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SBJ/February 18 - 24, 2002/Salt Lake 2002
Need to 'tell stories' begins with showing the drama
Published February 18, 2002
All right, I'll say it. Someone has to. Bring back the "Up Close and Personals."
No, not the flowery, maudlin features that stained NBC's coverage of the Sydney Olympics. But the engrossing personal profiles that were the hallmark of ABC's Olympic broadcasts of yesteryear.
Deployed correctly, these vignettes are an essential tool for creating drama. And that, in general, is where NBC has missed the mark.
Having been in Salt Lake since the start of the Games, splitting time between events, interviews and watching NBC's broadcasts, I think the heroes and the stories of the Games haven't come to life on television. They are here and they are real, and they come from all over the world. But every time I sit down to watch the Games through the filter of NBC, I'm left wanting more.
Dick Ebersol and his deputies have talked ad nauseam about the need to "tell stories" during the Olympics. They're right. But they've forgotten how to use some of the basic narrative devices that let drama unfold.
NBC has replaced the typical three-minute features on athletes with 25-second music videos, which literally have one sound bite from the competitor. They tell us nothing about his or her past, and not much about the present.
That is just one part of a greater problem with NBC's broadcasts. At least half the time, NBC just isn't catching the dramatic moments, and isn't giving viewers the information and buildup they need to feel true excitement.
On Feb. 10, NBC aired the men's downhill. The broadcast was confusing and, ultimately, anticlimactic.
Austrian favorite Stephan Eberharter had a solid run and was in first place until countryman Fritz Strobl had the run of his life and knocked him out of first place. A few skiers later, Eberharter was knocked down to third by Norway's Lasse Kjus.
Then came a 25-second musical montage about American hopeful Daron Rahlves, followed by his run. He caught air on a jump and ended up out of medal contention. America's heart sank. Sometimes, that's what the Olympics is about. But it's also about winning gold medals. And at that point, the producers and announcers didn't seem to know what to do about Strobl.
Was the gold medal locked up, or were there other favorites awaiting a turn? The truth was, all of the skiers who would finish in the top 10 had had their runs. But viewers didn't know that.
At no point did the announcing team share a key piece of information — how many skiers were left. Viewers were robbed of that essential moment where it became clear that Strobl had won.
Instead, the broadcast ended with the fine run of American Marco Sullivan, who finished ninth, and the ho-hum line of "So, the 31-year-old Fritz Strobl is an Olympic champion."
This is not to say that NBC's broadcasts have been without their moments.
Switzerland's Simon Ammann
In round two of the 90-meter ski jump, NBC showed all the medal contenders. When the leader, 20-year-old underdog Simon Ammann, came to the top of the hill for the final jump, announcer Jeff Hastings said, "It's a dream position for this kid. If I were his coach I would just be thinking, 'Keep the smelling salts away.' If this kid wakes up now, it's over." Then Ammann was perfect, and the announcer finished the thought: "Any minute he's going to wake up and realize he has just lived the Olympic dream." As soon as they got to him with a microphone, Ammann yelled, "Gold medal, yeah!"
There it was: the moment. The spine tingling. That's what it's about.
I have no doubt that NBC will have strong ratings in Salt Lake, and deservedly so.
But something is missing. NBC has to remember that the more viewers know, the more they can taste the drama. And don't forget that the unique nature of Olympic competition requires telling viewers essential little facts like how much of the field is yet to compete.
And, oh yes, use lots of Jim McKay.