Noted: NBC says it will air every Olympics event live (on TV, Web or another platform) starting in 2014.
Early in 2000, a book of mine was published with the snappy title, See How She Runs: Marion Jones and the Making of a Champion. I am thinking of publishing a new edition under the title, Never Mind, but that's another story.
Anyway, as the Olympics began that summer, I set to work on an updated paperback version that would cover Jones' performance in the Olympics. Since I couldn't afford the time or expense of a trip to Sydney, I did what anybody living in Chicago who wanted to see the Games as they were taking place would do. I drove to Detroit, rented a hotel room, and watched the Canadian broadcast.
Boy, were they having fun. Reading the Australian papers in the morning, zipping out to Bondi Beach to check in on the beach volleyball scene, buttonholing fans from all over the world on the streets of Sydney, taking you out to the track for the heats of the 100-meter dash in which Maurice Greene and Jones would establish their dominance for the days ahead. With all this and more, the Canadian broadcasters really captured the spirit of the Olympics, a spirit Americans haven't seen in a generation.
There was also a moment that made you want to cry. While NBC had a reporter in a dark Olympic stadium talking about the excitement Australia was feeling as the time grew near when the country's great sports hero, Cathy Freeman, would light the torch at the Opening Ceremonies, the Canadian broadcast was showing that very moment taking place. Americans wouldn't see it, and would see only a severely edited version of it at that, for nearly an entire day.
A few months later, Bob Costas came through town to promote a book and we went to lunch. How did it feel, I asked him, to go on the air in the dead of the Australian night so he could be the only image NBC saw fit to transmit live from Sydney for 17 days? What did he think of being reduced to a ringmaster of a circus long after the elephants left the building?
Always the loyal soldier, Costas hemmed and hawed a bit, then said it wasn't timidity that kept him from criticizing his network's effort, but respect for his colleagues. And then, by indirection, he said what needed to be said about the Ebersol approach.
"I'm not angry," Costas said. "I'm disappointed. I was the host of the Olympics, not the producer of the Olympics, and if I had my way, there are some things that would have been done differently."
The irony of this state of affairs is almost excruciatingly diabolical. Without American television money, the Olympics as we know them today would cease to exist. U.S. networks, and U.S. advertisers, pay a huge portion of the international Olympic movement's budget. And to recoup its investment, NBC says it must do everything it can to draw a prime-time audience, which means show nothing until prime time. The network spends so much money to televise the Olympics, in other words, that it doesn't dare to televise the Olympics. Not as they are taking place.
Nor does the network choose to show much of them in prime time, preferring to concentrate instead on its trademark "storytelling." "The results of the Olympics are not what truly matter to the vast majority of the audience," Ebersol once said. "They're interested in the story." Which is to say the athletes' battles against cancer, blindness and the heartbreak of psoriasis.
Ebersol said surveys show audiences aren't as great during the day as during prime time, and he is surely right about that. But what is the harm, we may ask, in showing the events live for those who do want to see them, then replaying them for a wider audience later on? The harm, if I follow Ebersol's reasoning, is all those people who supposedly aren't watching won't tune in during prime time and the ratings will suffer. Not to mention, of course, the fact that once the tape has been shown, other networks are free to air it.
Here is the paradox. We live in a time when instant communication is possible throughout the world. Yet the network whose millions are the Olympics' biggest source of income can recoup its investment only by not doing the one thing television does best: show history as it is being made. Canadian television, and television in other countries around the world, on the other hand, spend far less money in rights fees so it can afford to show the Games live. Go figure.
Well, Ebersol is gone now, but the news that NBC will retain the rights to the Olympics for the foreseeable future means that his legacy will continue. Both ESPN and Fox had promised to show the Games live, but it was not to be. The result is that Americans will continue to be the last country in the civilized world without universal health care and the last country not to see the Olympics live.
Ron Rapoport was a sportswriter and columnist for the Los AngelesTimes, Daily News and the Chicago Sun-Times. His latest book, Tim and Tom: An American Comedy in Black and White, which he wrote with Tim Reid and Tom Dreesen, is currently being adapted for the screen.