slickly-produced approach -- drastically cut back on air time. The conventions became so carefully crafted for TV that television was no longer interested.

Now consider the television odyssey of the Olympics. Always a notable sporting event, ABC basically stumbled onto them as a television spectacle back in the late '60s.

With years of experience of bringing unfamiliar sports to an American audience via "Wide World of Sports," Roone Arledge and Jim McKay knew how to do it. You give a basic explanation of the sport and then profile a few athletes -- a favorite, an underdog, a rags-to-riches story -- to provide the audience with a rooting interest.

People stumbled upon these games and were moved by athletes they had never heard of. They fell in love with Peggy Fleming. They started jogging because of Frank Shorter. They sent their kids to gymnastics classes because of Olga Korbut. And chords of patriotic fervor they had not felt for years were sounded by a bunch of amateur hockey players standing up to the baddest bullies on the block.

The ratings grew. The rights fees increased. More big money followed. And now the very unpredictability that made the Olympics so entrancing seems to be in jeopardy.

When NBC has a half billion dollars riding on this, they don't want to roll the dice hoping that some waif from the steppes will enchant the American public. They want a sure thing. The same goes for Nike, Reebok, Coca-Cola, Mizuno, Panasonic and all the other corporate underwriters who invest in the games. When these people make investments, they expect a return.

And the Olympic organizers, who have been turned from idealistic part-timers to well-paid moguls, have been happy to oblige.

Can there be more of a sure thing than the Dream Team?

Consider the way NBC has covered the games. During the first week in particular, the emphasis was on the sports with tried-and-true appeal -- gymnastics and swimming. There was little chance that you were going to stumble onto something unexpected that would grab your imagination. Of course, if ABC had adopted a similar approach 20 years ago, no one would have ever had a chance to be entranced by gymnastics.

And even with the sports it emphasized, NBC took the safest route. The focus was almost exclusively on Americans. Nadia Comaneci might never have made it to prime time.

Then, the network chose one pre-packaged story line that was supposed to have a sure-fire appeal at the expense of every other drama going on the event.

When an Australian won the women's road cycling race, NBC ignored her because its story line was about an American who wound up back in the pack. Indeed, two other Americans who finished higher up were overlooked.

When Anita Nall finished third in her first swimming final, her interviewer said she must be "shocked and disappointed." But, no, it turned out that a 16-year-old in one of her first international meets was happy with an Olympic bronze. The people who were shocked and disappointed were the NBC producers, because Ms. Nall refused to play her part in their carefully-crafted drama.

Look for the money pressures to force more sure things into the Olympics. Dream Teams in baseball and hockey. Pros in boxing. A change in the U.S. track and field trials procedure so endorsement deals can be signed with some certainty. No more surprises like Dan O'Brien and Carl Lewis.

And with each change the short-sighted corporate types will insure a duller Olympics ultimately leading to a smaller audience.

What will probably save the Olympics from the fate of the conventions is that athletes don't take direction as well as politicians. Performances at this level stubbornly remain surprising, capricious, dramatic. The danger is that the cameras, locked in on their sure thing, will miss the games' real appeal.

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