WHEN Jimmy Carter announced an American boycott of the Summer Olympics of Moscow in 1980, it wasn't just the American athletes who suffered. NBC, in its abysmal pre-Cosby days, had picked a team of hundreds of expert television crews and invested thousands of hours and millions of dollars in training and preparation.
The Olympics were seen as the best vehicle to bolster the then-third place network's sagging Nielsen ratings, in the same way that gold medals made superstars out of Bruce Jenner, Dorothy Hamill and Mary Lou Retton. Instead, the network had to cash in on insurance coverage to cover its loss.
Now NBC finally has its day in the sun. But at the end of Week One, the network is far from achieving even medal contention for its Olympic performance. The American public seems to be avoiding the Olympics; ratings are down by about 30 percent from ABC's 1984 Los Angeles games.
Industry analysts and TV critics have given numerous reasons for the Olympics' failure to dominate the ratings. The fall timing of the Olympics coincides with baseball playoffs and the start-up of football and hockey, thereby flooding the market with sports and overdosing the public.
Others say that the return of the rest of the world to competition--in the first summer Olympics with both Eastern and Western countries since 1976--has overwhelmed the American athletes, creating fewer homegrown winners and less excitement for viewers.
A third theory says that viewers have been switching channels to avoid combative fare such as wrestling, boxing and tai-kwon-do. Analysts predict more synchronized swimming and gymnastics will be shown during prime time next week.
Finally, the time difference between the United States and South Korea has pushed many major events into the wee hours of our morning. The American audience can hear results before they've had a chance to watch the match on TV, and this makes the broadcast less compelling.
Most of these reasons for NBC's ratings' failure stem from circumstances beyond the network's control. But the real reasons for the low ratings are the broadcasts themselves.
In addition to giving time to many marginal sports, NBC is airing a lot of preliminary heats and compulsory competitions, making the events just that much harder to keep track of. Why show swimming and rowing heats in which the top competitors, according to the announcers, are expending only enough energy to make it to the finals and purposely not giving their best performance?
The foremost problem with NBC's actual coverage is its length. Expanding Olympic coverage to a record 179 hours, NBC has eliminated the The Today Show, The Tonight Show and Late Night with David Letterman from its lineup for two weeks, in addition to the entire prime time schedule and 4 to 5 p.m. daily. This is simply too much. No diehard Olympic fan could even dream of watching all this coverage. And once you've missed a little of the action, it becomes easier and easier to miss the whole show.
Viewers get the feeling that the Olympics are always on so they can tune in any time for a bit of the action. Like a sports MTV. And NBC emphasizes MTV-like viewing habits, by jumping in and out of different events in very short, song-length reports. If weightlifting is on, and you hate weightlifting, just sneeze or go to the bathroom, and you'll return to find the first heat of some swimming event.
The problem with this type of coverage is that NBC has eliminated the build-up of dramatic sports stories that are usually the most entertaining part of the Olympics. Instead of covering anything completely, they show everything incompletely.
ONE of the most dramatic stories of the games so far has been Greg Louganis' gold medal victory in springboard diving after smashing his head on the diving board in a preliminary round. During his final dives, Louganis was forced into a split screen with a basketball game, whose announcers were doing the play-by-play. If NBC wanted to give us a sense that there is a lot going on at the same time, they succeeded. But who wants to hear about a missed free throw in the first few minutes of a basketball match when one could be concentrating on the world's finest diver's best effort.
If NBC is going to continue with half-screen coverage and tedious events, it may as well go ahead with its aborted plan to split the screen between sports and commercials. We still wouldn't get a close look at the Games, but at least we wouldn't have to watch the ads either.