The center didnt hold - Broadcasting & Cable

The center didnt hold

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Have the Olympics ended yet? I think so. Judging from much of what's been written, you, the American public, and you, the broadcasting and cable executive, think NBC made a mess of it. Certainly, they couldn't have made much money, and undoubtedly, the network was foolish to estimate that its Nielsen prime time audience rating would hover around a 16.5.

There is nothing quite like the Olympics, whether on time delay or not, and in the summer of "reality" television this was competition that included dignity, history and skill. For all the potshots about these Olympics, you know what? They were still exciting.

And yet, there was kind of a hush about these games, not much of the watercooler chat you can remember from past Olympiads. The biggest problem NBC had was having too much. The games, they were always with us. If you'd have asked me what was on NBC, MSNBC and CNBC at any time in the past two weeks, I would have told you, "The Olympics." When you pay $705 million for the rights, that's what a network has to do.

But there's no reason to look for anything when it's always there. Way back when, cynical NBC programmer Paul Klein invented what he called The Big Event, which was a fancy way of packaging miniseries and specials calculated to create buzz in the marketplace. The fact that NBC's Big Events usually were major artistic disasters was Klein's fatal flaw, but the idea itself was more or less sound. Here! Now! Look at this!

The trouble is, NBC's Olympics schedule was so wall-to-wall there didn't seem to be any center to it, no critical point that gave it definition. It was A Mess o'Big Events.

Media spectators depend on somebody to point them in the right direction. Because NBC had the Olympics everywhere, and seemingly all the time, it had trouble providing focus.

NBC has equally big bills to pay for upcoming Olympics telecasts, and they need the hours to fill with advertising. That fact seems ominous for the next summer games, in Athens in 2004, when, no doubt, even more cable and Internet competitors will make gathering a crowd around for the Olympics even harder.

Eight years ago, NBC tried to parcel off overflow Olympics events into its pay-per-view Triplecast, which attracted an audience of approximately no one. In theory, next time, the Internet would be a pretty special place to video stream the women's rowing preliminary matchups and the like, but even if every person who has ever rowed would log on and pay for it, you still might have too small a crowd to make it worth the production cost.

Oh, there are pretty and fascinating and exciting parts of the Olympics, but a lot of what's there is downright odd. As I watched synchronized swimming one day, I mostly thought about millions of other people watching synchronized swimming, and then about how impossible it would be to get half, or even a quarter of them, to agree to do that again, say a month from now.

That's what I like about the Olympics; it's like going to a vacation spot someone else picked out for you. It's not what you'd choose, but it's interesting in a way.

The games are different, beautiful, special and, even in age of cynical marketing, they show off the human race. NBC didn't screw that up.

Yes, NBC was justifiably criticized for those canned features which seemed to suggest every Olympian had some tragic backstory and emerged victorious. It was as if NBC's producers saw every episode of VH1's Behind the Music, only in reverse.

But truthfully, even if some of it was a little syrupy, the Olympics slipped in quite a lot of history and geopolitics that you won't be seeing this week on Just Shoot Me. Last Thursday, for example, NBC did a packaged piece on athletes who emerged from strife-torn East Timor. I'd venture to bet you won't hear about that place on prime time television for 365 of the next 365 days.

More than 20 million Americans watched the Olympics every night; that's not as many as NBC hoped or advertisers were guaranteed, but more than watched anything else. There's a reason for that. For 16 days, it's still as special as television gets. If a corporation can't make a profit doing them in the future, ultimately it's not just a network that is losing something. It's the medium itself.

Bednarski can be reached at pbednarski@cahners.com or at 212-337-6965.

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