You had to wade through treacly features and "is it or isn't live" to get there, but in its final Olympic telecast day, NBC delivered a remarkably moving day of sports television yesterday.
In the morning, the network followed an Afghan runner who finished the men's marathon two hours after much of the field. The tendency might have been to mock the man, but anchor Jim Lampley instead gave the runner the dignity he deserved for finishing the task he started.
The highlight of NBC's day was a beautifully filmed, 45-minute documentary -- presented without commercial interruption -- on five Americans, decathlete Rafer Johnson, sprinter Wilma Rudolph, basketball players Jerry West and Oscar Robertson and boxer Muhammad Ali, who excelled at the 1960 Olympics in Rome. Producers Lisa Lax and Brian Brown turned in Emmy-caliber work that everyone associated with the network should be proud of.
By the way, NBC deserves credit for dedicating Saturday's telecast to the memory of Alice Hawthorne, the Georgia native who lost her life in last weekend's Centennial Olympic Park bombing. In that act, and throughout the marathon 15-hour telecast schedule yesterday, concluding with the glorious closing ceremonies, NBC seemed to grasp, finally, what the Games should have been about, namely, people from all over the world coming together and putting aside their differences to compete, then sharing in their commonality.
When NBC Sports researcher Nicholas Schiavone told the New Yorker last week, "The Olympics is the model by which the rest of television ought to be done," he gave the clue that we at least should expect future Olympics telecast to look and feel a lot like this one.
That means that when NBC sets up shop in Sydney in 2000, American viewers should count on telecasts with heavy emphasis on sports like gymnastics, swimming and diving, which appeal to women, as well as features that will attract female viewers.
And don't think the CBS planners and programmers, who get the 1998 Winter Olympics from Nagano, Japan, haven't been sitting back and carefully watching how NBC has culled in big numbers of viewers with their approach. We're likely to see a lot of NBC's techniques and tactics in two years on CBS, with Jim Nantz as the probable prime-time host.
Also, for viewers who have complained that NBC's selection of sports has made it difficult to get a representative view of all the Olympic sports, take heart. In 2000, there will be a cable component, according to NBC Sports president Dick Ebersol, that will certainly include CNBC, and perhaps another channel, maybe the network's new offering, MSNBC.
There will, however, exist factors in 2000 that will make it more problematical for NBC to achieve the same ratings success that it did in Atlanta.
First, Sydney is a whopping 15 hours ahead of the East Coast of the United States. Viewers won't have to guess what is live and what is taped, because, by necessity, most, if not all, of the
prime-time programming will be recorded, just as in Seoul in 1988, where the ratings were lower than the 1984 Games in Los Angeles, when most of the proceedings were live.
That means the results of events will be more widely available to interested parties, who then will have to decide whether they want to see a competition whose winner's identity is already known.
One other factor to be considered for the Sydney Games will be their timing, currently scheduled to run from Sept. 16 to Oct. 1.
That is in the midst of what is now the beginning of the new fall season of entertainment shows, and ABC, CBS, Fox and whatever other networks exist at that time will certainly counterprogram more strenuously against NBC than they did during these Olympics, when they mostly ran repeats, which played a big factor in the large ratings for the Atlanta Games.
Pub Date: 8/05/96