Drop of scandal has NBC's cup overflowing


NBC couldn't have cooked up a better ratings-grabber if it had brought in Jeff Gillooly to arrange yet another whack-a-mole with an Olympic figure skater.

There's been some transcendent camera work this week, particularly with the downhill skiing and speed skating, along with dramatic competition, and lovely vistas on all three of the network's channels, which include CNBC and MSNBC on cable.

But the network has clearly recognized that the murky stew of sport, pageant and commerce has been transformed into a glorious bouillabaisse with a single ingredient: scandal on ice.

Ratings for the first six days of the Winter Olympics on NBC proper were nearly 20 percent above those registered by CBS during the Nagano games four years ago.

More than 150 million Americans have tuned in since the opening ceremonies. In key demographics - those advertiser-friendly folks between the ages of 18 and 49, for instance - ratings rose even more.

At the very outset of last night's prime-time broadcast, chief NBC Olympics host Bob Costas kept viewers' attention fixed on what he called "Skate Gate - the ongoing controversy."

Costas offered an exclusive interview with International Skating Union president Ottavio Cinquanta. The Italian sports bureaucrat was responding to allegations that pressure and vote-swapping among judges were involved in the awarding of a gold medal to a Russian figure skating duo over a Canadian pair that had skated a seemingly flawless routine.

Gently, Costas asked the questions on everyone's mind. "This matters a great deal, commercially, image-wise," he said. "Are you concerned about the question of integrity of this sport, overall?"

Cinquanta languidly recited almost identical answers to those he's delivered the day before at a press conference, forcing Costas to ask if there were any more details that could be disclosed about his association's inquiry. (The answer: No.)

One half expected Cinquanta to say, in his elegantly diffident way, "Who are you going to believe - me or your own eyes?"

On Wednesday night, NBC slapped a "breaking news" logo at the bottom of the screen. Not since Nancy Kerrigan's plaintive cry eight years ago - "Why me?" - had there brewed such a made-for-TV controversy.

This was a safe scandal for NBC, squarely concentrated on the action inside the arena, not inside the conference rooms. There was no hint of the implications of the scandal involved in the International Olympic Committee's selection of Salt Lake City as host.

As partner-in-chief of the IOC - it has paid more than a half-billion dollars for exclusive U.S. rights to this year's broadcasts - NBC has a strong interest in the games' credibility and their presence here in America. And the network has been plugging them every chance it gets.

The coverage of the games has veered from the cutting edge (snowboarding) to the arcane (curling) to the traditional (figure skating). The music and tone of the profiles have changed accordingly. Overexuberant patriotism has been kept appropriately in check, while computer-enhanced graphics have been illustrative without being intrusive.

The likable Scott Hamilton became overheated at times, yelping his thoughts during the figure skating competition too loudly to be easily understood.

Others, such as skiing commentators Todd Brooker and Christin Cooper, better blended appreciation and observation, thereby arriving at strong insights.

NBC has no need to worry about such distinctions, however. It's already won its gold.

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