Archive for Saturday, September 23, 2000

Australian TV focuses on Games

Personality pieces missing, but actual Olympics action fast and furious on foreign television

September 23, 2000

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— After watching Australian TV and NBC's coverage from Sydney, we've concluded the best way to cover the Olympics would be if they met somewhere in the middle. Perhaps in Fiji.

The two broadcast outlets are about as far apart in their coverage as the Northern and Southern hemispheres.

Australian TV's approach is spartan. No bells and whistles, no up-close-and-personals, no set-up pieces that over dramatize the events. It's your basic meat-and-potatoes coverage.

For the Aussies on television, the athletic competition is the thing, as events take precedent. What a novel concept.

NBC is the polar opposite. It's almost as if the actual events serve as a mere complement to the stories that go with them. The coverage borders on pure Hollywood smaltz. NBC has so many bells going off, they can be heard loud and clear in New York.

So which approach is the best for watching the Olympics? The answer is neither.

Australian TV is like eating cheese pizza every night, hardly the most exciting thing in the world. NBC's coverage, meanwhile, is a pizza with 30 toppings on it, so much so that you don't even know you're eating pizza.

Both television outlets are offering a feast that staggers the imagination. Australian TV is giving its viewers almost round-the-clock coverage.

For the most part, it is the basic stuff of television 101. The plus side is that they don't jump around as much from event to event as NBC does the prime time version of "Short attention span theater." The viewer gets a chance to get in the flow of a sport.

That's a good thing if you like the sport. However, watching an uninterrupted field hockey game will have you crying out for NBC's bounce-around coverage.

The Australian approach is about the games themselves. There's no need to try to devise a soap opera to lure viewers. Life stories aren't told, and tragedies aren't recounted. It's basically pure sports.

"Olympic sports are sports Australian people follow all the time," said Dick Ebersol, chairman of NBC Sports. "They come to these sports knowing who these people are."

By contrast, Ebersol says "95 percent of American viewers" don't know a thing about Olympic athletes. That requires NBC to engage in storytelling to give viewers a connection.

After watching the Australian broadcasts, you do miss the some of the depth and texture offered by NBC. Many of the profiles are compelling, and Jimmy Roberts' Olympic moments are delivered with a nice touch.

Yet, NBC does lay it on heavy. Sometimes the broadcast is so thick with the human-interest stuff, you forget there are actual events to be shown. Even though the events are on tape, there are times when you wonder whether NBC forgot to turn on the recorder.

The American hard-core sports nut probably would love how Australian TV is doing the games. But the approach wouldn't work in the United States, where the core of NBC's audience is women who don't normally watch sports. Merge the best parts of each approach together, and you'd have optimum Olympics broadcast.

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