JULY 26, 1996
NBC's coverage of the 1996 Olympic games has drawn record audiences by attracting otherwise indifferent sports fans with gripping tales of personal triumph and painful defeat. But many critics say the network's manipulation of time and the focus on American athletes doesn't reflect the Olympic ideal. Our regional correspondents sound off with their reviews.
Click here to read your comments about the television coverage of the Olympic games.
A RealAudio version of this NewsHour discussion is available here.
July 17, 1996:
A group of former U.S. Olympians explain the thrill of competing at the games.
Review the Online NewsHour Forum on amateur vs. professional status at the Olympic Games.
Historians consider the modern Olympic games on July 22, 1996 and July 18, 1996.
MARGARET WARNER: The centennial Olympic games have raised quite a stir around the country, not only for the gold medals the U.S. team has won but for NBC's sometimes controversial coverage. For perspective on this, we turn to five of our regular regional commentators: Lee Cullum of the Dallas Morning News, Patrick McGuigan of the Daily Oklahoman, William Wong of the San Francisco Examiner, Mike Barnicle of the Boston Globe, and from the host city of the games Cynthia Tucker of the Atlanta Constitution. Welcome, all of you. Lee Cullum, a lot of the controversy about NBC's coverage has concerned this practice they have of putting on as live actually events that have taken place hours before. Do you have a problem with that?
LEE CULLUM, Dallas Morning News: I do, Margaret. Now, I don't want to say this is the worst thing that ever happened because that isn't true. But, but it is a small erosion in our integrity as a culture, it seems to me, and what it means is every job becomes a con job eventually, and nothing can be trusted to stand its own and to be itself. And what finally results, I think, some day down the road is an erstwhile Earth Science world where any resemblance to persons living or dead is purely coincidental, as the old saying used to go, and what gets lost is authenticity. And I don't think this is a trivial loss.
MARGARET WARNER: Patrick McGuigan, do you agree that there's a loss of authenticity in the way these are being presented?
PATRICK McGUIGAN, Daily Oklahoman: I have a problem with the way NBC has approached this. I just don't understand why you can't put, you know, recorded earlier down at the bottom. I happened to be at a baseball game the night of the--that the American women's team won a gold medal in gymnastics and was listening to the game on the radio while watching it down the field, like many people do to get a little bit of color. And we were told what the results were. That was shortly before 7 o'clock Oklahoma time and the local affiliate dragged it out, presenting it as if it was live until after 11. And I think that people have a problem with that kind of slight of hand.
MARGARET WARNER: Mike Barnicle, how do you see it?
MIKE BARNICLE, Boston Globe: Well, I tell you, Margaret, I see it as, you know, Americans are on the verge of retiring the gold medal for complaining. I mean, this is television. It's summertime. This is the Ed Sullivan Show with gymnasts and weight lifters and swimmers. Let's just sit back and enjoy it. It's free. Have fun! Lighten up.
MARGARET WARNER: It's entertainment, not news.
MR. BARNICLE: Yeah.
MARGARET WARNER: Bill Wong, how do you--where do you come down on this issue?
WILLIAM WONG, San Francisco Examiner: I'm not all that bothered by the, by the tape-live controversy. It would be nice if NBC would flash "recorded earlier," but that's not a big deal. Quite frankly for us out here on the West Coast, we do appreciate getting--because we're a three hour time difference--we--if we had seen the women's gymnastics championship live, it would have been, you know, 3, 3:30, 4 o'clock our time, and most people were at work, or would have had to make some excuses to their employers to get out, so having it at a very convenient hour for us was fine. I'm much more bothered, frankly, by, by the jingoism and the nationalism and the false melodrama of the coverage.
MARGARET WARNER: What do you mean, false melodrama?
MR. WONG: Well, I mean, they're for example, they've built of Janet Evans as a potential gold medal winner.
MARGARET WARNER: The swimmer.
MR. WONG: In women's swimming, long distance swimming. And I think what we've seen here is, is, is that a 24-year-old swimmer is not as capable as a 16-year-old swimmer, and there should be some reality check there about--I mean, it's an amazing thing to me that if you're 24 you're washed up, being a middle-aged person, but in, in their sport--but the build up of Janet Evans as a potential gold medal winner in some, in sort of NBC's incredible attention to her, that's kind of what I mean by false melodrama. I think there should be some harder reporting about just the ravages of age on physical accomplishment of this, of this level.
MARGARET WARNER: Well, Cynthia, let me ask you about this. Let's go back to the live versus not live controversy, and particularly that some of the commentators have even said things during the events, purportedly during the events, as if to suggest, for instance, that Miss Strug had to land this vault in the gymnastics competition to win the gold, when, in fact, that wasn't even true. How do you see it from Atlanta in terms of the way this is being presented elsewhere in the world and in the country?
CYNTHIA TUCKER, Atlanta Constitution: Well, I am actually very grateful for the broadcast coverage because like the masses of citizens in Atlanta and around the world, I wouldn't get to see most of the events if NBC were not broadcasting them. And I suspect many of the other commentators are just like the pundits talking tonight on the Lehrer NewsHour. Sometimes they get it wrong. They don't know everything, and it is absolutely true technically that Keri did not have to do perfectly on that vault for her team to get the gold, but she didn't know that, her coach didn't know that. It was too close to call at the moment she made the call. I guess I'm with Mike about this whole thing. If NBC had not paid $450 million for the broadcast rights for these games, there would probably not be any games. This is a $1.7 billion enterprise. No city, no state, very few governments around the world want to spend that kind of money in tax dollars. And so it is because of broadcast rights largely that the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games had enough money to put this on. Let me say one more word about the television commentary. I went to see an early round of gymnastics on Monday morning with a lot of little nations most Americans never heard of, no great stars. It was fun. It was fun to be there. But I want to tell you I'm not a gymnast. I don't know much about the sport. And there were times when I didn't have a clue what was going on, and I would have been grateful for one of those television commentators to say, oh, what he's supposed to be doing is this and not that. So--
MARGARET WARNER: All right. Lee--
MS. TUCKER: So without the--
MARGARET WARNER: Sorry.
MS. TUCKER: Without the commercials, I'm enjoying the broadcasts.
MARGARET WARNER: Lee, respond to what both Mike and Cynthia are saying. No big deal?
MS. CULLUM: Well, I understand their point. I mean, after all it is entertainment, and incidentally, I couldn't help but catch Cynthia Tucker's excitement about all this, and you know her city and mine are great rivals, and I do have to say Dallas salutes Atlanta. But of course, it's no big deal. But you know, if you think back to the really great entertainers, to Al Jolson, to Jack Benny, to Gertrude Lawrence, Bing Crosby, Bob Hope, they were very authentic people. They didn't pretend to be what they weren't. And, you know, people love taped things. That's why the video business does so well. It isn't necessary to try to present this as something that it isn't because what it is is sensational. So let it be sensational as it really is. That's really all I'm saying.
MARGARET WARNER: Mike, respond to another point that Bill Wong just raised about it being too jingoistic, i.e., all the coverage is focused on the Americans, and so on, that's another criticism we're hearing a lot about.
MR. BARNICLE: Well, I like that. I mean the last time I looked was about five seconds ago. I was a citizen of the United States of America. I want to know how the Americans are doing. It's sort of like if you live in Washington, you follow the Baltimore Orioles, Atlanta you like the Braves, Boston you like the Red Sox, and you want to know how those teams are doing, and you might occasionally flip to the box scores to see if the Seattle Mariners won last night, but you get your team basically. My guys, my women are Americans. I prefer to find out what they're doing. NBC paid more than Jack Welch's house on Nantucket cost to put these things on the air. They're going to show us what the Americans are doing. I don't mind that at all. Now, I might be light as ashes, but I like it.
MARGARET WARNER: Patrick, where do you come down on that?
MR. McGUIGAN: I disagree a little bit. I was actually disappointed. You know, gymnastics is so big here in Oklahoma that we follow not only the American teams but we follow these women and men all over the world. And we didn't get to see the emotion for the Russians and the Rumanians who also got medals that night. I was as proud as anybody. As you probably know, Shannon Miller, kind of led the team that night. She's from nearby Edmund. That is a little different point than leaving out the presentation of the medals to the Russians and the Romanians. I was disappointed that NBC did that.
MARGARET WARNER: Um-hmm. Cynthia, again, sitting in Atlanta, you're probably getting total saturation coverage. But do you think that the television coverage has been too American-centered?
MS. TUCKER: I don't think that Americans would pay nearly as much attention if the coverage were not American-centered, and, of course, NBC has to make up all that money it paid and try to make a profit to boot. I--in a perfect world, we would be much more interested in what was going on in nations all around the world, and there have been some spectacular performances by athletes, again, from little countries that didn't even exist 10 years ago. But I do think that most of us want to root for the home team just like I root for the Atlanta Braves. And so most Americans watching want to know what the Americans are doing.
MARGARET WARNER: Bill Wong, let me ask you about one final issue that's been raised which has been that the coverage has tended to focus on sports that NBC thinks women want to watch--gymnastics, swimming, equestrian events. There's almost nothing about the dream team in basketball, much less wrestling. As a man, does that bother you? Do you wish the coverage had--was more diverse?
MR. WONG: Well, I'm happy that we're not getting much of the dream team, frankly, because they're a bloody bore, and I would be much more interested in seeing the women's basketball team, and we haven't seen nearly enough of them yet, and, and I think it's proper for, for NBC to put some focus on women's sports, and I think that as a man I was very interested in the women's gymnastics all around--all around individual championship last night, even if it were on tape, and there was a lot of tension and to watch these teenagers basically go at it, and, and do something so incredible with their bodies. I think that was inherently dramatic for both men and women.
MARGARET WARNER: Mike, what do you think?
MR. BARNICLE: I'll watch anything but John Tesh.
MARGARET WARNER: But you've just been defending John Tesh.
MR. BARNICLE: No. You know--
MARGARET WARNER: John Tesh, we should say, is the commentator in women's gymnastics, the one who told us that Keri Strug had to land this vault, when it wasn't true.
MR. BARNICLE: You know, again, you know, I just enjoy it, but perhaps I'm a simpleton. I enjoy just sitting in my living room, watching the gymnasts and the swimmers. I like the Irish girl who won the three gold medals because most people I know from Ireland can't even swim. And it was amazing to me. The whole thing has been a truly wonderful television spectacular. Bob Costas has been terrific, and let's just lighten up and enjoy it.
MARGARET WARNER: Lee Cullum, it certainly is true that these NBC--this NBC coverage has the highest ratings, I think, ever for Olympics.
MS. CULLUM: Well--
MARGARET WARNER: I mean, do you think they found a winning formula even for those of you who don't necessarily like it?
MS. CULLUM: Yes, they found a winning formula. You know, I don't want to be--actually, I want to say I think it's terrific they're covering women's sports. I think it means that women matter. I think it's, it's wonderful for women, and I'm delighted to see NBC succeed covering women athletes. So on that level, I'm very pleased.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. Well, all of you, thanks very much. We'll leave it there.