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Olympic coverage not short on critics

The Nagano Games have proven once again what America's most popular Olympic event really is - complaining about the television coverage.

It doesn't matter whether we're talking Winter or Summer Games. Seemingly nobody is ever happy with whatever network is telecasting the Olympics.This time, it's CBS's turn. And the criticism is coming almost as fast as the bad weather in the mountains outside Nagano.

Not that the network doesn't deserve some of it. There have been gaffes, miscues and miscalculations. Coverage has, at times, been boring, ponderous and feature-heavy.

But the biggest problem with the Nagano Games has been the weather - and, much as TV people like to think they're all-powerful, even CBS can't do anything about that. But the weather has, at this point, messed up CBS's prime-time plans on five different nights - and pretty much wiped out one evening's schedule altogether.

For whatever reason, the ratings are off considerably. It's not really fair to compare 1998 to 1994, when the ratings were about a third higher. The Lillehammer numbers were inflated by all that Nancy Kerrigan-Tonya Harding weirdness, which was a once-in-a-lifetime sort of thing.

But the 1998 numbers are down about 12 percent from 1992. And that's not a good sign.

Still, some of the criticism is a bit over the top.

- Complaints that there's not enough cross-country skiing or curling or whatever on CBS. The fact is that ratings for coverage of those events rather clearly demonstrates there's not a lot of interest in them.

- Complaints that there's too much figure-skating on CBS. The fact is that the ratings for skating clearly demonstrate there is a lot of interest in them.

- Too much of the coverage is taped. Well, duh! There's a 16-hour time difference between Nagano and Salt Lake City, so it's bound to be mostly taped coverage - just as it was from Lillehammer and Albertville.

And if the popular events like figure skating weren't held back for prime time, even more people would be unhappy because they'd have to stay up until the middle of the night to see them live.

- Then there's the USOC official who complained that there are just too darn many commercials on CBS. Well, grow up. The network paid $375 million for the rights to these Games and has spent hundreds of millions to produce them. At best, the Olympics are pretty much a break-even proposition.

Whatever American network broadcasts the Games kicks in up to a third of the total budget for the organizing committee. The broadcasters try to make that money back by - surprise! - selling commercials.

And the fact is that CBS faces the prospect of having to up its commercial content as the Games draw to a close to make up for lower-than-expected ratings.

- One newspaper columnist suggested that, instead of Jim Nantz, CBS should have brought on Bryant Gumbel to anchor the opening ceremonies. That's right, Mr. Charm himself, Bryant Gumbel.

We're all entitled to our opinions, but that one is more than a bit nuts.

Again, CBS's coverage has been far from perfect. But the biggest problem seems to be something intangible - the excitement surrounding the last couple of Winter Olympics just doesn't seem to be there in Nagano.

Maybe it's the Japanese reserve. Maybe it's the fact that the most popular Olympic events - figure skating - have featured saturation coverage in the past four years, making the Games less unique and special.

Maybe the excitement really is there in Nagano, and CBS is just doing a lousy job of conveying it.

Oh, well. At least the problems provide American viewers the opportunity to do what they do best - complain.