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The Peacock on Ice

Outside of the accounting department at 30 Rockefeller Plaza or Dick Ebersol's immediate family, the words "NBC Olympic coverage" do not conjure up many pleasant associations. Assemble a list of the most annoying trends in sports coverage over the last quarter-century, cue up the videotape from the last couple Olympics to carry the Peacock's imprimatur and get ready to tick off the offenses to both God and Roone Arledge, one-by-one.

Annoyed by excessive ad breaks that interrupt the flow of the broadcast and turn even the simplest of events into a montage of "Stay tuned for the results of the 100 meters" teasers? Then best to avoid NBC, where there's 19 minutes of commercials, promos and other throat clearing during every hour of coverage. Bored to tears by those sappy "Up Close and Personal" segments wherein we're told of the litany of illnesses, setbecks and Biblical plagues that the athletes have had to endure on the road to Olympic glory, including, but not limited to, rickets, consumption, irritable bowel syndrome, dead or missing pets, sickly second cousins and a dose of the clap apparently contracted en route to the stadium? Sorry, pal -- that's NBC's bread-and-butter. Not a big fan of relentless jingoism mixed with repeated self-promotion? Then avert your eyes from NBC, children, where the network so thoroughly wraps itself in the flag while trumpeting its own programming that, by the end of the fortnight, you'll be convinced that the 13 stripes each represent a Must-See program while the 50 stars stand for each time Ross nailed Rachel. Put off by tape-delayed broadcasts of hours-old events? Then you'd best not spend too much time chewing over NBC's modus operandi. Some of the network's coverage of the Sydney Games was so musty by the time it made it to air, I'm half-convinced that, to cut costs, NBC simply colorized footage from the 1956 Melbourne Olympics, slapped it on the air and hoped no one would notice.

You can understand, then, why the prospect of NBC handing over its programming schedule to Winter Olympics coverage for the past two weeks didn't necessarily make the heart leap with joy. This, after all, is the network that turned the 2000 Summer Olympics into such a tedious, tape-delayed bore that it drove us to watch "Dharma & Greg" reruns, lest we spend one more second listening to Bob Costas prattling on about the historical significance of the beach volleyball competition. Just how good can we expect the coverage to be when that same network is about to work its drama-killing voodoo on the men's luge and women's 1,500-meter speedskating?

Well... pretty good, actually. Surprisingly good. Shockingly good.

It alarms me to write this probably as much as it floors you to read it, but I've really enjoyed NBC's Winter Olympics telecast. I've found the selection of the events covered to be extensive, the announcing to be largely top-drawer and the more bothersome aspects of modern-day televised sports to be astonishingly less bothersome than I anticipated. Considering it's regarded as a good day when I can walk away from an NBC sports broadcast without wanting to hurl a brick through my television set, that's nothing short of a minor miracle.

Not that NBC hasn't done its level best to try and goad me into altering the look of the ol' Magnavox with the help of a well-placed cinder block. Like CBS before it, NBC decided to hitch its Winter Olympics wagon to America's fascination with figure skating -- a fascination I do not share, understand or tolerate. I can think of dozens of things I'd rather watch -- test patterns, Dellaventura reruns, anything starring Tony Danza -- instead of a horde of rosy-cheeked, sequined pixies jumping around an ice rink and, after the Slovakian judge scores them a 5.6 instead of a 5.7, blubbering uncontrollably on camera.

I don't care that much for the women skaters, either.

But, on this issue at least, my tastes and those of the rest of the country diverge wildly. So 16 consecutive nights of figure skating it is! Double axles and triple toe loops for everybody! Regnant populus! Sic semper banality!

With NBC already exceeding the FDA's recommended daily allowance for skating, this naturally had to be the year everyone discovered that -- try to contain your surprise now -- a competition based on subjective scoring turned out to be more rigged than a hand of five-card draw at Ken Lay's house. And that gave the network all the impetus it needed to give us blanket coverage of the one thing worse than watching figure skating -- talking about figure skating. So, in between footage of the non-fixed events, we were treated to shot after shot of America's newest sweethearts (by way of Canada), Jamie Sale and David Pelletier. Here's Sale crying and Pelletier staring grimly as the scores are announced. Here's Sale and Pelletier talking about what they were thinking when she was crying and he was staring grimly as the scores were announced. Here's Sale and Pelletier getting their gold medals. Here's Sale and Pelletier getting a new medal ceremony. Here's Sale and Pelletier joining Barenaked Ladies on stage. Here's Sale and Pelletier sharing a hoagie.

(Maybe Sale and Pelletier were, indeed, swindled. Scott Hamilton certainly seemed to think so, and I'm in no position to dispute him, since I wouldn't even bother to turn my head if Sale and Pelletier magically appeared in my kitchen and started performing lutzes. All the same, I have a hard time believing there would been quite the hue and cry had it been the stern-faced Eastern Europeans rooked out of the gold instead of the doe-eyed North Americans. But on the bright side, if the IOC is now in the business of righting judging wrongs, I guess that the 1972 U.S. men's basketball team will be able to stop by the office to pick up their replacement gold medals any day now, right? No? Oh.)

NBC committed other offenses, though nothing really rising to the human rights violation level of excessive figure skating coverage. There were NBC's promos for the Olympic coverage itself, blending rock music and quick edits and -- in a radio ad airing here in San Francisco, at least -- a Jeff Spicoli-esque voice-over announcer, all to attract a younger, hipper crowd to the Olympics while making me feel approximately 104 years old. And then you had Bob Costas talking. A lot. There were the commercial breaks long enough for you to thaw, marinate and cook a steak. And the almost human-like vocal inflections of unblinking NBC sports cyborg Hannah Storm. You had Jay Leno's insipid Tonight Show, now offering warmed-over jokes on a global scale. And Bob Costas still talking. There were musical groups performing pop tunes as out of place in Salt Lake City as they were during the halftime of the football playoffs. And will you just put a sock in it, Shorty? I'm trying to watch footage of Jamie Sale and David Pelletier making snow angels.

But you know what? I don't really mind all that. Because NBC also did something really clever, something that allowed me to escape from the rock concerts and HannahBot 2.5 and the ongoing soliloquies of Bob Costas.

It put the Olympics on cable. And in doing so, it became the first network to take full advantage of the flexibility and exhaustiveness that cable can add to Olympic coverage.

This isn't the first time someone thought of farming out the Olympics to cable. NBC tried something similar in 1992 with its misbegotten Olympic Triplecast pay-per-view scheme. Four years ago in Nagano, CBS and TNT split the Olympics coverage, with the cable channel handling the onerous daytime chores with the Eye Network hogged the prime-time glory. And as recently as the Sydney Games, NBC shuffled off less popular events and preliminary-round coverage to its two cable outlets. But in each of those cases, cable played the warm-up act to network TV's headliner. Yeah, if you wanted to see the first luge run or some of the Nordic Combined or maybe highlights of the Sweden-China women's hockey tilt, then cable had you covered. But if you wanted the marquee events, the finals, the big story, then it was prime time or no time, baby.

Not in Salt Lake City. This time around, NBC treated MSNBC and CNBC as complements rather than competitors. The result? You were just as likely to see an eminently watchable event on one of the cable outposts as you were on the mother ship.

You also got to see a wider variety of events. I've tuned into substantial portions of each Winter Olympics dating back to 1980; this is the first time I can recall a network devoting any appreciable amount of time to covering winter biathlon, as CNBC did last weekend. And it's a pity that it hadn't made it to the airwaves sooner since, really, there's not a sport in the world that wouldn't be improved by introducing the element of gunplay into the rules -- even figure skating. Especially figure skating.

So I got to see the biathlon and some pretty exciting cross-country races and team events not involving squads from the U.S., such as a thoroughly entertaining Czech Republic-Sweden hockey match... all without ever having to watch NBC if I didn't feel like it.

Oh, sweet cable. First, you give me shows featuring cursing and partial nudity. Then, you introduce me to the simple pleasures of curling. Is there anything you can't do?

Cable provided me with something other than compelling hockey games and coverage of otherwise obscure winter sports -- something good for me, not so good for our friends at the Peacock Network. It gave me some place to run to whenever the broadcast on NBC began to drag.

NBC's going to commercial break for the next 10 minutes? Then Phil's going to CNBC -- possibly for the rest of the evening. An uplifting portrait of some skier battling the twin nightmares of beriberi and psoriasis? Um... think I'll check in on the Belarus-Finland game. Bob Costas is still blabbing on about some bit of minutiae or another? Click. HannahBot trying to understand why it is we humans cry? Click. More figure skating coverage? Click, click, click.

(And as my colleague, Jason Snell, points out, throw TiVo into the mix, and you've got the best of all possible worlds. Weepy figure skaters, Bob Costas and other instances of dead air disappear in a fast-forwarded blur as you skip ahead to something actually interesting.)

The twin balms of cable and an itchy finger on the fast-forward button wash away a lot of grievances. NBC's policy of America-First, America-always coverage? Doesn't make no never-mind to me, not even the pairs figure skating promo that informed us Canada's Sale and Pelletier were trying to "bring home a medal for North America" (Guess that under NAFTA, we're all gold medalists -- even you, Mexico!). The decision to tape delay coverage on the West Coast? While I prefer my televised sports to be live, this particular boneheaded decision came at the behest of NBC's West Coast affiliates, who didn't want the spotlight events to be taking place at 5 p.m. local time -- Ebersol, to his credit, opposed the decision (Still doesn't make up for the XFL, Dick.). Besides, between TiVo and replay coverage on cable, if I really want to see a particular event, I'm going to find a way to see it -- live, plausibly live, or live on tape.

So yeah, maybe NBC's done a couple of things wrong with the Salt Lake City Games. But the network has also done enough right that I don't really mind the other stuff. Either that, or I'm suffering from Stockholm Syndrome and I've begun to sympathize with my captors. No matter. After some noticeable stumbles in Atlanta and Sydney, NBC got the formula for Olympic coverage largely right this time around -- offer up a full menu of events on as many channels as the FCC will allow. If the network sticks with this basic approach for its coverage of the Summer Olympics, I'll be tuning with an open mind and high expectations when the Athens Games start two years from now.

Perhaps Bob Costas will have wrapped up his thoughts on Jamie Sale and David Pelletier by then.


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