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CBS’ Olympic Coverage Ranks High Among Viewers, Low Among Critics

February 19, 1994

NEW YORK (AP) _ Flash 3/8 Dan Jansen fell in one race. But flash 3/8 He broke a world record in another (though don’t expect to see it for another 12 hours) 3/8

And, oh yes, flash 3/8 Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan didn’t share a hug at practice 3/8 Nor did they rip each other’s head off 3/8

Now for a feature on reindeer and an interview with Donald Trump - right after these commercials ....

In its first week, the Winter Olympics have warmed CBS’ heart. Or, at least, its Nielsen pocket-piece. But despite a U.S. prime-time audience averaging a spectacular 23.3 million TV households (up almost one-third from the tune-in for the 1992 Albertville Games), some viewers have been left cold.

The disgruntled include the nation’s TV critics, many of whom have spent the week hurling verbal snowballs at the network.

(Before we start, CBS, you know the Olympics-coverage drill: ″Don’t listen if you don’t want to hear this.″)

″What’s missing most of the time is the sports,″ wrote Marvin Kitman of Long Island’s Newsday, adding that anchor Greg Gumbel ″reminds me of a bear in hibernation.″

″CBS has Olympic fever,″ noted The Washington Post’s Tom Shales, ″but sometimes with fever comes sweating, chills and delusions.″

″Cliche-cluttered, commercial-contaminated, promo-packed, fluff-filled,″ summed up Shales’ colleague, Leonard Shapiro. ″A big tease,″ chimed in USA Today’s Matt Roush.

It was easy to jeer at the sight of ″CBS This Morning’s″ Paula Zahn, complete with hockey uniform and skates, trying to shoot a puck.

And at Connie Chung, Lillehammer-bound, who did an on-the-air, in-the-air interview with plane-mate Tonya Harding for ″The CBS Evening News.″

″In the name of serious journalism,″ responded The Wall Street Journal tongue-in-cheek, ″shouldn’t (Dan) Rather be dogging Nancy Kerrigan’s heels?″

Of course, ″CBS This Morning″ covered live the non-confrontation between the two skaters Thursday.

Zahn was breathless at the non-event, while analyst Scott Hamilton tried in vain to restore some sense of proportion.

″With all the attention that’s been put on this (rivalry), maybe we’re gonna overanalzye it, who knows?″ he gently suggested.

Soon, weatherman Mark McEwen was seen hawking burgers at the Lillehammer McDonald’s.

But then, throughout the Olympics, selling is the big sport, cross- promotion the main event.

Even David Letterman has gotten in the act - or, more precisely, his mother, who has been reporting on the Olympics live for ″Late Show.″

CBS isn’t the only place to watch the goings-on. Cable channel TNT jumps in each afternoon, mostly with recaps and the Olympics’ not-ready-for-prime-time players.

But CBS keeps the good stuff, and mostly hoards it for prime time.

Viewers of ″CBS This Morning″ Friday were advised when speedskater Dan Jansen broke a 1,000-meter world record. But instead of showing it live, CBS kept the video of his gold-medal performance on ice until Friday night.

″We wanted to save this for the largest possible audience,″ said CBS spokesman Tom Goodman. ″Funneling the entire audience into the evening arena, so to speak, really makes for a better program.″

Another thing: By keeping Jansen’s feat off the air Friday morning, CBS kept it off everybody else’s air until 11 p.m. EST.

″No one else can use a single frame of the night’s coverage until we’re off the air,″ Goodman explained.

Half over now, with closing ceremonies next Sunday night, it’s the season’s biggest miniseries.

But with the action mostly prerecorded, edited, tweaked and broken up by features, the athletics takes a backseat to show business. Everything seems to take place not in Norway in February 1994, but in timeless cyberspace.

With the raw truth of each event diffused by TV production values, some of the truest-seeming moments are the TV flubs.

Jansen may have slipped up Tuesday during the 500-meter speedskating event, but so did announcer Dick Stockton, who somehow missed Jansen’s stagger. ″Over the last lap, no one skates it better,″ Stockton was saying.

Later, reporter Michael Barkann compounded the blunder with his quizzing of Peter Mueller, Jansen’s coach:

″Was the ice too slippery in the corner?″ Barkann pressed.

″Ice is always slippery,″ Mueller fired back.

No argument there. Nor is there much dispute, it seems, over the worst hour of CBS’ daily coverage: the fluff-and-stuff ″Olympic Late Night″ with Pat O’Brien.

Even Bob Raissman of New York’s Daily News, who confessed to having been a rare defender of O’Brien, confessed to second thoughts after witnessing the sportscaster’s ″totally ridiculous″ interview Monday with Donald Trump and wife Marla.

″What the heck was this about?″ marveled Raissman, noting that the couple wasn’t even in Lillehammer, but in New York City.

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