Kristen Baldwin and Joe Flint
March 06, 1998 AT 05:00 AM EST

TO: NBC Sports execs
FROM: Entertainment Weekly
RE: How not to screw up the 2000 Games in Sydney.

As negative reviews of the Nagano Olympics keep rolling in, you’re probably kicking back and pitying your colleagues at CBS. But keep in mind: There but for the grace of Juan Antonio Samaranch….In two years, it’ll be NBC’s turn to tackle the Olympics in Sydney, and you’ll be facing the same half-day time difference that stymied CBS, leading to the lowest-rated Games since 1968. Time to panic yet?

Probably not. For one thing, despite the low ratings (16.2 overall, 42 percent below CBS’ 27.8 rating for Lillehammer in ’94), which forced the network to provide a raft of ”make-good ads” for its sponsors, CBS will still net a profit of roughly $75 million. And the Eye will also easily win February sweeps, with possibly even a victory in the key 18-to-49 demographic. ”We’re going to do just fine,” says CBS TV president Leslie Moonves. ”There were mistakes made, but the good news is it’s going to hurt NBC more next time than it hurts us now.”

What his little parting shot means is that ad rates for the next Games will be based, partly, on Nagano’s ratings. In fact, in the suspicious eyes of many, that’s just why NBC threw in the towel in February, ”competing” mostly with repeats to boost its rival’s Olympic viewership. ”NBC laid down,” says a rival network chief. ”It was an economic consideration.”

Responds NBC Entertainment president Warren Littlefield: ”We didn’t lay down. [But] why waste original programming in prime time when most of the audience is going to be watching the Olympics?”

Of course, given Nagano’s poor showing, don’t expect the other networks to play dead in 2000. But that’s not the only lesson learned. Here’s a handy list of Olympic do’s and don’ts:

DON’T obsess over prime time. CBS badly underestimated the damage done by the 14-hour time difference between Japan and the States. Telecasts of dramatic events, such as Austrian skier Hermann Maier’s remarkable gold-medal run in the Super G, felt flat after they were held for a day so as not to disrupt previously scheduled prime-time events. That kind of strategy might have worked in the past, but today, what with 24-hour news channels and Internet updates, news ain’t what it used to be. ”There is an instant-result capability now that didn’t exist six to eight years ago,” says Neal Pilson, former president of CBS Sports. ”Events show up before they air on the network.” Pilson advises NBC to broadcast live as much as possible, even on its cable networks MSNBC and CNBC.

DO go with the flow. Clearly, stronger news sensibilities were needed in Nagano. When an earthquake hit the area last week, the event was barely acknowledged, much less reported on air. And granted, compelling stories, à la Dan Jansen, were rare. As CBS’ Nagano executive producer Rick Gentile says bluntly: ”It was a boring Olympics.” Still, the network was unable to develop the stories that did emerge, such as Picabo Street’s surprise Super G gold. ”Sports writes a better story by itself than Ernest Hemingway could,” says Jon Mandel, senior VP of Grey Advertising. ”Yet CBS felt compelled to try and outwrite sports.” Consider the pointless broadcasts of figure skating practices, needlessly hyping what was already the showcase of the Games, the Tara Lipinski-Michelle Kwan duel. And for that we missed seeing more of the golden U.S. women’s hockey team?

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