The Evolution Of Olympic Coverage Essay, Research Paper
The Evolution of Olympic Coverage
On February 18th, 1960, the 8th Olympic Winter Games opened in Squaw Valley, California, the first Olympics to be held in North America since 1932. In addition to some 1,000 athletes and several thousands spectators, the opening ceremonies were watched by several CBS television cameras, marking the beginning of television coverage of the Olympic Games on American Television.
The anchorman for these first televised Olympics was Walter Cronkite, and several CBS sports reporters did play-by-play of various events and a handful of CBS newsmen were dispatched to Squaw Valley to interview medal-winners and dignitaries.
Considering how extensive television coverage of the Olympics has become, and how much broadcast rights fees nowadays go for, it may surprise many that CBS paid just $50,000 for broadcast rights to Squaw Valley (and spent another $450,000 for production) and that the network broadcast just fifteen hours of coverage.
Despite the favorable time difference, not much of the coverage was live. For one thing, on most weeknights, CBS had just a half-hour in prime-time (sometimes an hour) and another 15 minutes at 11:15 P.M. (Eastern and Pacific times). Thus, most of what was seen were edited highlights, making use of the then newly developed art of videotape editing. CBS, however, did air live a handful of events, most notably some figure skating, and the final two games of the ice hockey tournament, the U.S. against the Soviet Union, and the U.S. against Czechoslovakia. The U.S. hockey team, who had lost the gold-medal game to the Russians four years earlier at Cortina, Italy, were not expected to medal at Squaw Valley. But after winning two games against weak opposition, Team U.S.A. stunned Canada, and then, on the second-to-last day of the Olympics, upset the Russians. The next morning, the final day of the Squaw Valley Games, the U.S. came back from a 4-3 deficit after two periods to score six straight goals in the final period to cement a 9-4 win and the gold medal, The United States first in ice hockey.
CBS also had the Summer Games from Rome. As there were no communications satellites yet, tape was shot, edited, and quickly flown across the Atlantic to what was then Idlewild Airport in New York where they would be put on a videotape deck in a mobile unit connected to the CBS network, allowing most events to be broadcast the same day they occurred.
In the spring of 1961 ABC began running a continuing show called Wide World of Sports. Because Wide World covered a lot of Olympic sports, both summer, and winter (often in 1961 and 1962, Olympic sports broadcast on Wide World were being seen on American television for the first time outside of the 1960 Squaw Valley and Rome telecasts), the network quickly became familiar with how to cover them, and as a result, ABC aggressively bid for the domestic television rights to the 1964 Winter (Innsbruck) and Summer (Tokyo) Games.
ABC won Innsbruck, but lost Tokyo to NBC. On January 29th, 1964, ABC began its first Olympics, the opening day of the Innsbruck games. Although there was a satellite by this time, it was not in a stationary orbit, so very little of ABC’s Innsbruck coverage would be sent by satellite. Instead, as CBS did in Rome four years earlier, tape was shot, edited, and flown across the Atlantic to New York. Still, with most Winter Olympic events occurring during the morning hours, nearly everything was broadcast the same day it occurred. Critics noted that ABC’s coverage in Innsbruck was vastly superior to what CBS had done just four years before.
By the time the 1964 Summer Olympics began, there was a stationary orbit satellite over the Pacific, allowing NBC to carry the opening ceremonies live and in color. However, very little of the remaining coverage was either live or in color, but the satellite made it possible for NBC to feed its average of 45 minutes a day to the U.S. as it was being shown in the Eastern Time Zone.
The first Olympics that had extensive color and satellite coverage were the 1968 Winter Games in Grenoble, France, which ABC broadcast. Some daytime coverage was live, the rest was same day, nearly all of it was in color, and the critics again praised ABC. By this time, ABC was carrying 22 total hours of coverage over 11 days, an average of 90 minutes to two hours daily.
That October, ABC carried the Summer Olympics in Mexico City, and with 45 hours of coverage, and a favorable time difference, much of what was seen was broadcast live. In Mexico City, ABC got acclaim not just for covering events, but also for covering the “black power” protests which saw two U.S. track medalists, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, raise their fists in protest on the victory stand during the National Anthem after receiving their medals.
NBC broke ABC’s stranglehold on the Olympics in 1972, winning the rights to broadcast that year’s Winter Games at Saporro, Japan. Despite a record 37 hours of coverage, much of it live, critics panned the coverage. Many wondered why Curt Gowdy – perhaps the best play-by-play sportscaster who ever lived – was NBC’s studio host and not doing play-by-play of one sport or another.
That August, ABC carried 66 hours of coverage of the Summer Olympics in Munich. While the on-field highlight was Mark Spitz winning a record seven gold medals in swimming, each in world record time, the events of September 5th, 1972 overshadowed everything else that had occurred on that day.
Before dawn, several terrorists stormed the Olympic Village, targeting the Israeli quarters. Two Israeli athletes were killed, nine others were taken hostage, and dozens of others escaped. Because ABC was on the scene to cover the Olympics, the network aimed TV cameras on the roof of its broadcast center directly at the building where the remaining nine hostages were being held. ABC newsman Peter Jennings, and sportscaster Howard Cosell had somehow gotten themselves into the village, and by using walkie-talkies, kept Jim McKay in the anchor studio, and an entire world, up to date on what was going on. A chopper took the hostages and their holders to the Munich airport, and a few hours later, a report suggested that the captors were killed and all nine hostages released. After that report, ABC showed highlights of what little sporting events had been held prior to the Games being suspended late that afternoon. The network planned to use the final part of their prime time broadcast to wrap up the day. They got word that a press conference would be held shortly before 5 A.M. local time (or just before 11 P.M. Eastern time).
There were no TV cameras at the Press Conference, but Jennings and Cosell were on the phone to the anchor studio, where McKay and several other ABC newsmen had sit. Putting the phone down, McKay grimly told the entire world that the earlier report was false, that the nine remaining hostages had also been killed in a gunfight at the airport, and that “They’re All Gone”. The next day, TV critics compared McKay’s work to that of Walter Cronkite the day President Kennedy was assassinated.
McKay was not the studio host for the rest of the 1972 Games, but his work at Munich was so good that he would be the primetime studio anchor for ABC’s six remaining Olympic telecasts, starting with 1976 (Innsbruck for the Winter Games, Montreal for the Summer Games). ABC utilized the latest technical advances to put together broadcasts even better than 1972. As was the case in 1968, the 1976 Summer Games, being in North America, could be a disaster if ABC put the wrong thing on live at the wrong time. But again, ABC showed a knack for having the right thing live at the right time.
The 1980 Winter Olympics returned to the United States, and to Lake Placid, which hosted the 1932 games. ABC’s ability to alter their coverage to show the “hot” story as it was happening became apparent when the U.S. hockey team began an unexpected winning streak. Originally, hockey (outside of the championship game) was to air only as edited highlights, but with the U.S. still winning, ABC began to devote more and more airtime to Team U.S.A. games, culminating with the final two games (against Russia and Finland) shown in their entirety. The dramatic U.S. victories in those games brought some of the largest TV audiences of the entire 1979-80 television season, a gold medal for Team U.S.A., and careers in the National Hockey League for many of the Team U.S.A. players.
The 1980 Summer games were to be in Moscow, with NBC having the telecast honors. But after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the U.S. decided to boycott the Moscow Games, and what had been 150 hours of scheduled coverage was shrunk to a few hours as well as highlights fed to local NBC stations for use on local newscasts. Many affiliates refused to show the Olympic highlights on their local news or to clear airtime for the few hours of coverage NBC did present.
The 1984 Winter Games in Sarajevo were again covered by ABC, which after a slow start, finished in a burst of high ratings and more critical acclaim. But that year’s Summer Games in Los Angeles would be the most massive single television production undertaking in the U.S. to that time, and still the single most massive production ABC has ever undertook, for in addition to its own record 180 hours of coverage, ABC would also provide basic coverage of every Olympic event to broadcasters all over the world, also nearly all of its own 180 hours of coverage would be presented live. ABC’s coverage from Los Angeles became one of the most spectacular achievements in television to that time, and is still generally considered the best-ever American telecast of an Olympics.
ABC covered the 1988 Winter Olympics from Calgary, Alberta while NBC got the Summer games in Seoul, South Korea. Many morning events were shown live in the U.S., in prime-time, and NBC’s 180 hours of coverage were surprisingly well-received by the critics.
After 32 years, CBS got back into the Olympic act at Albertville, France in 1992. For Americans, there was one great and one disappointing memory of the 1992 Winter Games. The great memory was Kristi Yamaguchi winning the gold in ladies’ figure skating. The disappointment was that the U.S. hockey team, who had the best record in the “round-robin” phase of the tournament, ran out of steam in the medal round, losing the semifinals to Russia and ending up out of the medals.
By 1992, televising the Olympics had become a costly proposition. NBC won the rights to the Summer Games in Barcelona with a bid of $401 million, thinking ABC and CBS were both going to bid $ 400 million each (in the end, the highest rival bid was closer to $ 300 million). In an attempt to recoup the cost, NBC decided, in addition to its own extensive over-the-air TV coverage, to partner with Cablevision Systems Corporation (who were joint owners of Rainbow Programming Holdings, parent company to several cable networks) and produce round-the-clock (twelve hours live each day, then repeated for the next twelve hours) coverage of other Olympic events on three pay-per-view channels. The venture was a financial disaster, with NBC and Cablevision each losing about $50 million each.
CBS aired the 1994 Winter Games from Lillehammer, Norway. Despite a gold medal in downhill skiing by American Tommy Moe and a thrilling gold-medal game in men’s hockey between Sweden and Canada (won by Sweden in a shootout after the two teams had skated to a tie after three regulation periods and an overtime session), the 1994 Winter Games will always be remembered for the Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding saga.
In 1996, the Summer Olympics came to Atlanta, and to NBC. Although there were plenty of opportunities for live coverage, much of NBC’s coverage was on tape. Critics lambasted NBC for going overboard with the “Up Close And Personal” features, showing too many of them, letting them run for too long, and as a result, showing less Olympic competition.
NBC’s one shining moment in Atlanta came in the wake of a bomb explosion in Atlanta’s Centennial Park . The network was on the air with its usual late night show of events that were held earlier in the evening but could not be shown live when the blast took place. The network dumped out the tapes of that day’s Olympic events and stayed on the rest of the night to update viewers on the latest news following the explosion.
Two years later, the Winter Games returned to Asia and to CBS in Nagano, Japan. But CBS was criticized for numerous things, ranging from an over-abundance of “Up Close And Personal” features to failing to show live a women’s ski race where U.S. skier Piacbo Street won a gold medal, to not showing live the first-ever gold-medal game in Women’s hockey, and when the game was finally shown (won by the U.S. over Canada), it was edited down to highlights. The Boston Globe timed one prime-time hour of CBS coverage, and found to its dismay that there were only three minutes of actual Olympic competition. The rest of the time was taken up with commercials, some “Up Close And Personal” features, and coverage of figure-skating practice.
NBC currently holds exclusive U.S. television rights to both the winter and summer Olympic games from 2000 through 2008. The network paid 3.5 billion dollars to hold that privilege, $700,000 for each Olympics. A staggering figure from the $50,000 that CBS paid in 1960, but a figure that shows just how far reaching and profitable the media of television has become.