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TV live or taped, it's watching together that counts

THE BALTIMORE SUN

ON TELEVISION, where does reality begin and end? Sports.

At least with sports on television, I absolutely know that what I am watching is real. The World Wrestling Federation aside, it's become the most trusted viewing for that very reason. If the TV network or station says it's being broadcast live then, yes, there really is a real game going on somewhere.

Seeing what's in store for us, as reality bites a mouthful out of the forthcoming fall primetime lineup, what were once clearly demarcated lines between entertainment programs and news, documentary and the commercials that sponsor them, are getting blurry, possibly because of the enormous success of "Survivor."

For example, when the CBS network and local affiliated news media, on which "Survivor" aired, followed up with their own continuous coverage after the season finale, where did the show end and the news begin? And Reebok not only had its products placed within the show, but also used the cast members in commercials that aired during the broadcast. Is it one big commercial waiting for a television show, or the other way around?

Like the equivalent of a giant tailgating party, before "Survivor" had even aired it was being promoted on "Entertainment Tonight" and every other news magazine show. All that's needed now is someone, somewhere to be thinking up the "Survivor" infomercial to call and order the "I survived Survivor T-Shirt." Realizing that sports fans and their relationship with their favorite events have had their ups and downs, there's nevertheless always been a genuine excitement for waiting, wondering and watching what will happen next. Who will make the next great play, who will cause the fateful error and, ultimately, who will win? Nothing can compare to really real reality sports TV. Right?

Enter this year's Olympics, or NBC's version of it.

It's taped because of the roughly 14-hour time difference between the U.S. Eastern Daylight Time and Sydney. The ultimate sports event, the ultimate in the pursuit of victory, and my viewing of what's supposed to be real isn't. Should it matter, in the end, that my one last oasis of unscripted, untarnished television to look forward to is not pure, unfiltered fun?

Like "Survivor," it will be taped in the faraway South Pacific, the latest vogue locale to abduct and hold hostages. Heaven forbid the incarnation of some updated 1972 Munich Olympics, with round-the-cyber-clock scenes on some tragi.com site along with CNN spinning while transmitting it into the latest in media frenzy.

For while the games are really happening, most of us really will be asleep. And most of us may not really care and will be watching the events the next day as though they were happening live at primetime. And, like "Survivor" and everything else that's on TV, we'll be watching the coverage less for the momentary, distant phenomenon and more for simple, actual, companionship.

That's what it all comes down to -- sports, news, all of it -- we are lonely and we need constant assurance that we aren't alone. In fact, it's safe to say that Olympics viewership won't decline because, ultimately, it doesn't really matter that it's delayed. Win or lose, we'll all still be watching it together.

It's the same bonding companionship that keeps even a non-winning team's stadium full at Chicago's Wrigley Field and rooting for the Cubs, with one of the worst records in baseball, rather than the White Sox, who have the best. It's about sharing in the experience while enjoying the spirit of the chase.

Or with "Hopkins 24/7," now in the mix, which is real but taped. It connects us on a larger scale, gives us a reaffirming feeling that we're all experiencing the pain, the joys the breakthroughs of life in a Johns Hopkins Hospital operating room. We are all experiencing what is real, even if it was taped and isn't happening the moment we are watching it. It still gives us hope. So too with the Olympics.

And it's why we need to be assured from the media that the cast of "Survivor" and every other celebrity out there is still with us. The constant reminders of their presence are on the covers of magazines and in commercial endorsements.

And if I buy the same shoes they are wearing, the same gear my heroes wear, I'll carry with me the constant reminder that having done my part, I've kept them all still somehow real. They live because I watch them.

Abe Novick is a senior vice president of strategic business development for Baltimore-based Eisner Communications.

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