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For 2002, NBC says less is more

By SHARON GINN

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 24, 2000


After its coverage of the Atlanta Games met with heavy criticism from viewers and journalists, NBC listened and planned its coverage for Sydney accordingly.

But the huge time difference (15 hours on the East Coast) this time provides its own challenges, and NBC Sports chairman Dick Ebersol already is talking about how things might be different in 2002.

Ratings for the first seven nights were not only well below those for Atlanta but 23 percent lower than the ratings for Barcelona in 1992. NBC averaged a 14.6 rating with a 25 share. Each rating point represents 1,022,000 homes, or 1 percent of the U.S. homes with televisions.

Those are the lowest numbers for Olympics broadcasts for at least 20 years and may result in NBC giving free spots to major advertisers to make up for it.

Ebersol told the media this week that five hours a night, 7 p.m. to midnight, may be too much. Often people aren't getting to their televisions until 7:30 and are turning it off early, he said.

"It's September. America's gone back to work and back to school and people can't make the commitment so it's hard to hold them beyond 11 p.m.," Ebersol said. "If you lop off the first half hour and the last half hour, the ratings are actually better than Barcelona."

He defended the decision to air the Games entirely on tape as a business decision. But he did say that, for example, when Americans found out before the broadcast the U.S. women's gymnastics team finished fourth, they were less likely to tune in.

For the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City, all figure skating, speed skating and hockey games will be shown live, he said. Coverage will air from 7:30 to 11 most nights, but later for figure skating.

NBC plans to make use of cable sister channels MSNBC and CNBC in 2002. The network is pleased with the ratings for its coverage on those channels -- anywhere from 150 to 400 percent better than the usual ratings in those time slots during the 2000 third quarter.

MSNBC is focusing heavily on team sports such as soccer and softball, while CNBC's coverage revolves around boxing. Both networks have been showing events in their entirety that normally would not make it on NBC. That was a complaint about the network's Atlanta coverage, when the gold-medal efforts of the U.S. women's soccer and softball teams got little air time.

BROOKE'S MOMENT: She may have set an Olympic record in the 800-meter freestyle Friday, but Valrico resident Brooke Bennett still had to share the spotlight with Janet Evans.

Comparisons with America's former swimming sweetheart, who still holds world records in Bennett's two events, are inevitable. But did NBC really have to lead into Bennett's 800 swim by showing a piece on the long-retired Evans, packed with footage of her smile and her swims and including her reflections on winning both the 400 and 800 free in 1988?

It was a compliment to Bennett, in a way, but a backhanded one. That time should have belonged to Bennett, as everybody knew she would defend her 800 title to bring her gold medal total to three.

The network made up for it somewhat. Brooke joined host Bob Costas for an interview that ran about 11:30 p.m. Also Friday morning, not long after winning the 800 -- and more than 12 hours before the folks here got to see her race -- Bennett got the full Katie Couric treatment on the Today show.

ENOUGH ALREADY: Maybe Jim Gray just can't help it.

One of America's Most Hated sideline reporters -- swimming and track and field are his gigs at the Olympics -- Gray is the one who grilled Pete Rose at the World Series the night Rose was introduced with baseball's All-Century Team.

Gray hasn't been that combative at the Games, but every time he interviewed Jenny Thompson -- even though it seemed he was trying to be diplomatic -- it still came out sounding like: Don't you just feel like a big fat failure?

And after Marion Jones' first race Friday, he managed to dampen the moment by bringing up nightmares she once said she used to have before big races. Did she think she was going to have one tonight? he asked, even though she had just blown away the rest of her heat in the 100 meters.

Jones deflected gracefully, but colleague Tom Hammond rightly couldn't let it pass: "Good job, Jim, plant that thought in her head."

No worries. Jones presumably slept soundly and floated to the gold Saturday.

QUOTABLE: "It couldn't happen to a nicer girl. She's just so genuine, she's grown up so much. ... Perfect. Absolutely perfect." -- Analyst Rowdy Gaines on Bennett's record swim in the 800 free.

-- Information from other news organizations was used in this report.

On television

TV COVERAGE: 10 a.m.-6 p.m., 7 p.m.-midnight; 12:30-2 a.m., Ch. 8; 9 a.m.-4 p.m., MSNBC; 4-9 p.m., CNBC.

HIGHLIGHTS: Ch. 8's prime-time lineup includes women's platform diving, gymnastics individual competition and track and field with Michael Johnson in a 400-meter semifinal. On its early broadcast, it will show a women's soccer semifinal, the women's marathon and rowing finals. On MSNBC, the U.S. baseball team faces Australia. On CNBC, look for women's semifinal soccer action.

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