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Rating Nbc's Games

The Olympics always produce their tales of disappointment, and this year one of the big ones has befallen the American network televising the Games. Sydney is inconveniently 15 hours ahead of the United States (East Coast time), so unless you sit in a closet all day, you know who won which medals long before NBC rolls its tape. Then there's the network's elaborate production: the flashy graphics, the frequent interruptions, the relentlessly heart-tugging athlete profiles, the surreal sight of Bob Costas pretending he has no idea that Misty Hyman is about to kick Susie O'Neill's butt in the 200-meter butterfly. NBC paid $705 million for the rights to these Olympics, as well as nearly $3 billion for the next four Summer and Winter Games. So far, the ratings have been below par: the first four days drew the worst numbers in Olympic history, and viewership is still 17 percent off what NBC expected. But Dick Ebersol, president of NBC Sports, isn't making any apologies. NEWSWEEK's Mark Starr talked to him in Sydney:

Are you disappointed by the ratings?
I want to get right to the root of the matter. I don't have any doubt in my bones that airing these Olympics entirely on tape was the right thing to do. The Canadian Broadcasting Corp. thing of running them [live] between 3 and 6 in the morning or 6 and 9 in the morning is a colossal joke. If we told our corporate fathers that we were delivering them--for the first showing of the major strengths of the Olympics--250,000 to 300,000 people, we'd be out of a job. That's the max [the Canadians] have. Opening ceremonies live drew 218,000 people. We, on the other hand, had the largest audience for any offshore opening ceremonies.

I would have thought [our ratings would be] low to middle 17. And it looks like we'll be two rating points below that, at least through the first week. With our competitors locked out for 10 years, they don't have any incentive to see the Olympics do well. Several of them are changing something that has always been the same in a taped Olympics. In the past, if you avoided regularly scheduled radio and TV programs, you had a pretty good chance of coming clean to a telecast. What's happened this time is that [media outlets are announcing the winners more frequently], whether it's ESPN running the crawl more often, or network radio giving the results two or three times an hour and suggesting you can go to bed earlier.

What else has been working against you, apart from the fact that it's September and people are back at work and school?
The performances of the [American] men's and women's gymnastic teams. I don't think anyone in our group thought they were going to win gold, but it was clear with [U.S. gymnastics star] Blaine Wilson that we would do either bronze or silver--and that certainly didn't happen. And the women, they haven't performed up to speed.

If you're not going to cover the Olympics live, why not televise the sports in a more straightforward, uninterrupted manner?
Here's another point people never concentrate on enough. [Some of] these sports have no base of popularity in the United States beyond 4 percent of the audience. Track and field, swimming, gymnastics, volleyball--if you put any of those sports on outside the two weeks of the Olympics, you cannot get a three rating. The Olympics would have, in my mind, much less impact as TV fare if they weren't put in the context of who these people are. For example, if we threw up a sprint 100-meter semifinal, and we just went, "They're off! In lane one is so-and-so"--these people are all mysteries to our audience. So we try to give it a context, through personality profiles. We have about 25 percent fewer profiles than in the past.

There have been a lot of complaints about the heavy American bias.
I'm sick and tired of reading we're jingoistic when we're the only ones in the world who produce 140 profiles and more than half of them are on foreign athletes. If you did the count right now, we've played almost as many foreign anthems as American anthems. I'm waiting to see a single foreign athlete featured on Australian television or British television or German television.

A lot of viewers and critics think your profiles are too mawkish.
That's a very valid criticism of what we did in Atlanta. But we've taken diseases like asthma and [stopped treating] them as life-threatening. So you basically have to have gone through a real life-threatening experience for your health to become part of a feature anymore. Way too many in Atlanta were about medium diseases that seemed repetitive. We went out of our way to substantially upgrade the disease, the injuries, the life-threatening moments that qualify.

Back home, people have said that there just wasn't any buzz going into these Olympics.
The only thing I offer back against that is if the Olympics are in the summer and there's nothing else going on, obviously it may have a higher visibility. But what you have today in our audience are people who are always exercising their choices. And what we have found every night of the Olympics is that the same total number of viewers is coming to the telecast, but they're coming in and they're going out. Which is now the new phenomenon of American entertainment. So in the past we might get them for three straight hours. Now we get them maybe four or five times for 20 minutes apiece. Americans are fascinated with the power they have from the clicker. And you're dealing with the results being known--unless somebody can insist that wherever the Olympics are held, they be scheduled to the convenience of prime-time viewing in the United States, which I find the quintessential example of ugly Americanism.

So the critics are wrong?
I'm thrilled with what's coming out of the venues here in terms of television production. And I'm proud to send back what we're sending. I just think the ball game's changed a little bit. And so we're off 15 or 20 percent.

You're totally pleased with your product?
I'm pleased with every single thing that's going on here other than my continuing day-to-day lack of sleep. I'm averaging somewhere between three to four and a half hours a night.