The Austin Chronicle

Coach's Corner

By Andy "Coach" Cotton, October 6, 2000, Columns

In the past few years, a subject once considered arcane statistical mumbo-jumbo (of interest to a few media execs, sitcom actors, and razor blade salesmen) has found its way -- somehow and for what reasons I don't know -- into common discourse. I'm talking TV Ratings 101. The baseball All-Star Game pulls a 5 (by using "pulls" and "5" in the correct context, I graduate to Ratings 201), and it'll be front page news the next morning, discussed ad nauseam on the afternoon talk shows and dissected on a Between the Lines segment on ESPN. Recently the ratings bombardment has been especially intense -- the late summer seeing an hourly summary on the particulars of Monday Night Football ratings. The zenith, of course, has been the Summer Olympics, culminating last week with a lengthy front page Olympic ratings story in USA Today. This begs a question: Have we become a nation of television executives?

The answer to this must be yes. Why else would sportswriters and talk show hosts spend so much time debating this issue? The Summer Games from distant Australia has provided an outstanding post-graduate forum on this tedious subject. The foundation of the continuous ratings discussion is as follows: It's the American media's contention that NBC, and sports chairman Dick Ebersol in particular, made a horrific corporate decision and, in fact, stole from the American viewing public (as surely as the innocent Lindbergh baby was swiped from his crib) the privilege of watching the Olympics live -- thereby forcing us to endure the stomach-churning uncertainty of not knowing the winner of synchronized diving competition until we see it on tape -- in prime time -- the next night.

I think we'd all presume that these guys have college degrees, but clearly they slept in logic class. To argue -- vehemently! -- that Americans would be better served with a live telecast of the 4x100 relays at 4am CST, instead of the dreaded tape delay, is so absurd as to border on the insane. Just this morning I heard one indignant, nationally known sportswriter claim that if he "wanted to see an event he'd set his alarm at 4am." Hot damn. This doesn't border on insane; it is insane.

Anyway, this convoluted thinking created a daily media savaging of the Olympics. Every hourly rating is compared with ratings of the last Olympiad, and the one before that, and the one before that. NBC is ridiculed and Canada's national network, CBC, lavishly praised for showing the games live to an appreciative Canadian audience of three lumberjacks in Saskatoon, an insomniatic Newfoundlander tuna fisherman, two drunken cowboys in Calgary, and 17 happy Eskimos from Inuvic, where it's dark most of the day anyhow, so who cares what time it is? And a beleaguered Ebersol notes, "Olympic TV bashing has become a blood sport."

Finally my point: Who cares? Why should you or your Grandpap Zeb give a damn whether or not Taco Bell or Gillette made an efficient ad buy? My single concern in watching a sporting event is that the cable doesn't go out. I don't care if you watch it. Go run in the park, check your e-mail, watch Oprah. It's all good.

It was during the strike year NBA Finals, similarly filled with breathless, gloomy ratings reports, when this first struck me as odd. Here I am, nestled comfortably in my dark little room, happy and content, watching my favorite sport, yet being bombarded with advertising execspeak. Am I an NBC programming executive who might care? Am I shelling out big bucks for promised viewers not there? Negatory on both counts. I'm a sports fan. The game's on. I'm happy. Court is closed. How did this become a fascination with the American public? It's crazy.

Crazy ... who am I calling crazy? I find myself gazing aimlessly out the 17th-story window of my parents' apartment in downtown Chicago, overlooking the vast expanse of green that is Lincoln Park. In the near distance is the lakefront, shimmering under a no- smog-Sunday blue sky. It's an unusually warm day for early October. The park's filled with swarming Chicagoans, mimicking the fat, busy squirrels among them. Veteran residents know to grab Indian Summer by the throat and embrace it while you can; the long, gray Midwestern winter could start tomorrow. I pick up the binoculars to check it out.

I see a little kid, shirtless, riding one of those ubiquitous black-and-white scooters. The fields are filled with simultaneous games of softball, soccer, and football. A dad tosses a ball to his small son. A homeless guy is asleep on a bench he's sharing with an old man with a mustache reading the Tribune. A girl is on her stomach, sunning on a red blanket. A fit-looking couple is rollerblading, pulled along by two happy dogs. Over on the beach, where I once whiled away summer after summer, a few people are swimming in the always-icy lake. The strollway's crowded with buff, agile folk rollerblading, cruising smartly along past joggers and walkers. The EMS wagon is tending to a skateboard injury. A fat lady's eating an ice cream bar.

Sitting here, cooped up 17 stories in the sky, getting worked up over Olympic ratings ... I'm the one who's crazy. I'm going down to the park.

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