We all understood what NBC was up against this fall: time lag, pennant races, the endless parade of Back to School nights. Add to that the Internet, cable TV and the many other ways that communication has changed so drastically since NBC struck its billion-dollar deal and the reality is that the taped delay just wasn't going to work this time around. But there were a host of other problems.
After the first week of programming, NBC began blaming its poor ratings on such factors as the poor performances of U.S. athletes and the network's stretch to five hours of prime time. Poppycock. The Romanian gymnasts were thrilling and the evening telecast would have been enjoyable to watch if NBC hadn't been quite so shameless in its own self-promotion and its greed and need (you guys paid the $3.5 billion, we didn't) for the big prime time bucks. Why oh why were we cutting to a profile of Marion Jones, in the middle of swimming week, when she wouldn't start competing until some four days later? Why were heralded events, the results of which most of us already knew, trumpeted all evening, only to be shown at night's end (like Jones's 200m gold-medal run at 11:15 p.m. ET last Thursday)? Was there anything sillier than IOC sponsor and NBC advertiser Visa congratulating pole-vaulter Stacy Dragila on her win a full hour before the network showed the victory?
The viewers aren't fools and there was much resentment. The incessant sentimental profiles have already been targeted unmercifully (more action!, less profiles!), and some of the supercilious commenting was grating). But most bothersome was NBC's command central dictating not only when, but what we would see: only a handful of events during the drawn-out prime time as NBC competed with its own afternoon cable coverage of "lesser" events. And was there no way to invent a manner in which something could be shown live? If we got up at 3 a.m. to watch Diana's wedding, would some of us not watch a 3 a.m. Opening Ceremonies? We get up early to watch the "Today Show," so why couldn't the network go live to either the thrilling end of the women's gold-medal soccer match or the men's gold-medal baseball game? Surely a morning rating on the broadcast network would have been better than whatever the MSNBC afternoon numbers were for those two finals. The Canadian Broadcasting Company may not have been making money with its live telecasts, but it had the right idea.
These were an Olympics to celebrate. Sydney is drop-dead gorgeous. The Australians are a great people and a greater host. They put on one heck of a show. "It was rockin' down there," said one colleague. But this didn't come across stateside. NBC may as well been broadcasting from Rockefeller Center.
The truth is NBC's poor ratings further hurt the Olympic spirit. Too many events, drug scandals, bribing revelations have left the Olympic movement reeling. And no this. Time differences will work to everyone's advantage in Salt Lake and Athens, but that's only one piece to the puzzle.
We attempted, as these Games began, to watch as a family, all four kids in the bed, breaking bedtime curfews as school was starting. But the carrots could only be dangled for so long. "When will the Karelin match come on Mom?" was the plaint as we were trying again the second week. Independent decisions were made to fall asleep, instead, to the lull of baseball on the radio (is there an irony more delicious than that?) Again, the 11- year-old voice, drifting off to sleep. "Mom, know you're into those gymnastics, but you should change channels. Colon has a no-hitter going." (Switch stations, turn up the sound, go live.) And so the fortnight went, fading in, fading out. The 21st century has arrived. Please, NBC, for you, for us, reinvent the wheel.