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Olympic coverage depends on tape-delay

Sunday, September 10, 2000

By Chuck Finder, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

This story was written roughly 15 days earlier. None of this is plausibly live. None of this involves that we'll return to the action after these messages .... television foofery.

Rather, this is just up-front, tell-it-like-it-was-hours-ago canned goods.

That's how NBC is treating these 2000 Olympics in Australia, so that's how we're treating this story.

In less than a fortnight, the peacock network and its cable step-sisters will tell you tales on tape. They will cover these Sydney Summer Games with a double-more-than-before 441 1/2 hours of television tape - 162 1/2 on NBC, 214 on MSNBC and 65 on CNBC. Tape, tape, nothing but tape.

So you can forget the plausibly-live buzzword that got folks buzzed off four years ago in Atlanta, when Keri Strug vaulted hours before and the women's soccer team was hardly seen, and so on.

These Olympics take place 15 time zones away from Pittsburgh, in a place where their today is our tomorrow, if you catch our International Date Line drift. Australia's 8 p.m. prime time is 5 a.m. Eastern time.

Welcome to the "While You Were Sleeping" Summer Games.

Then again, Australia's 10 to 11 p.m. event-finals prime time is "The Today Show" morning time on NBC, and the network will deliver a little Olympics news during that popular morning show. But this is the same network that brings us "Breakfast at Wimbledon." Why not "Dawn from Down Under?" Instead, we'll watch event finals on NBC some 15-plus hours after they happen, or on the cable step-sisters five-plus hours after they happen.

Remember "Triplecast" from Barcelona in 1992? This time, there's no extra cost beyond your existing cable rates, there's no Ahmad Rashad as anchor, there's no dearth of interest. They have the system pretty evenly worked out - so long as you don't require it being absolutely live.

The television coverage breaks down thusly:

NBC - Weekdays 10 a.m.-noon, 7 p.m.-midnight, 12:35-2:05 a.m. Weekends 11 a.m.-6 p.m., 7 p.m.-midnight, 12:30-2 a.m. Will air mostly track and field, swimming, gymnastics, more high-profile individual events and highlights of other competitions. Bob Costas will serve as anchor.

MSNBC - Weekdays 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Weekends 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Will air mostly team sports, lots of women sports, and a kids show each afternoon ("Scholastic [Magazine] at the Olympics"). Soccer, tennis, equestrian, field hockey, water polo, weight lifting and, for the first time, even both handball finals will be part of the cable equation. The U.S. soccer teams will play the first two nights - men vs. Czechs Wednesday Sept. 13 and women vs. Norway Thursday Sept. 14, before opening ceremonies on Friday Sept. 15 - and mostly on weekends and even the mornings of NFL Sundays. Jim Lampley will serve as anchor.

CNBC - Weekdays 5-9 p.m. Weekends 4-9 p.m. Home to boxing the first two hours of every program. Marv Albert and Teddy Atlas surely will give those bouts a nasally, New York lilt. Pat O'Brien will serve as anchor.

When Lampley told folks on the street about this unprecedented cable coverage, which will include 20 sports and 30 gold-medal finals, "people's jaws literally dropped because they have been so conditioned to seeing the Olympics in the past as a sort of bait-and-switch, hide-and-seek, piecemeal coverage. Here is an opportunity for us to say to Olympics viewers: You don't have to be part of the sausage; you can see the entire event." Sausage?

Ebersol considers it cable coverage for "the pure, unadulterated sports fan."

For the folks who want live results and up-to-the-minute coverage, you'd better head for NBCOlympics.com. The Web site will enhance the television programming, say network types, by devoting a tremendous amount of cyberspace to the results of events that TV viewers won't see until later.

"If people are really curious, they will find the results," Ebersol said, referring to such outlets as that Web site, other online sports services, ESPN and CNN and Fox Sports Net and even "Today."

Ebersol maintained that he didn't want to alter the ratings success of on-tape Olympics coverage, that he didn't want to upset the sports-mad Aussies by asking them to jigger their event schedule - as Seoul, South Korea, did in 1988 for American TV.

"Our NBC coverage is the traditional, family coverage that either we or ABC have been producing since way back in the mid-'60s, when it was first put together by our teacher, Mr. [Roone] Arledge," said Ebersol, a former Arledge underling. He added that 48 percent of Olympics viewers are women and another 16 percent are kids. "The Olympics appeal to an audience vastly different than one that comes to American sports every weekend. The average American comes to the Olympics [coverage] with the attitude of 'tell me a story, not who won.'"

More Americans tune into American-based Olympics than what he called off-shore Summer Games, yet Ebersol still expected to slightly exceed 1992 Barcelona's average rating (17.1) and 1996 Atlanta's total viewership (206.5 million).

That translates into money, and NBC's properties figure to show a profit. The network expected to reach a sales total around $100 million more than the $680 million raised in commercials and stuff from Atlanta, though it now appears more likely the Sydney number will surpass $900 million. The Salt Lake Organizing Committee scandal had no bearing, Ebersol said: "A lot of suits doing fairly corrupt things ... never impacted our sales."

Making a profit isn't such a bad thing for a network that invested, as Ebersol phrased it, $3.5 billion of "GE's money" into landing the broadcast rights to the next five Olympics.

In short, tape apparently sells.

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