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Memo to Dick

Dear Dick Ebersol:

Consider this an open letter from the television-watchers of America to you, the man responsible for NBC's Olympic coverage. We'd like to say congratulations; this year's Olympics have inspired us bestow many, many superlatives.

Yes, these Olympics have truly surpassed their predecessors if, by surpassed, you mean "this is even worse than hours of John Tesh babbling about little girls dancing for gold in the night," or "Al Trautwig is possibly the most useless disembodied voice I've ever heard floating over the ten seconds of coverage that sneaked in between commercials. Wow."

It takes real talent to drain a global event replete with varied sports events and prodigiously talented athletes of all watchability and yet, you and your Olympic team have managed to do so. You've taken every advantage you were given -- good-looking people wearing next to no clothing, varied activities to please everyone in the family, global competition -- and pissed them all away.

Let's talk gymnastics coverage. We know you have to do it; there's apparently an FCC guideline mandating the broadcast of prepubscent acrobatics on primetime. But dear God, do you have to team three of the most banal presences in television together? Tim and Elfi I can almost understand... you need actual former gymnasts to lend the commentary some semblance of authority and their piping voices and dull platitudes are apparently the legacy most gymnasts can look forward to. But Al Trautwig? Why? He's worse than useless -- the only thing he's good for is asking stupid questions, presumably so the viewer at home can catch up on the byzantine politics of the gymnastics world. But that kind of exposition is the last thing we need: there are so many gymnastics events broadcast on a regular basis, America's sports watchers have developed an unwilling literacy in the sport's lingo. Trust me -- we all know what sticking your landing is.

If you must turn gymnastics into a rubber cheese factory, then go 100 percent all out: can Al, and bring on Melissa and Joan Rivers. Their inevitable comments about the presumed chunkiness of the more muscular athletes have got to be less offensive than the creepily Nabokovian "Is there a kiss? I don't see Svetlana getting a kiss" dialogue we were subjected to during the all-around competition.

Dick, I should also mention that I saw more women weeping through the all-around competition than I actually saw doing whatever it was that made them cry. The agony of defeat is telegenic, yes, but it loses its impact if we have no idea what the preceding battle was. Would it kill you to show more than one competitor in a given event between commercial breaks? I know the gymnastics floor is basically a zoo populated by little people catapulting hither and yon at subsonic speeds, but you've got an eighteen hour window here: use it to edit your footage into a cohesive account of what went down in a specific event.

I know, I know -- the Olympics are so vast, and there are so many people participating that you can't possibly fit everything in your nightly five-hour broadcast. This would be where those other two networks you have come in handy.

Oh. That's right. You took that lesson about the 1996 Olympics to heart -- you know, the one where you completely neglected the two biggest stories of the Games, the gold-winning women's softball and soccer teams -- by showing the women's soccer and softball teams on MSNBC or CNBC after midnight. And just to show that you picked up on that 1996 lesson, you stuck the women's water polo matches in cable hell too, bravura sportsmanship by the U.S. team be damned. Because, really, what's the point in having two cable news channels and a network channel if you can't use them to show Dateline reruns in prime time, as opposed to Olympic events like judo or fencing or rowing?

And look at it this way: using those cable channels to broadcast sports coverage frees up more space on NBC for those up-close-and-personal profiles. Maybe next time, instead of devoting your triathlon coverage to the inner workings of Michellie Jones' psyche -- which we all got to experience, courtesy of some backlighting perpetrated by someone who saw Xanadu one too many times at an impressionable age and a stilted monologue that would make the cast of Waiting for Guffman cringe in secondary embarrassment -- you can skip those ten minutes of actual athletic coverage and show more profiles instead. It might even be more palatable than trying to figure out who was doing what while the omnipresent Al Trautwig carried on about the possibility of sharks in the Sydney harbor.

Alternately, you can embrace this radical idea: treat the Olympic games as an athletic event and banish those infernal personal profiles to your Web site. It will help fill that howling void left by the near-complete omission of timely news and information on your current site. Sure, we'd still be going to ESPN for our Olympic news -- but someone would come to your Web site for those warm-'n'-fuzzy features. Lord knows we can't see any streaming video coverage or read athlete's first-person accounts of their events -- and we can thank the IOC for that -- so take advantage of that hideous time lag by posting the personal pieces. They're not directly related to competition, so they're not violating IOC guidelines.

You see, Dick, sooner or later you're going to have to face facts: your ratings are not lower because the kiddies are in school. Your ratings are not lower because of the time lag. Your ratings are lower because your television coverage lags behind the Web's news reports, and it's worse than the driest AP story about table tennis. The IOC is currently trying to tamp down electronic media because it threatens the $3 billion revenue they take from selling television rights. Dick, as the guy holding those rights it's in your best interests to point out that it's hard for anyone in television to make money off the Olympics if we've all left our televisions in favor of emailing our new friends in Australia and asking them to fill us in on what really happened.

So it comes down to three things, Dick. Use those cable channels as the 24-hour news centers they can be, not a storehouse for Jane Pauley's greatest hits. Use the Web to broadcast all that personal piffle you're currently showing in lieu of actual sporting events. And finally, take the time to reacquaint yourself with the idea of the Olympics as athletic events, not an extended series of corporate-sponsored sob stories.

Oh, and one more thing? Fix your production system. Owing to all your technical difficulties, Bob Costas has spent the last two weeks looking like he went a little crazy with the Feria. So fix the color, or get that up-close-and-personal profile of Costas' hairstylist on the air, stat.


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