Sweetness And LightSweetness And Light The Score On Sports With Frank Deford

How to Bring Fans Back to the Winter Olympics

Commentator Frank Deford notes Americans' lack of excitement over the Turin Winter Olympics, and has a few suggestions on how to win new fans.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

While many skaters showed perfect form, commentator Frank Deford says NBC has not.

FRANK DEFORD reporting:

There are alibis enough to explain why the Turin Olympics simply haven't caught on with Americans. Let's see: well, they're not in our time zone; what few U.S. stars who were hyped before the Games, came up either missing in action or missing at the podium; other networks had the nerve to actually schedule their regular programs against NBC; other sports had the nerve not to cede the month of February to the Olympics and on and on...

At the end of the day, though, it may simply be that the Winter Olympics are, foremost, a television game show, and history tells us that all T.V. shows eventually grow weary, stale, flat and unprofitable and get cancelled. It was Roone Arledge, ABC's programming genius, who conceived how to package the Games for an American audience. First, he played up quaint location--cue the cuckoo clocks and the lederhosen, the snow, the mountains, the ice, the sequins. He pursued an audience that didn't usually care all that much for sports; that is, in a word, women.

Arledge, then, really did make a silk purse out of a sow's ear. He took these sports that nobody much knew: luge, slalom, curling and ballyhooed, come with us into the tent, we're going to show you new, exotic games. Finally, he gave us well-crafted vignettes of the most arresting competitors. Nobody much had heard of them so Arledge had blank canvases to paint on and he brushed heavily with pathos and paradox and always--these aren't just athletes; no, they're pure and innocent Olympians, advancing brotherhood, fellowship and world peace. At some point, though, the formula began to grow threadbare.

New sports were added, but so were more days to the schedule. The vignettes all began to look hackneyed. Anybody could see that that adored Olympic flame was really no different than the Nike swoosh or the Coca Cola swirl. You know what the Olympics most remind me of? Miss America. The pageant worked the same dodge for decades giving us competitors we never heard of, putting on acts we really didn't care about with judging we really didn't understand and gussying it all up in a patina of patriotism and purity.

After awhile the conceit became stale. Viewers said, you know, I'd rather watch Miss Universe where it's just, the best babe wins. Same now, it seems. Bob Costas, meet the ghost of Bert Parks. American Idol whips the Olympics. It may be a junk show, but it's straightforward and it's familiar. So too, to competing sports events like the Daytona 500 and the NBA All-Star game give us athletes we know in real time.

A few of us will settle anymore for ersatz drama on tape delay when we already know who won. Sure, the Winter Games will do better four years hence when they're back on our body clock in Vancouver, but unless somebody figures out how to update Arledge, the Winter Olympics will just continue on as another musty old show, struggling to keep share and to stay off cable.

INSKEEP: The comments of Frank Deford, senior contributing writer at Sports Illustrated. He does the triple axel each Wednesday for member station WSHU in Fairfield, Connecticut. This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

MONTAGNE: And I'm Renee Montagne.

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Sweetness And LightSweetness And Light The Score On Sports With Frank Deford