WHAT THE GAMES MEANT TO TELEVISION : ABC's Ruhe Got the Responsibility, And Later the Acclaim, for Network

Times Staff Writer

When Los Angeles made its bid to be the host of the 1984 Summer Olympics during an International Olympic Committee meeting at Athens in May of 1978, three representatives of ABC were there--Roone Arledge, John Martin and Jeff Ruhe, a 26-year-old Stanford graduate.

After ABC bid $225 million and got the contract to televise the '84 Summer Olympics in the fall of 1979, the responsibility of planning the television coverage fell upon the young shoulders of Ruhe. He became ABC's coordinating producer for both the Winter Games at Sarajevo, Yugoslavia, and the Summer Games at Los Angeles.

ABC's crew for the Summer Games would grow to 3,500, but Ruhe was one of the first--and one of the most important. Arledge, the president of both the network's sports and news departments, could not devote his full attention to the Games until they were actually about to begin. And Martin, vice president of sports programming, left the network about a year before the Summer Games to join Don Ohlmeyer in the formation of a communications company.

So for Ruhe, the years leading up to the Los Angeles Games were busy and hectic ones. But today, he looks back on it all with fondness.

"It was very tough to go home (to New York) on the 13th of August," Ruhe said. "I felt great that everything had gone so well, yet I was also disappointed it was over. I knew that I would probably never get another chance to do anything professionally that would be as rewarding and challenging."

The first thing Ruhe did after the Games was take a vacation. He and his wife Courtney, a daughter of the late Robert F. Kennedy, went to Nantucket, R.I. Ruhe had earned some time off.

For ABC, the Los Angeles Games were a success financially, in the ratings, and, for the most part, artistically. And Ruhe was one of the many who could take a bow.

"When you think that we were on the air for 180 hours and you think of what was achieved, it was quite an accomplishment," Ruhe said. "And what the L.A. Organizing Committee did cannot be measured. It was an amazing, ongoing achievement."

Another key person in the success ABC enjoyed was Marvin Bader, vice president in charge of Olympic operations. It was Bader's responsibility to see that all the pieces were in place so that ABC's 180 hours of domestic coverage and its 1,300 hours of world-wide coverage would go smoothly.

Bader, who has worked on eight Olympics for ABC, got involved in the 1984 Summer Games about a year before the network won the contract. Bader had to figure out how much it would cost to televise the Games before ABC could submit a bid.

Then came the hard work.

"It was such a huge project that we had to break it down into manageable pieces and go from there," he said.

"It now seems as though it was all so easy. But that's because the Games were so bloody successful. Had they been a bomb, I'm sure everything would have seemed very tough.

"This wasn't just a sporting event; it was a happening, and that's the way we covered it. It was a championship season for everyone involved, Roone and his staff, Peter Ueberroth and his staff, Mayor Bradley and the people of Los Angeles. And I think we did a pretty good job of documenting it all."

But ABC's coverage was not without its flaws.

Probably the network's biggest single mistake came on the final day of track and field, when Carl Lewis went after his fourth gold medal in the 400-meter relay. While the race was being run, ABC was showing men's platform diving preliminaries. Then came a commercial break and an "up close and personal" of Lewis before the relay was finally shown, about 15 minutes after the race had actually taken place.

At the time, ABC released a statement that said, in part, "We should have covered it live." Looking back, Ruhe now says: "We fell asleep at the switch. But taking the whole picture into consideration, it is hardly worth even mentioning."

Early in the Games, ABC was criticized for being too pro-American.

"Publications that criticized us, like Time and Newsweek, had red, while and blue all over their covers," Ruhe said. "The Los Angeles Times had Americans all over page one of its Olympic sections.

"Things went very smoothly from the start. When the problems that were expected with traffic, tickets and smog didn't materialize, reporters were looking for something (controversial) to write about."

Another common criticism of ABC was that it virtually ignored some sports, such as soccer and baseball.

"We pleaded with the soccer federation to move some games to daytime so we could give them more coverage," Ruhe said. "We thought they might because then the games could have been shown live in prime time in Europe. But because of ticket sales and hot weather, they refused.

"Also, the caliber of Olympic soccer is not the same as World Cup competition. And, let's face it, soccer is not as popular in the United States as some of the other Olympic sports such as track and field and gymnastics."

Ruhe said another problem was that soccer is difficult to cover in fragments. He said baseball presented the same problem.

"You can't show just a few minutes of a soccer game or a half inning of a baseball game, and then cut away," he said. "It's not like covering a round of gymnastics or a swimming race."

ABC hired a bevy of Olympians to serve as commentators. Some, such as Marty Liquori and Mark Spitz, worked out well. But the lack of broadcasting experience of others, such as swimming's Diana Nyad, showed. And Mike Eruzione, the captain of the gold-medal winning 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team, an American hero, was reduced to doing frivolous features, such as showing off the fruit at Farmers Market and greeting actress Morgan Fairchild on Rodeo Drive.

ABC's general success at the L.A. Olympics, plus the fact that the network had earlier in 1984 agreed to pay a rights fee of $309 million for the 1988 Winter Olympics at Calgary, led to speculation that the 1988 Summer Games in Seoul, South Korea, would bring an enormous rights fee from American television. Some mentioned $1 billion, but most early estimates were in the $750 million range. Now most estimates are between $300 and $400 million.

Why the decline in expectations? The reasons include the 13-hour time gap between Seoul and the eastern U.S., making it difficult to televise events live (currently, some track and field finals are scheduled for 4 a.m., Eastern time); the threat of a another boycott by Soviet-bloc countries, and tension between South and North Korea.

U.S. television rights had been scheduled to be put up for bid last Wednesday in Lausanne, Switzerland, headquarters of the IOC. But the bidding has been postponed until September.

NBC is the pre-bidding favorite to acquire the rights. ABC, after agreeing to spend much more than planned for the Winter Olympics, is expected to show more restraint in Lausanne, particularly now than the network has been acquired by cost-conscious Capital Cities. CBS has not been a serious contender to carry an Olympic Games since it carried both the Winter and Summer Olympics in 1960.

CBS paid only $50,000 to carry the Winter Games a Squaw Valley and $394,000 to carry the Summer Games at Rome.

Neil Pilson, former CBS Sports president and now executive vice president of the CBS Broadcast Group, says his network will not take "unnecessary and unreasonable steps to acquire the rights."

A key issue in determining the rights fee will depend on when events are held. For a basketball game to be televised live in New York at 9 p.m. (6 p.m. in Los Angeles), it would have to begin at 8 a.m. Seoul time.

Korean Olympic officials have been quietly seeking scheduling cooperation from the 23 international federations governing each Olympic sport. Representatives of several federations have recognized the importance of U.S. TV money.

"Having live TV is of keen interest to us," Robert Helmick, president of the U.S. Olympic Committee and the international swimming federation, recently told the Wall Street Journal. While the Olympics "aren't just for American viewers," he said, "we have to compromise, balance all those various things."

The gymnastic and track and field federations have resisted somewhat, saying it would be unfair to competitors to hold events early in the morning. The gymnastic federation, however, agreed to move its finals to noon.

The networks won't prepare their bids until after getting a final schedule of events. If, as some believe, the networks get their wish of a mostly live, prime-time Olympics, the rights fee, some believe, could reach $650 million.

But still not the expected $750 million. It may be a case of the 1988 Summer Games being at the right time--following the successful 1984 Games--but in the wrong place.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World