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Is 437 hours too much Games? It depends

By Douglas S. Looney Senior sports columnist of The Christian Science Monitor / July 21, 2000



HOUSTON

David Neal, NBC's head of production for the Sydney Olympics, was visiting with a group of reporters here not long ago when talk turned to whether the network's planned 437-1/2 hours of coverage might be too much. Conceded Neal, "The appetite will be tested."

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Far to the north at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., Olympic expert Jeff Segrave agrees: "It strikes me as a heck of a lot." But Segrave, an exercise science professor and co-author of "The Olympic Games in Transition" and "Olympism," goes on to suggest, "As much as it may seem too much, it's probably not."

Such is the Olympic paradox: The coverage is always too much and never enough. It depends solely on an individual viewer's sensibilities. Says NBC's Neal, "There's no way we're going to please everybody, but we're trying to."

At the Center for Media and Public Affairs, a Washington-based think tank, media director Matthew Felling says the 437-1/2 hours is "digestible" because "the biggest gripe that most people have after the Olympics have concluded is that they didn't get enough of what they were interested in. That complaint will be stifled."

The problem heretofore has been that while a Scripps Howard News Service-Ohio University poll several years ago showed the favorite Olympic sport is track and field, followed by swimming, gymnastics, and basketball, those sports are not the favorites of all viewers.

But it's difficult to imagine that NBC, which generally got low marks for its handling of the 1996 Atlanta Olympics - and its 171-1/2 hours of coverage - will be criticized for lack of coverage of the 35 sports this time.

In addition to the traditional approach, with major events of the day being showcased on NBC, the network will have extensive coverage on its cable partners, MSNBC and CNBC. Some 273 hours of the Olympic blitz will appear on cable, including 30 gold-medal events, the first time the Summer Games have ever been on widely available basic cable.

The plans are innovative. On weekdays during the games, MSNBC will air "Scholastic at the Olympic Games." Scholastic Inc. is a global children's publishing and media company. The idea is to reach children through sports, such as soccer, softball, table tennis, and volleyball. NBC, showing it is serious about this endeavor, will air the women's soccer gold-medal game on MSNBC the afternoon of Sept. 28 to ensure youngsters can watch. At Scholastic, veep Hugh Roome says, "The Olympics is rich with themes for teaching important values, like sportsmanship, responsibility, commitment, and team-building."

CNBC's main niche will be boxing, Neal says, which surveys show "men like and women don't." That's a nice fit since CNBC has a heavily male audience for its stock-market programming.

Then there's the Web site www.nbcolympics.com, which gives new meaning to comprehensive. Neal explains that people with casual interest in, say, softball will get enough on NBC, those who want the entire game will go to MSNBC, those who want everything, including technical details and pitch count, will go to www.nbcolympics.com.