King Kaufman's Sports Daily

Olympics: NBC's coverage isn't golden, but it's been a huge improvement over recent years. Plus: Teddy Atlas rocks the boxing. And: Badminton! And also: More.

By Salon Staff
Published August 20, 2004 7:00PM (EDT)

A week into the Olympics, let's look at the scoreboard and see how NBC and its hench-networks are doing.

Ooh, nice scores, but the East German judge is not happy.

Actually, a lot of Americans are not happy with NBC, if my in box and various discussion boards, including Salon's own Table Talk, are any indication, which they might not be. NBC's ratings have been running slightly ahead of the numbers from Sydney four years ago.

I've been pleasantly surprised by the work the Peacock has been doing, a vast improvement over any of the Olympics of the last few decades. That sentence might surprise you if you've only been watching the Big Show in prime time, where the improvement has been the smallest.

But there's a whole nother Olympics going on during the day and overnight, on NBC and the hench-networks -- MSNBC, CNBC, USA, Bravo, Telemundo and NBC-HD -- and it's been pretty good. It's been better than pretty good. (I can't speak for the high-def show, which I haven't seen.)

The big complaints about U.S. networks' coverage of the Olympics in the last 30 years or so have been their Americentrism and their forsaking of athletic action in favor of maudlin, melodramatic feature stories about athletes -- mostly American athletes -- all of whom seem to have overcome injury, illness or death in the family.

That shameless heart-tuggery's still there in the prime-time coverage, where each night viewers are assaulted by an appearance by the Hallmark Man, Jimmy Roberts, the earl of ersatz emotion, the sultan of slow-motion scenery, the sachem of sappy music, the potentate of purple prose. Every time Roberts presents one of his nightly "Big Detroit Automaker Olympic Moments," Pink Lady and Jeff can breathe a little easier because it's another new all-time low for NBC.

But even that business is far less frequent than it used to be, and if you're only watching the Big Show, you're missing out. Call in sick one day next week and check out the off-hours stuff, or even tune in as you're eating your Wheaties. You'll see a lot of action, pretty much wall-to-wall in fact, and you'll see sports other than swimming, gymnastics and, now, track and field. And precious few canned features.

The Americentrism does creep into the daytime broadcasts at times. One example: During the women's whitewater K-1 kayaking, we saw Rebecca Giddens of the United States making her semifinal run, then were treated to a quick interview with her in which she talked about how supportive her family and friends in Green Bay, Wisc., have been.

Then we saw her final run. Wasn't there anybody else in this competition? Then Elena Kaliska of Slovakia appeared on-screen, ready to start her final run. Hmm, I thought. This person isn't American and they're showing her. Guess she's going to win the gold. She did, with Giddens taking silver, and that was the end of that coverage.

And, watching 70 hours a day, I still don't think I've seen a medal ceremony where the anthem wasn't American.

But I have seen entire volleyball, basketball, badminton, table tennis and water polo matches that don't involve the U.S., not to mention weightlifting, trap shooting, field hockey, team handball, tennis and probably a dozen other sports.

If Americans are competing, it's probably going to get covered, which seems reasonable, this being America. I've always suspected that in any group of 1,000 Americans who complain about U.S. Olympics coverage focusing too much on Americans, you'd be hard-pressed to find one who'll sit through a Burkina Faso-Kazakhstan judo match.

But unlike in prime-time hours, the daytime shows don't make it look like only Americans and maybe one rival are competing. Even the daytime show on the big network has been pretty good about this.

There's still a little of that old Jimmy Roberts-style hooey even in the daytime, but, as I've noted before, it's a vast improvement over all the other Games of the up-close-and-personal era. Most of that improvement is in the greatly reduced frequency of these features, but also some of the features themselves are better.

After all, a feature story itself isn't a bad thing. It's just bad if it's poorly executed, and there's been nothing but for nigh on three decades.

But if you can tell us an interesting story -- quickly -- about an athlete or a sport without mucking it up with all that syrup, sure, go ahead. It's part of the fun of the Olympics to get to know these people a little bit. There have been some nice 30-second look-ins at this athlete or that one, just a quick review of his or her career highlights. Nothing about a sick kitten or a cousin with muscular dystrophy.

And even the Hallmark Man himself turned in a fun piece about the Greek baseball team Thursday. Nothing about young men pursuing their Olympic dreams blah blah blah in and on behalf of a country that doesn't even know their sport blah blah cue the music. Roberts just interviewed some players -- who are mostly Americans who, like, once ate a gyro and therefore qualify as Greek -- and in a funny montage asked some passing Greek fans what they thought of baseball, which was mostly nothing. Nice work, Hallmark Man.

I caught another nice little feature Wednesday, about American trap shooter Kim Rhode. It was more like a well-done local news piece than like an Olympics sapfest. Reporter Otis Livingston mostly just hung out with Rhode, an aspiring veterinarian, at the Athens zoo. They goofed around with a monkey and an owl and joked about Livingston being afraid of snakes.

The piece had a friendly, natural, comfortable feel. It made me want to root for Rhode without feeling like I'd been manipulated emotionally.

I don't care at all about Kim Rhode, and I continue to know nothing about her family members, whom I also care nothing for, no offense to them. But she came across as a smart, pleasant woman, and it was fun to hang out with her for a couple of minutes. I realize this was also a form of manipulation -- maybe she's a jerk who just made nice for the cameras -- but I didn't mind because there was not a violin within earshot. Rhode, who won gold in the double trap in 1996, won it again.

NBC invested eleventeen bazillion dollars to broadcast these games, and it's broadcasting them in the way that it thinks will draw in the most prime-time viewers, who vote with their remotes and like to watch American gymnasts and swimmers and runners.

But sports fans, always so poorly served by broadcasters that have to focus their efforts on attracting non-sports fans, are getting theirs for a change. It's in the daytime and the wee hours, and it's mostly on the hench-networks, but it's there, and NBC deserves a pat on the back for putting it there.

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Teddy Atlas is a knockout [PERMALINK]

Boxing on CNBC tends to come on at a funky hour, usually 5 p.m. EDT, which is pretty much a bad time to watch wherever you live, but it's a good show. It'll move over to MSNBC over the weekend, and there are also boxing broadcasts on Telemundo, which most of you can't see.

I love analyst Teddy Atlas, who in non-Olympic times does pug commentary for ESPN. First of all, he sounds like a boxing guy with that New York accent. Second of all, he's smart. But he's not smart about everything. As a TV guy, he makes a great boxing guy, if you know what I mean. He ain't smooth.

Before each fight is shown, he and partner Bob Papa talk a little bit about it on-screen. Only thing is, these setups are usually taped after the fight. So Teddy, you're not supposed to give away the result! This exchange happened on the first day of competition:

Papa: Teddy, our next bout, fairly intriguing as we get a look at Mario Sivolija taking on Edgar Munoz of Venezuela. Let's start with Sivolija. Croatia has never won a medal in Olympic competition, but Sivolija with one of the best chances.

Atlas: Yes he was. [This was followed by a long, awkward silence.] Going into this fight, is a guy who is very experienced ...

Oops. Guess which Croatian got beat.

But Atlas, who as a protégé of Cus D'Amato helped train a young Mike Tyson among others, is one of the best at explaining strategy and technique on the fly. He'll tell you what a fighter is trying to do, or what he should be trying to do, and he doesn't say the same thing for every fighter, which a lot of boxing analysts are guilty of.

He's also that rare announcer at these Olympics who calls 'em as he sees 'em on subjects other than "Hey, the Americans got robbed here!"

Referring to amateur boxing's nutty scoring system, in which three of five ringside judges must count a punch within a second of each other for it to register, he said, "If you people at home are confused sometimes by the scoring when you see a number go up [in the on-screen score bug] and you didn't really connect it with a punch, well, you can join me. I get confused too sometimes how these numbers pop up."

Atlas has been hammering pretty hard on the judging system, which tells you a lot about the similarities and differences among the reaction times of the judges but almost nothing about what's happening in the ring. Tuesday night, reacting to a comment by Papa that a fighter had done a nice job of adjusting in the previous round, though the judges had him getting outscored, Atlas said, "The judges need to be adjusted."

But he doesn't say these things in a bitter way. He's just talking straight, like the mythical "guy watching at home" that TV executives are always saying they're trying to approximate when they put obnoxious louts on the air.

Papa, who is supposed to be the play-by-play guy, does a great job of letting Atlas do almost all of the talking during the action. Most announcers would be fighting for the microphone so they could tell us what we'd just seen. Instead Papa mostly sets up Atlas with good questions or leading comments, then earns his announcer's pay by doing most of the talking before and after bouts, setting them up and reviewing them.

Papa does tend to talk in notes style ("Teddy, our next bout, fairly intriguing as we get a look at ..."), but it doesn't sound as strange as it reads.

All of which leads me to wonder why CNBC needs Fred Roggin as a sort of überhost in the boxing arena. In the other venues, there's a play-by-play announcer and one or two analysts, usually former athletes. In boxing there's Papa and Atlas, but then there's Roggin, high in the rafters and apparently under the embarrassingly mistaken notion that he's a wit.

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Hench-items [PERMALINK]

  • Noting the vast expanses of empty seats that continue to dominate many of the TV images from the Olympics, reader Ray Radlein had this epiphany: "2004 in Athens marks the first Olympics to ever be boycotted by its host country."

  • Ohhhh, now I get it! That-explains-it headline in USA Today about the U.S. men's basketball team: "Analysis: Low field goal percentage plagues U.S." That's some real analysis, right there. The actual article, by David DuPree, was a bit more insightful than the headline led one to believe it was going to be.

  • MSNBC Thursday morning: Mixed-doubles badminton gold-medal match. The favored Chinese win the first of three games 15-1, but Great Britain wins the second 15-12. The deciding game is a seesaw affair.Screaming crowd, with fans of both teams going crazy. China pulls out a 15-12 win. As exciting a sporting event as you'd ever want to see.

    Badminton. The Olympics are just crazy beautiful sometimes.

  • Several cycling fans, who may be warming to me because it's been a while since I've dissed their sport, have written to ask me to mention American Tyler Hamilton winning a gold medal in the men's individual time trial. Sure, here you go.

    Not only did Hamilton, known as one of the sport's good guys, come back from a back injury incurred in a crash that ended his Tour de France last month, but Hamilton dedicated his gold medal to his recently deceased dog, Tugboat. How sweet is that? (Tyler Hamilton, Jimmy Roberts on Line 1 for you.)

    Inspired by Hamilton, I'm dedicating this column to Sheldon, beloved crayfish of my brother, who died before his time about 30 years ago. I mean the fish did. My brother's fine. And since he demands appearance fees whenever I mention him in my writing, that's the last update you're getting on him in this column until I dedicate one to him.

    Previous column: Paul Hamm

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