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American Networks' Olympics Coverage Continues to Serve the Network First and Viewers Last

Many American television viewers are complaining -- as well they should -- about how NBC shows major events from the Winter Olympics on tape, hours after their conclusion.
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Many American television viewers are complaining -- as well they should -- about how NBC shows major events from the Winter Olympics on tape, hours after their conclusion.

It brings back cold memories of the cynical decision three decades ago which forever exposed how American networks serve themselves first, their advertisers second and their audience third.

It happened at the 1980 Winter Games in Lake Placid, when the young United States men's hockey team approached a possible upset of the Soviet Union, then the world's best national team.

The game was scheduled for 5 p.m. on a Friday afternoon. By then, even the hockey-challenged pundits of the U.S. news media realized this was an historic event that transcended sports.

The ABC network owned the rights to televise the game. But instead of showing it live, as much of the world saw it, ABC refused to actually report this news event as it took place.

Instead, ABC recorded the game on videotape and showed it beginning at 8 p.m., Eastern time. The Americans won and went on to take the gold medal two days later by beating Finland.

Along with Joe Louis defeating Max Schmeling in boxing in 1938, the Olympic "Miracle on Ice'' ranks as one of mythical moments in American history when sports and politics merged.

This was before widespread internet, cable TV and 24-hour sports-talk stations on radio. So some Americans avoided media and watched the prime-time telecast with suspense intact.

Others, who lived near the Canadian border, watched the live telecast on the Canadian television network, CTV. The pictures came over the air through antennas.

ABC justified its decision with doubletalk and circular logic that was as transparent as it was hollow. The local stations needed those hours for local news and syndicated programming, they said.

But the reality was obvious to any bean-counter. Prime time hours were already sold to advertisers. ABC had already booked its commercials.

So ABC was not about to jeopardize the size of that prime time audience by covering news as it took place. The audience was to be "served'' only when it was served up to advertisers.

Three decades later, despite cable, sports radio and the internet, NBC continues with this business model and this high-handed manipulation of viewers.

If a medal event cannot be scheduled live in prime time, well, sorry, you'll just have to wait until NBC is good and ready to spoon-feed it to you, between commercials, after 8 p.m.

Perhaps it will be in snow-boarding, one of those new sports that -- surprise! -- practically insures American gold and wet eyes in close-ups on the medal stand during "The Star-Spangled Banner.''

Of course, some of these sports seem to be made for TV, daredevil stunts from an entertainment culture that includes "extreme'' games and men brawling in cages on pay-per-view.

Even the traditional events like figure skating feel contrived with personalities and story lines. Why not merge ice dancing with "Dancing With The Stars'' or let Simon Cowell judge our newest American Olympic Idols?

Perhaps we should not complain about show-biz values. Now that purveyors and consumers have blurred the line between reality and reality shows, how dare we demand to see real events in real time?

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