Column: With these Olympics it's a love-hate affair

I love the Olympics because of their drama, their athletic competition and excitement.

I hate the Olympics on tape-delay because of the forced melodrama, the reluctance of NBC to let us watch an athletic competition all the way through, and the maddening repetition of "up close and personal" profiles of athletes.

So far, NBC's ratings for the Olympics are causing some serious shock waves through the television industry. The network paid $705 million for the privilege of broadcasting from Sydney, beating out Fox by $5 million.

But the ratings are down 32 percent from the 1996 games in Atlanta, and apparently in freefall. The bigwigs are scratching their heads and trying to figure out what could possibly be wrong.

A number of reasons are being offered - the 15- to 18-hour delay from Sydney to United States time zones, the struggles of some favored American athletes in early events, and too much competition from football, vacations, baseball pennant races and the like.

I blame Al Trautwig.

Trautwig is a well-respected broadcaster who has covered something like eight Olympics. USA Today columnist Rudy Martzke calls him a "wordsmith" and said he was one of NBC's shining lights.

"Trautwig made Saturday's women's triathlon come alive with his unique feeling for the event," Martzke wrote.

Maybe Rudy was watching a different women's triathlon, because Trautwig made me switch the channel with his purple prose, mixed metaphors and melodramatic voice-over on what could have been a truly exciting event.

More than a few critics have called Trautwig "syrupy." I say the people at Log Cabin might consider tapping into Trautwig.

A couple of examples that made me reach for the pancakes. As the triathlon runners passed, a crowd of spectators "created a cacophony that seems appropriately loud," Trautwig intoned. Sorry, but writers call that "filler."

Then, as the Australian and Swiss women battled down the last 100 yards, Trautwig mumbled something about the "hometown hero reconciled the result." For the life of me, I can't figure out what that means.

It's one thing for a sports announcer to string together a bunch of cliches while actually covering an event live. It's quite another to sit down at the keyboard and string them together so they can be broadcast 18 hours later in a manner that sucks the life out of the real story.

Back in Basic Composition 101, the teacher gave us this advice: Show, don't tell. Television does a wonderful job of showing, showing, showing. We can see what's happening before our very eyes. Would someone please ask Trautwig to stop telling, telling, telling?

Perhaps the rest of you are enamored with the slow-motion, soft-focus background stories that NBC does on athletes. I guess they help us round out the characters in these Olympic dramas, give us the families and hometowns behind the athletes.

But there has become a dull, overproduced sameness to the profiles. There is the young gymnast taken from her family at age 3, the swimmer who gets up at 4:30 a.m., the twin sisters, the oddball foreign weightlifter. And they all have "an Olympic dream."

I can't help feeling I've seen them all before. In fact, a commercial satirizes the whole genre so well - "nah, I'm a pole vaulter" - that you would think someone at NBC could come up with a fresh approach. Maybe Fox would have injected some life into what has become a tired format.

Moreover, the profiles often get in the way of the competitive event itself. Instead of letting the action build its own drama and suspense, we are constantly told how dramatic and suspenseful this event is going to be, shown 20 seconds of highlights, and then move on to the next profile.

The culprit, I suspect, is tape delay. NBC already knows what happened. We don't. So it cuts straight to the exciting bits without giving us enough context.

It's kind of like editing a sitcom into only the punch lines, without any of the straight lines. Or reading a collection of just the endings of O. Henry stories.

Fortunately, fans who work odd hours or have the ability to operate their VCRs can get some "long format" coverage on MSNBC and satisfy their need of "live" action.

Given a chance, I feel confident that these Olympic Games can turn into the Sydney Olympic Games, with their own character, their own stories and their own heroes.

Let these stories and personalities develop from the events as they happen. Otherwise, they become merely another series in the Television Games - indistinguishable from the Super Bowl, "Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire" and the X Games.

As an Associated Press reporter noted, NBC is using the lag time between competition and broadcast to turn sports coverage into documentary-making.

Unfortunately, it sometimes seems like we'll have to wait for a real documentary to be made about the Sydney Olympics to find out what actually happened.

(Barry Smith is the managing editor for the Nevada Appeal.)


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