Report Card on NBC . . . but First, a Commercial

A final Olympics Seouliloquy:

-- We’ll be right back . . . . No, NBC didn’t allocate more time to commercials than competition. It just seemed that way.

NBC’s determination to make a projected $65-million profit from its $300-million-plus Seoul investment created such an orgy of commercials that the Olympics rivalry was almost greater among sponsors than athletes.

A stopwatch count for one prime-time half-hour: Olympics minutes outnumbered commercial minutes only 19 to 11. And even that figure is misleading given the minutes of telecast time devoted to anchor chatter not directly related to specific athletic action.


-- Fibbing for dollars . As early ratings fell below promised levels (forcing NBC to compensate some sponsors with free commercial time), anchor Bryant Gumbel and his colleagues seemed increasingly anxious to hype certain events and string along viewers.

One such occasion involved the heralded clash between American Carl Lewis and Canadian Ben Johnson in the 100-meter final, which Johnson won in record time, only to be stripped of his gold medal after testing positive for steroids.

The final would be up “shortly,” Gumbel promised at one point in the evening. “Shortly” turned out to be two hours.

Announcers also used broadcast euphemisms to soften those irritatingly frequent commercial cutaways. A prime offender was Dick Enberg in repeatedly saying, “there’s a break in the action” preceding many disruptive commercial stops during the United States’ game with the Soviet Union in men’s basketball.


A break in whose action? Not the game’s. It continued while the commercials continued.

-- Oh! say can you see . . . . Emotions occasionally ran amok, and features on Americans far exceeded those on foreigners. Yet credit NBC with coverage that was relatively free of jingoism, and with generally wrapping itself in fairness, not the flag.

-- Boys will be boys . NBC was fairly successful in avoiding the sexist stereotypes that sometimes pervade sports coverage. However. . . .

Our initial view of flamboyant gold medalist Florence Griffith Joyner? A slow, leering pan up her body. And the “Moment in Time” that NBC spent with her was dominated by a catalogue of mannequin-type shots against a background of sexy, thumping music.

Yes, she encourages much of this attention to her womanly endowments, and will surely profit financially from the exposure. But enough is enough.

And what about U.S. volleyball player Keba Phipps, whom NBC introduced in a quasi-fashion video featuring provocative poses and, yes, the inevitable, tantalizingly slow pan up her 6-foot-3 frame?

Odd, NBC never used that kind of coverage on the multitude of male Olympians with extraordinary bodies.

In the gymnastics venue, meanwhile, Bart Conner and Enberg had an annoying habit of remarking on the looks of female gymnasts (as in Enberg’s obvious delight in “the lovely” Svetlana Buguinskaya of the Soviet Union). And Conner regularly described male gymnasts as men, females as “girls,” no matter their ages.


-- Men will be men. If there was one TV shot that captured an especially exhilarating moment in Seoul, it was the one showing all-world diver Greg Louganis crying on his coach’s shoulder after pulling out a gold medal on his final dive. What a wonderful, rewarding sight--honest emotion and tears from a man.

-- The medalists. When it came to hosts and analysts, NBC’s best included Conner, Frank Shorter and Dwight Stones in track and field, Ferdie Pacheco in boxing and Steve McFarland in diving. An NBC team for the ‘90s? The vote here is for Olympics morning hosts Gayle Gardner and Jimmy Cefalo. Separately and together, they were terrific.

-- The Big Story . Calm, efficient and exhaustive, NBC excelled in its Seoul reporting and analysis of super-sprinter Johnson’s shocking disqualification for allegedly using a banned steroid that possibly would have enhanced his performance.

Often faulted for being dispassionate, Gumbel proved on this story, more than at any other point during the Olympics, that he was the ideal choice to anchor and lead NBC’s coverage of the Games. Passion is for fans, not reporters.

Breaking news that demanded coolness instead of heat, the Johnson story was ready-made for the precision anchoring and interviewing skills that Gumbel has developed as co-host of the “Today” program.

Yet . . . by helping elevate the Lewis-Johnson clash to a level of intensity and expectation almost beyond reason (surely few Americans had even heard of Johnson prior to Seoul), NBC had unwittingly laid the foundation for blowing Johnson’s disqualification far out of proportion.

Granted that he was a national hero in Canada. Yet why was he treated with so much more disdain than the many other athletes who were booted from the Olympics after testing positive for steroids?

Johnson is no ax murderer, after all. Unlike two U.S. swimmers in Seoul, he doesn’t stand accused of theft. He wasn’t accused of killing anyone while while driving under the influence of alcohol, as diver Bruce Kimball was when he participated in the U.S. Olympic trials. Nor was he caught with cocaine.


Johnson is alleged to have violated an Olympic rule--a sports code, not a law.

If Johnson is being designated a heavy because he let down a nation that adored him as a national hero almost as much as the great Gretzsky, then maybe it’s time that Canadians second-guessed themselves for seeking their national icons in sports.

Or if Johnson is being so scorned on the grounds that he’s become a bad role model for youth, perhaps we should worry less about him and more about the role-modeling being done on TV by baseball players chewing tobacco.

‘Til 1992.