Calgary Olympics: the Games that TV built

STAMPEDE PARK is a rambling, metal-and-concrete fairground that in the summer hosts Calgary's famous rodeo. But this winter, a hangarlike structure called the ``Big Four'' houses a new interior of muted grays and a modernistic buzz. Here, at a cost of $14 million, has been established the promotional epicenter of the Winter Olympic Games - television central.

Physically, the Games will be in Calgary. But their real location is on the tube.

Television people will outnumber athletes in Calgary 2 to 1. Planners are talking about a worldwide audience in the 1.5 billion range, compared with the fewer than 2 million that will actually stand out in the cold.

In fact, ticket sales are lagging, except for prime events such as figure skating which were sold out long ago. As Robert Stebbins, a Calgary academic, points out, ``viewpoints will be available on TV that most of the on-site spectators will not have access to. So much so, in fact, that giant television screens at selected locations will bring the living room to the ski slope for on-site spectators.

A local television station has emblazoned its name on bus stops and bridges as ``Your Best seat for the Olympics.''

Of the four kinds of technical prowess - athletic, marketing, finance, and television - that will be on display here the next two weeks, the video may be the most impressive.

Speed skating, for example, provided a unique problem. Normally, producers like to shoot such sports with a crowd cheering in the background, to provide excitement for an otherwise uneventful activity. But in Calgary there are seats on only one side of the arena. Cameramen will compensate by providing close-ups of the skaters instead.

Audio - the grunts and groans of the contestants - will help compensate as well. The downhill ski course alone will have 50 microphones along its route.

There will be so many cameras at the figure skating competitions that the producers are drapping them in black to blend in with the background.

The hand of the producers will be seen - or rather, not seen - in other ways. The green carpeting on a ski-jump platform has been changed to white, lest viewers mistake it for grass.

Then too, there's the promotional guerrilla warfare over those precious free moments on the tube. Skiers, for example, often turn their skis toward the camera during interviews. This provides free advertising for the manufacturers and annoys the network no end.

ABC's $309 million bid for the American broadcast rights staggered the Calgary planners, who were originally thinking in the $200 million range. It also just about equaled the contributions of the national, provincial, and city governments combined.

The Olympic revenues ``are all television,'' says Theresa Baxter, a Calgary city alderman. ``Revenues from tickets are minimal.''

In effect, ABC is underwriting not only the Calgary Games, but the European, Soviet, and other broadcasters as well, who together put up less than $10 million. (ABC's $309 million, moreover, does not count the millions more the network will spend actually broadcasting the Games.)

It should come as no surprise that the Games have been designed primarily with television in mind. Crosbie Cotten, a columnist for the Calgary Herald, calls these Olympics ``the most catered-to-American-television Winter Games in history.''

The imprint of television begins with the schedule. For the first time, the Games have been stretched out over three weekends, to increase the potential audience. The ice hockey schedule has been revised to ensure that the United States team gets beyond the first round; an early exit at the 1984 winter games in Sarajevo, Yugoslavia, doomed the US ratings.

In one sense, the Olympics will be a model of international video cooperation. CTV, a private Canadian network, has the exclusive contract to produce a neutral visual image of the Games. Individual countries - ABC included - will provide their own commentators, and in some cases, studio interviews as well. CTV will collate all these images through the technical labyrinth at the Big Four, superimpose specially designed graphics, and transmit the combined package to other countries.

Shrewdly, the Calgary planners insisted on holding the bidding for the US broadcast rights even before the 1984 Sarajevo Olympics - while the victory of the US hockey team at Lake Placid four years earlier was still fresh in network executives' minds.

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