Olympic television has come a long way since it began with CBS’s coverage of the 1960 games. In an era before advanced satellites, videotapes of the events for the 1960 Summer Games in Rome had to be flown back to New York for editing prior to airing. A then-obscure reporter named Jim McKay hosted some of the initial programs (Maraniss, p. 134-136).
By the early 1970s, ABC became the primary network for the games and ABC Sports chief Roone Arledge pioneered the formula for covering the spectacle. Just as during the current fortnight, Arledge produced tape-delayed coverage of marquee events in prime time, when viewership is at its peak. Using up close and personal biographies to foster audience familiarity, Arledge generated viewer interest in athletes few Americans had heard of before each Olympics. While the Game’s success is taken for granted today, ABC achieved a remarkable feat by attracting millions of people to tune in night after night to watch sports the country ignores in the interim years. Having moved to ABC, McKay became the regular Olympic host and Walter Cronkite of the quadrennial ritual. When NBC bought the rights to the games in the 1990s, Arledge protégé Dick Ebersol followed the same formula with Bob Costas assuming McKay’s role.
Before cable, the Olympics completely dominated television and culture for two weeks while launching the careers of multiple stars in both the Winter and Summer Games. Peggy Fleming, Mark Spitz, Dorothy Hamill, the pre-Kardashian Bruce Jenner, Carl Lewis, and Mary Lou Retton became celebrities who earned lucrative endorsements and are often still recognized in airports and restaurants today.
As ratings declined with the emergence of greater entertainment options in the 1990s and early 21st century, the Olympic hype machine seemed to sputter, only generating a few stars here or there. Unlike earlier figure skating gold medalists such as Fleming and Hamill, ’98 and ’02 figure skating champions Tara Lipinski and Sarah Hughes quickly returned to relative obscurity. Similarly, ’04 and ’08 gymnastic titlists Carly Patterson and Nastia Liukin received few endorsements compared with ’84 champ Retton. In recent years, only swimmer Michael Phelps has become a breakout star.
Every network that has covered the games has focused heavily on American athletes and media critics routinely mock the jingoism of U.S. television coverage. Indeed, it is striking to watch the international feed on live streaming in the afternoon and contrast it with the nationalistic tone of the prime-time coverage on NBC. Over the years, though, the networks have also introduced Americans to a number of international stars, including Soviet gymnast Olga Korbut, Romanian gymnast Nadia Comaneci, East German figure skater Katarina Witt, Italian skier Alberto Tomba, and Australian runner Cathy Freeman.
The Arledge strategy has become somewhat anachronistic in recent years, as the tape-delay formula appears dated in the era of the Internet and social media. Despite NBC’s live streaming of all events for the first time during the London games, many still bemoan the fact that the network won’t air the key events in swimming, gymnastics, and track and field live during the afternoon. NBC still believes it can only earn back the investment from its hefty rights fees by showing the big stars during prime time.
Aided by wall-to-wall television coverage, the Olympics so dominate the national discussion during the summer that pundits consider it axiomatic that the presidential campaigns must scale back during their two-week run. Commentators have noted that Mitt Romney will not introduce his running mate until after the games are over so as to not diminish the attention given to his announcement. Such is the cultural power that the games have after coming into our homes for a half-century.
Sources: David Maraniss, Rome 1960: The Olympics That Changed the World, (New York. 2008)