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Yesterday's News Tomorrow

If you tuned in to watch the Olympic swim trials last Sunday on NBC, you saw yourself a hell of a show. There was Lenny Krayzelburg, Ukrainian immigrant turned American phenom, winning the men's 100-meter backstroke but failing to set a new record and, therefore, earning a gesture of disgust from his father. There was Megan Quann, all of 16 years old, dusting the rest of the field in the women's 100-meter breaststroke. And if it's records you wanted, Ed Moses was there to oblige, setting a new American mark in the 100-meter breaststroke for the men.

Yes, it was great TV, full of high drama, human interest and the thrill of competition. It was also, by the time NBC got around to airing the swim trials, several days old.

Krayzelburg and Quann both won their events Friday -- two days before NBC's plausibly live coverage of the finals. The Ed Moses race had an even longer shelf life. He had earned a spot on the Olympic team Wednesday night, meaning you could have read about the race in Thursday's papers, phoned all your friends about it on Friday and staged a dramatic recreation down at the neighborhood pool Saturday before NBC even aired a second of footage.

And you know what? Get used to it -- because you can expect more of the same when NBC descends upon Sydney for next month's Olympics.

The Peacock Network cracked open an atlas, consulted a wrinkled time-zone-conversion chart and realized, much to its horror, that Australia is roughly 1,000 hours ahead of the U.S. Right there, any interest in trying to cover the Summer Olympics live died faster than the U.S. squad's chances of medaling in team handball. Everything, from the opening ceremonies to the basketball grudge match with Angola to Bob Costas' bon mots, will be live on tape -- pre-recorded, pre-packaged and expertly edited to wring out every last bit of drama.

Which sounds acceptable, until you saw last weekend's swimming coverage.

Since NBC knew who the winners were well in advance of its broadcast, you couldn't help but notice a certain... um... slant. NBC aired a profile on the friendly rivalry between Jenny Thompson and Dara Torres. Hey, Thompson and Torres just finished one-two in the freestyle. Up next was a segment on butterflyer Tom Malchow. Amazing! Malchow won his race, too! And now an up-close-and-personal moment with Gary Hall Jr. Lordy, lordy! He qualified for the Olympics as well! What are the odds that every athlete NBC profiled made the team?

OK, so NBC made the not-at-all unreasonable decision to focus its attention upon the winners. Hell, everyone loves a winner. The problem is, when you rejigger your coverage ex post facto to concentrate only on the top finishers, you're robbing the event of whatever drama you've tried to manufacture. Even if I hadn't read the swimming trial results in the paper for a week leading up to the NBC telecast, I could have predicted who would finish on top in every race -- the Speedo-clad superstars who mysteriously got all the camera time.

That does a great disservice to your audience -- you're only giving them a fraction of the story. It's not just the medalists and their stories that make the Olympics special. There's also the folks who train equally as hard, push themselves just as much and yet come up short. They don't finish on top. Some of them don't even make the Olympic team.

Take the women's 100-meter breaststroke, the race that Megan Quann won. Also swimming in that event was Amanda Beard, a medallist at the 1996 Games who got burnt out on swimming, took a sabbatical and tried to mount a comeback to make the 2000 team. All by the age of 20. She finished eighth in an eight-woman race.

An interesting story, one would think. But not compelling enough for NBC to do anything more than acknowledge Beard's presence in the vicinity of the swimming pool.

NBC's idea of compelling drama, you may recall, was to air Profiler for the past four years.

(Beard, incidentally, went on to make the 2000 Olympic team by finishing in the top two of the 200-meter breaststroke. Not to ruin the surprise ending for those of you who were waiting for NBC to break the news.)

Imagine a network opting to cover any other sporting event this way. Baseball telecasts would only show base hits and key outs -- balls, strikes and foul balls would all get edited out. In hockey, everything but the goals and the fights would wind up on the cutting room floor. And the Super Bowl -- if NBC had its way, the game would be whittled down to about an hour once you cut out all the down time, the pre-game hype and any halftime shows that feature Up With People or Edward James Olmos.

Okay, so maybe last one would be pretty cool. Bad example.

NBC's response to this, of course, is that the Olympics aren't a sporting event, a curious designation given the presence of athletes, competition, groin pulls, and Gatorade. What NBC means is that unlike other sporting events that appeal to a more specific audience -- beer-swilling males -- the Olympics are seen by a wider demographic. Namely, housewives, grandmothers and adolescent girls who turned on the TV expecting to see that hunky Croatian doctor on ER, not the goddamned Greco-Roman wrestling finals.

Given that audience, NBC reasons, the Olympics can't be presented the way you might broadcast a Cubs-Marlins showdown. You have to package the event, adding music and sound effects and over-produced feature segments on how the athletes overcame illness and tragedy and unhappy home lives to compete. That, NBC has decided, is what the womenfolk want.

Why we haven't seen women march en masse to NBC every time some suit starts talking about the pea-sized, easily manipulated brains of females is beyond my comprehension.

But all this is shouting into the storm. All the bellyaching in the world won't change the fact that NBC will present the Olympics the way it's always planned to -- on tape, pro-American and with enough maudlin human interest stories to melt even the hardest of hearts. (In a five-minute span at last week's swim trials, for example, NBC's hyperventilating announcer enthused that the winning swimmers had "conquered their demons.") Winners will be featured at the expense of losers. Events that fit neatly in between the commercial breaks will get air time. And the little things that make sports great -- the strategy, the backstory, the tension of the early rounds -- will get left out of the final cut.

Because that makes for great TV. Lousy coverage, but great TV.


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