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|Salt Lake 2002
|U.S. Olympic Committee
|International Olympic Committee
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LIVE from Salt Lake
With lessons from the Sydney Summer Games still fresh, NBC takes advantage of the short time difference in covering the Olympics from Salt Lake City.
By ERIC DEGGANS, Times TV Critic
© St. Petersburg Times
published February 11, 2002
I'll say this for NBC Sports: sometimes they learn from their mistakes.
For proof, compare the network's prime time coverage of the Winter Olympics Friday and Saturday to its performance less than two years ago at the Summer Olympics in Sydney, Australia.
Fewer saccharine feature stories on athletes. More live coverage of events. Less embarrassing jingoism.
Indeed, for a city kid whose idea of winter sports was seeing how fast you could scrape frost off a car windshield, I found NBC's presentation of events at Salt Lake City this weekend surprisingly focused, informative and engaging.
Of course, fate helped by handing the network a U.S.-based Olympics just when the country seemed to need it most (also erasing the 15-hour time difference that made live coverage of Olympics in Sydney nearly impossible).
With the weight of Sept. 11 still heavy, Friday's opening ceremonies offered stately, affecting images, from emergency workers and athletes carrying the tattered flag from the World Trade Center to the 1980 "Miracle on Ice" hockey team lighting the Olympic cauldron.
No wonder 72 million viewers tuned in -- making it the highest-rated opening ceremony ever -- despite occasionally intrusive yakking from hosts Bob Costas and the Today show's Katie Couric. (There's a reason they call it a moment of silence, guys.)
By the time actual competition coverage started in prime time Saturday, the network had its formula down, bouncing between taped footage of the women's freestyle moguls skiing final and live coverage of the money event for winter sports: figure skating.
Nifty computer graphics, MTV-fast edits of skiing footage and percolating background music spiced up quickie explanations of complex events such as the nordic combined K90 ski jumping competition. On-screen graphics kept viewers informed of when new events would begin, helping to soothe itchy remote control fingers.
Point-of-view cameras offered thrilling angles of skiers heading toward the viewer, while the computer graphics that paint first-down lines on football fields helped illustrate the distances skiers needed to jump.
There was still some unusual time-shifting going on, as NBC waited three hours to show viewers the first medal of the games, Italy's Stefania Belmondo winning the 15-kilometer freestyle cross country race.
(MSNBC didn't carry Olympics programming until 1 a.m., but astute viewers could turn there during primetime to see headlines on U.S. skier Shannon Bahrke's silver medal win in freestyle moguls competition hours before NBC actually telecast it).
The flood of commercials was substantial, with breaks coming every seven or eight minutes in the first hour of primetime (with lots of ads for NBC's two midseason series, including footage of a skier wiping out who was supposed to be Watching Ellie star Julia Louis-Dreyfus).
Ice hockey fans could get their fix on CNBC, which offered six hours of Germany taking on Slovakia. And with just three feature stories on NBC -- including one voiced by 80-year-old Olympics broadcasting legend Jim McKay -- the schmaltz was kept to a minimum.
Aside from a few missed cues, the only on-air gaffe I saw in two days of coverage came just before the first medal ceremony Saturday night. The ceremony opened with an involved, lengthy production number NBC wasn't expecting.
"We're only a six-hour drive from Las Vegas," quipped Costas, minutes before the network would cut away from a stage filled with twirling dancers for more taped skiing footage. "If Siegfried and Roy pop up here, I don't know what I'm gonna do."
Even if the showmen had turned up, you could almost imagine the unflappable Costas handling the situation with calm precision.
But let's hope it doesn't come to that.
-Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.
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