The Olympics that can't compete

Tape-recorded Games lose ground to football, Internet, expectations

Each night Kim Rosenthal, a New York veterinarian, sits down on the couch with her two children to watch the Olympics. But while she's not reaching for the remote, she feels like something's missing: coverage.

"I just think it's sad we don't see more of the Games," says Ms. Rosenthal. "Instead of seeing these guys on a farm or on the beach, I want to see more of the competition."

It has, of course, become a staple in the modern coverage of the Olympics: gauzy profiles in which an athlete is bathed in a golden glow as an announcer solemnly intones the tale of some tragedy overcome on the march to Olympus.

Yet even this tried and true storytelling technique hasn't been able to drum up enough drama to overcome a collective yawn from the US public. A week into the Games, the summer Olympics seem to have lost the quadrennial buzz that once made it a symbol of world peace, where the athletes of the world came together to compete in exotic and, for most Americans, unknown sports.

One of the main problems: Thanks to a 15-hour delay and the advent of the Internet, Americans already know the outcome before they head for the couch. What's the point, many people ask, of watching a race when you already know who won? "Live television is still the draw

for the Olympic games," says Matthew Felling, media director at the Center for Media and Public Affairs in Washington. "Especially now, in the Information Age, unless you just have diehard equestrian fans, most won't be willing to watch something you already know the result of.

"If you can just log on in the morning, why would you want to watch the men's volleyball team at night, when you already know they lost to China?" he adds. "So it's no surprise the games Down Under will cause the ratings to go down under."

Still, there are entire cable channels devoted to reruns of classic sporting events, so additional factors may be behind the fact that the 2000 summer Games are drawing fewer viewers than any other since Mexico City in 1968. One simply may be that they aren't being held in the summer, which means Ian Thorpe and Pieter van den Hoogenband are competing for attention with Monday Night Football, baseball's pennant races, and homework.

In fact, grading papers holds more allure in some circles than the Olympic rings. "We were talking about it in the cafeteria this morning," says Emelinda Banuchi, an 8th-grade teacher in the Bronx, N.Y. "It just doesn't have the same kind of vibration or enthusiasm we've had in other years. I mean, I've turned it on a few times, but then I just change the channel. Before, I'd watch for hours."

Many of those who are gripped by the spectacle don't feel like waiting a half a day for Bob Costas to tell them who won. The number of visitors to Web sites like and has risen markedly since the start of the Olympics, according to PC Data Online, which measures Internet traffic. Some viewers in New York, Michigan, and Washington have tuned into the Canadian Broadcasting Corp., which is airing 18 hours of coverage a day, most of it live. "There are a lot more avenues to find out the results," says Lisa Siewers, director of national broadcasting for Hampel/Stefanides ad agency in New York. "You can wake up in the morning and simply turn on the radio."

It could also be that Americans don't feel like watching the home team lose. Led by Lenny Krayzelburg and seven-time gold-medal-winner Jenny Thompson, swimmers have helped the US Olympic team rack up 31 medals as of yesterday - more than any other nation. But both gymnastics teams were earthbound, the US failed to medal in the triathlons, and even the stalwart women's softball team had its 112-game winning streak tromped on ... by Japan.

Perhaps, another theory goes, it's that the games have lost their innocence. The amateur ideal is long a thing of Games past. Many multimillion-dollar stars forgo the Olympic village for private rooms in posh resorts; still others have been stripped of medals because they tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs. This past year also revealed the seedy underside of the competition to host the Games, with bribes and gifts determining which city will get an economic windfall.

Some even suggest warmer global relations and the loss of East-West rivalries have dampened the political undertones that made the competitions so compelling. "This might just be one of the casualties of the end of the cold war," says Mr. Felling. "We don't have a big bear to stave off anymore."

And then there are those profiles. Perfected to draw in women viewers, they now may be having the opposite effect. "They cut away from the events themselves to show you how someone got there," says Ms. Siewers. "The fuzzy stories are nice, but I want to see the competition."

In fairness to NBC, bashing Olympic coverage is a perennial spectator sport. Remember Nagano, with its cries that CBS stands for Can't Broadcast Sports? Or Atlanta, where the subways were only slightly more crowded than the crush of critics lining up to pick on John Tesh?

Home games draw the biggest crowds in any sport - so no one was expecting Atlanta-size ratings. But NBC had predicted an average TV rating of 17.5 (each point represents just over a million households) for the Olympics, the same as the 1992 Barcelona Games. So far, numbers are far below expectations, dropping 13 percent from even the first four nights of the 1988 Games in Seoul.

Whatever the reasons for the lackluster response to the 27th Olympiad, NBC is hoping the numbers pick up. After paying $705 million for the rights for these Games, it might have to placate advertisers with free time at a later date if the audience doesn't meet expectations. But there may be hope. "The ratings are down in some small part because we haven't gotten to the pro-basketball players yet," says Felling. "We haven't gotten to the glamour events of track and field."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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