1992 Winter Olympics

Exhibiting all the aplomb of Don Knotts dismantling a nuclear warhead, CBS just finished providing the most jittery, addled, babbling coverage of the Winter Olympics imaginable. Broadcasting from Albertville, France, CBS gave us everything — how ’bout its superlative USA vs. Sweden hockey broadcast on Feb. 17? — and a lot less: Most of the time during this high-rated coverage, there were too many commercials, and half of them seemed to plug CBS shows. Millions of bored-to-tears sports fans already hate that fire-spitting-dragon-puppet show, Scorch, before it even makes its debut this week. On the other hand, I award my own gold medal to this CBS voice-over: ”The Olympics are brought to you by pork-the other white meat.”

When it wasn’t a commercial interrupting the events, it was Tim McCarver and Paula Zahn, CBS’ prime-time hosts. Under normal circumstances, these two seem like fine human beings. As cohost of CBS This Morning, Zahn manages to make chipperness alluring at 7 a.m. And it’s now a federal law that in discussing McCarver, you must describe him at least once as ”maybe the best baseball analyst ever.” McCarver, maybe the best baseball analyst ever, is usually an ideal TV presence: articulate, modest, wry.

But seated knee-to-knee in a studio, with no particular Olympics expertise or opinions to draw upon, McCarver and Zahn were mere announcers (”And now let’s go the slopes of Albertville…”). Zahn to figure-skating commentator and diet cola-pitchwoman Katarina Witt: ”The field seems to be wide open tonight, Katarina.” Witt: ”You’re right, Paula, the field is as wide open as it can get…” Some CBS pluses: skillful camera work that invariably seemed to catch the proper angles of action, and figure-skating analyst Tracy Wilson, who never let her bronze-medalist credentials in this sport get in the way of objective reporting and sharp interviews.

At least Zahn and McCarver didn’t engage in excessive America boosting. Not so Pat O’Brien, whose nightly 11:30 wrap-up show was astonishingly, ceaselessly annoying. ”Dear Mom,” the overdressed Entertainment Tonight substitute host said one evening, ”having a wonderful time here at the Olympics — wish you were here. P.S.: How ’bout those young Americans?” Instantly, David Bowie’s ”Young Americans” rattled the soundtrack, as footage showed screaming, yelling, flag-waving, face-painted young American fans in the stands, bellowing support for some unseen athlete.

Ostensibly designed to show us the highlights of the day, O’Brien’s show drew attention away from its clips with tritely chosen rock music: Springsteen’s ”Born to Run” over Donna Weinbrecht’s bump-defying mogul-skiing performance; EMF’s ”Unbelievable” as Bonnie Blair sailed across the ice on skates; George Thorogood’s ”Bad to the Bone” atop Christopher Bowman’s figure skating.

O’Brien, every one of whose oh-so-fashionable sport jackets looked like a sleeping bag with buttons, pulled in some big CBS commentators, including Charles Kuralt in full NyQuil effect (”All we ordinary mortals can do is stand and watch and envy them as we envy eagles”) and Dan Rather (”Even here, the new world order is marked by disorder”).

But let’s give O’Brien some credit: He did give airtime to 60 Minutes‘ Morley Safer, who offered a wonderfully sour little piece about how disdainfully uninterested most French people were about the Games being held in their country. As cameras panned across one haughty local face after another, Safer made it clear that he was expressing admiration for the French, for resisting the hype.

If only more of O’Brien’s show had been as genuinely offbeat as Safer’s piece, his self-described ”midnight snack of Olympics news” might have been more nourishing. C-

1992 Winter Olympics
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