Sarajevo, Yugoslavia — Televising an Olympics is a monumental undertaking, particularly when it comes to covering the ski slopes. Julius Barnathan, ABC's president of broadcast operations and engineering, says that of all the events the network does anywhere, these are the toughest ''because you're working on the side of a mountain.''
Actually when ABC begins its record 631/2 hours of Winter Olympics coverage here on Feb. 6, camera and sound crews will be working two mountains some 20 miles apart - Bjelasnica for the men and Jahorina for the women.
Ever since ABC captured all of Franz Klammer's electrifying downhill run at Innsbruck, Austria in 1976, the network has prided itself on top-to-bottom coverage.
On Bjelasnica alone, ABC has laid 100,000 feet of cable, set up microphones to pick up natural sound up and down the mountain, and bought the best gas heaters and clothing for its cameramen.
On a pre-Olympic tour of the various competition sites, however, neither incredible cold nor power blackouts, which ABC is prepared to handle, were seen as the chief coverage obstacle.
''The biggest production challenge,'' said coordinating producer Jeff Ruhe, ''is the mice on the mountain. They like to eat through our cable.''
Ah, the trials of being the network of the Olympics. Emmy Awards for Olympic coverage have made it all worthwhile, however.
And to think, in 1960 ABC backed out of televising the Winter Games from Squaw Valley, Calif. It was during those games, though, that current ABC News and Sports President Roone Arledge, who was then the new kid on the network block, got his first inkling of what TV blockbusters the Olympics could be. ''I remember watching that competition and thinking, 'This is what world athletics are all about.' '' Arledge says. ''I could envision them becoming bigger, although maybe not this big.''
Arledge was referring to the $90 million ABC is paying to carry the Sarajevo Olympics. That's a six-fold leap from the $15.5 million the network paid to televise the Lake Placid spectacle four years ago.
The price increase is attributable at least in part to the US hockey team, which made the last Winter Olympics some of the most compelling sports programming ever.
Since then ABC has tenaciously guarded its exclusive rights to footage from that historic period. And with what it's paying this year (including $225 million for the Los Angeles Olympics next summer) ABC will certainly insist on adherence to Olympic guidelines that limit rival networks and local stations to six minutes in daily excerpts.
An irony of ABC's current situation is that its coverage has made the Olympics an increasingly visible and vibrant event, and thus a much more expensive one to bid for. ''The way we've covered the Games has increased their value, sometimes to our detriment,'' says Arledge. ''If it gets to the point where we'd have to take a staggering loss to televise the Olympics, we probably wouldn't do so just for the prestige.''
ABC has come light years since training its cameras on the 1964 Winter Olympics in Innsbruck.
Jim McKay, the venerable Olympic anchorman, remembers that as a rather primitive period. Live coverage was out of the question, and even getting one-hour tapes on the next evening were no sure thing. ''Jim McNu, a retired Air Force colonel, drove a rented car through the Bavarian Alps to Munich each night to get the tapes on Pan Am's flights back to New York,'' he recalls. ''The car should be in the Smithsonian!''
Much has changed during the intervening years, including the caliber of the US team.
American prospects are brighter than ever before, and to cover the gold rush ABC is employing over 900 people, utilizing 45 videotape machines (compared to four in 1964), and beaming all the action electronically via an orbiting satellite.
The command post for this operation is in a major new downtown broadcast facility. For the time being, ABC has taken up residence in the home of Yugoslav Radio and Television (JRT), where network technicians have hooked up 150 miles of cable. Walking through certain passages is like wandering through a king-size bowl of black spaghetti.
The glorious hub of activity here is the special Olympic set, which was built in Los Angeles and will return there after the Winter Games. This is where McKay will host the coverage, while in a glass-enclosed room behind him Arledge and director Roger Goodman call the shots using 70 TV monitors.
Considering Arledge's many responsibilities, it's a bit surprising he finds time for this sort of thing. An associate once told him, however, that a general belongs in the field, not at the Pentagon, during wartime. He's taken the advice to heart.
To test the readiness of ABC equipment and personnel, the set was shipped to New York last summer and a mock Olympics produced. To give these ''war games'' an aura of realism, Lake Placid footage was used.
This trial run also gave technicians a chance to test out something called an ''electronic paint box'' and elaborate new computer graphics. What might best be described as high-tech cartoons will be used to illustrate the flight of a ski jumper or a scoring play in hockey.
Gimmickry? To be sure, but this is the computer age, and ABC aims to wow viewers with what it can do.
Not infrequently, technological advances make their debut at the Olympics. Slow motion and handheld wireless color cameras were originally designed and built with the Olympics in mind.
In Sarajevo, the ''fist'' camera will become the latest gadget to take a bow. The smallest camera ABC's ever used, it weighs less than a pound, making it ideal to accompany cameramen/skiers, jumpers, and sledders on their descents. It won't be used during actual competition, but will give viewers a first-hand peak at what these competitions are like during demonstration runs.
Technology, of course, is only part of the equation. ABC's team of expert commentators play an important role, too, and the network has enlisted an all-star lineup.
Two of its expert commentators, in fact, were gold medal winners in 1980 - Eric Heiden and Mike Eruzione. Heiden swept all five men's speed skating golds at Lake Placid, while Eruzione captained the hockey team and scored the the winning goal against the Russians. Eruzione will be working with pro hockey great Ken Dryden and Al Michaels, whose poignant play-by-play of America's ''miracle on ice'' paved the way to his selection as 1980 co-Sportscaster of the Year.
Handling the figure skating will be familiar faces Dick Button and Peggy Fleming.Button won back-to-back Olympic championships in 1948 and '52; Fleming was queen of the Olympic ice in 1968.
Frank Gifford and Bob Beattie are back in the Alpine skiing booth, where they are expected to see a lot of air time following a talented American ski team.
Among the other veterans on the scene will be Keith Jackson, Jack Whitaker, and of course McKay, who has a Cronkite-ian knack for spontaneous reporting.''Something will happen in Sarajevo that we'll all be talking about for a long time afterward, but we don't know what it is,'' he says. ''Our job is to identify the storyline and point it out to people at home who might not see it as quickly or as obviously as we can see it.''