IF you're an Olympics diehard and want to see the games being played in July and August, you can go to Barcelona. If you're simply a fan, you can watch them on NBC-TV - along with what that network hopes will be some 190 million other viewers in the United States alone.
If you're somewhere in between - not about to go to Spain but find network coverage inadequate - NBC may have the answer for you. It's their "Olympics Triplecast," a no-nonsense version of the games designed for the dedicated sports watcher. It includes some of the same events as NBC-TV, but unlike the broadcast version, Triplecast is pay-per-view, a first for Olympics coverage, and it's expensive. The 15-day package, a joint venture with Cablevision, runs $125 and has three different channels ("red," "w hite," and "blue") to switch back and forth among, each carrying its own menu of events, with some cable systems offering their own packages.
Ironically, its very pricey-ness may be the key to this form of cable coverage, because Triplecast is going after Olympics freaks, people who are interested - in the words of Triplecast vice president Martin Lafferty - "in the difference between a 9.8 and a 9.9 in diving."
When I met with Mr. Lafferty and coordinating producer Terry Ewert some time ago, both had the air of men who are on to something, of having their cake and eating it too, of cornering the Olympics cable-TV market without taking away anyone's free coverage. They feel their version of sports on cable TV can make money and yet still let broadcast TV pick and choose among all Olympics events.
That's not a small point in light of the "exclusivity deal" CBS and TNT had during the Olympics last winter in Albertville, France. What you saw on CBS you didn't see on TNT, and vice versa. But with Triplecast, "There are no embargoes," says Mr. Lafferty. "Unlike CBS and TNT in Barcelona, there will be no sports siphoning."
Triplecast's target is a tiny fraction of the huge public sought by broadcast Olympics. "We are widely successful financially when only 4 percent of US TV homes buy the Triplecast cast," Lafferty points out. What that small group of hard-core - and well-heeled - fans will get is 24-hour-a-day channels stressing straight coverage, without the "padding" of features and profiles endemic to broadcast reporting.
NBC-TV "has the job of presenting the Olympics," says Lafferty. "Our job [on Triplecast] involves presenting the games. Ours is very sports specific."
Events will be blessedly free of commercials and carried live, while the broadcast version, because of the time-zone difference, will be largely on tape. "And we are uninterrupted," says Lafferty. "We don't cut away from an event before it's over. We stay with an event until all the heats are finished." But here's the ultimate attraction for broadcast-Olympic viewers all too familiar with announcers who don't know when to pipe down: "Less talk will be the norm," Lafferty says.
He correctly sums up Triplecast by calling it "an interesting model" for getting around the exclusivity problem in sports coverage. But there's a special reason it works this way: Triplecast and NBC-TV are part of one company. In the future, who knows if dual broadcast-cable coverage of the Olympics will be under the same kind of unified management bent on preserving mutual freedom of coverage?
At the moment, though, the arrangement is so cozy that Triplecast is actually advertising right on NBC-TV, with commercials that speak pointedly of how Triplecast viewers will "See every minute" of the Olympics. I trust the peculiar irony of those commercials won't escape viewers: that cable subscribers will not only be getting something, they'll also be avoiding something - the problems endemic to the very network carrying the ads. Sure, those ads are saying, NBC-TV will cover the Olympics, but if you really want to see them, get Triplecast. You won't have to put up with those constant commercials, and you won't have to listen to the endless babbling of announcers.
Broadcast coverage, in short, has created a climate some of us can't stand, and we are now being invited to pay for the privilege of escaping it. It's probably worth every penny.