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Ron Judd's Olympics Insider

Ron Judd, an Olympics junkie and Seattle Times columnist who has covered Olympic sports since 1997, will use this space to serve up news and opinion on the Summer and Winter Games -- also inviting you to chime in on Planet Earth's biggest get-together.

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November 29, 2008 2:50 PM

Universal's ski coverage: Off to rocky start

Posted by Ron Judd

Anyone besides me tune in the men's downhill from Lake Louise on this morning?

First thing to greet you on the Web site (the cable network itself is unavailable in Seattle; Universal "simulcasts" its coverage of many events online) was a countdown clock announcing that ski coverage as coming -- in three hours. Not what was promised on Universal's own schedule, which indicated ski coverage would be piped in at 1:30 p.m. ET. In my world, that means 10:30 a.m. PT. No dice.

About five minutes later, however, the feed magically appeared, and off we went.

This was the first World Cup downhill of the year, and likely one of the first Universal -- the Olympic-sports broadcast arm of NBC -- has done. So some slack is in order. But still...

From time to time, Universal's production work was simply embarrassing. On more than one occasion, skiers would take the course, sail through the first five or six gates -- then simply disappear, as Universal threw up a graphic asking you to go to their Web site and take a poll: "Which Winter Olympic sport would you most like to try?" Sadly, not making this up.

Another time, newbie commentator Phil McNichol, the former U.S. men's alpine coach, was happily analyzing the run of one skier, only to be informed some time later that he was, in fact, watching a taped replay of an early skier. Still other times, the screen just went inexplicably to black, with no fade out, no explanation.

It became sort of comical at some point -- sort of a Wayne's World Does Skiing vibe. You halfway expected to see footage of Ingemar Stenmark appearing mysteriously in the mix, ubneknownst to the broadcast team. But later on, Universal's approach proved to seriously compromise its own coverage.

Today's World Cup was one of those odd races where the first dozen skiers got favorable conditions -- better light, and a lack of a headwind, as it turned out. The fast skiers -- Bode Miller, Didier Cuche and the like -- skiing in the middle of the pack, were posting times significantly slower than the earlier skiers. That typically indicates a major change in course conditions, with the track becoming slower later on.

Universal picked up on this -- but couldn't pinpoint why. Probable reason: Universal's commentators (McNichol and Steve Schlanger) aren't at the course. They're nowhere near it, in fact, laying audio over a ski-course pooled video feed from a remote location (L.A., I think). This works fine for some sports, and in fact proved to be a very successful technique for NBC at the Beijing Olympics. But it clearly presents challenges for ski coverage. It explains some of the production glitches, such as broadcasters not knowing who is on the course, and when. But it can have even more serious repercussions, as today's broadcast showed.

Because they're not there, Universals commentators lacked the ability to just walk outside the booth, feel the temperature and wind, see the light, etc. They also lacked a reporter at the finish line who could debrief skiers as they finished and ask The One Pertinent Question: Why did the course slow so badly for the middle and late racers?

It was a glaring omission -- one that made you wonder why, since they were broadcasting live, Universal couldn't at least have a reporter with a cell phone calling in conditions and racers's comments from the finish area. (For a small fee, I'll volunteer to tag along and do just that for the rest of the World Cup circuit.) It's not rocket science, folks.

And the lack of any real-time, on-course observations -- coupled with the network's unwillingness to admit they are not on-site -- just makes the people in the booth look stupid, with McNichol (who is decidedly not stupid about skiing) left to speculate as to the source of the course slowdown. (McNichol kept saying things like, "Good light. A little flat, I was told." Or, describing the course, saying "It was bumpy, I was told.")

Later on, we watched the same race, tape delayed on CBC, and the broadcasters, actually on the scene, were quick to pick up on the race conditions -- changing light and stiffening winds, that dramatically slowed later skiers.

So, not a good start for Universal. In fact: sloppy, sloppy, sloppy. We're glad they're doing skiing. But we hope they learned something from today's fiasco.

Speaking of annoying TV coverage: Someone at CBC needs to tell Kerrin-Lee Gartner it's OK to take a breath every 8 or 10 minutes. Really. It's not necessary to fill every fractional second of air time with commentary. It's TV, not radio. A little dead air is a good thing. Trust us.

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Blogroll and links The official International Olympic Committtee site, with news releases, a searchable Olympic medals database and other archival information. Olympic news site from one of the Games' primary sponsors.
NBC Olympics columnist Alan Abrahamson's column/blog
Chicago Tribune Olympic sports writer Philip Hersh's blog U.S. Olympic Committee's athlete web site. Ed and Sheila Hula's Olympic News Service (subscription). News service with audio, video and text coverage of Olympic sports, during and between Olympics. Free, but charges for live video feed subscriptions. Beijing Organizing Committee Web site. Vancouver Organizing Committee's 2010 Winter Games site. London 2012 Summer Games site. Sochi, Russia's 2014 Winter Games site. Candidate city Chicago's summer 2016 bid committee site.
Olympic swimmer Tara Kirk's highly entertaining WCSN blog
Bellevue Olympian Scott Macartney's WCSN alpine ski-racing blog
Other WCSN Olympic athlete blogs.