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February 23, 2002


Commentators Deserve Low Marks


As Sarah Hughes skated flawlessly to Winter Olympic gold in Salt Lake City on Thursday night, NBC's analysts turned into emotional, confused fans who failed to explain the scoring that led to her victory.

This event called for the calm of ABC's Dick Button, not the worship and frequent screaming of NBC's Scott Hamilton and Sandra Bezic.

The performance would be comedic if it were not a glaring example of how not to cover a sports event. Their preference for Michelle Kwan was obvious; Hamilton's incessant hedging about the impact of her mistakes on her score painted him a Kwan apologist. The attempt by Hamilton and Bezic to make a case for Kwan's courage in not giving up after she fell was laughably absurd.

Yet analysts rarely affect ratings. NBC posted a stunning 26.8 Nielsen rating on Thursday, 16 percent better than CBS's four years ago for the women's finals in Nagano, Japan. From 11 to 11:30 p.m., the rating peaked at a 32.5, with 53 percent of households with their televisions on watching figure skating. Each rating point equals 1.06 million subscribers.

The commentary by Hamilton and Bezic was so packed with shouted superlatives that one wondered if they could learn adjectival perspective. Hughes skated before four others, yet her routine was "gorgeous," "huge," "spectacular" and "phenomenal." If anyone had skated better, what adjectives were left?

Hamilton could win plaudits for empty comments. As Kwan skated, he said, "The only person that can beat her in the long program is Sarah Hughes." But Irina Slutskaya had yet to skate. Moments later, Hamilton added that Kwan "can lose the long program to Sarah Hughes as long as she beats everybody else."

About both statements, one could reasonably ask, "Huh?"

Before the end of Slutskaya's program, the last of the night, Hamilton said a three-way tie would give Hughes the gold, but he never explained how. When Slutskaya's scores were posted, and Hughes won, Hamilton exclaimed, "Split panel!" He never explained that either.

NBC added to the confusion by waiting 1 minute 43 seconds to show a graphic saying who won the silver and the bronze. You can't forget the scoreboard, folks.

With nearly 20 minutes to explain the voting, NBC failed. Figure skating judging is so arcane that the result demanded clarification. None came.

A 0.0 score for NBC, with all possible deductions.

It would have been simple to show a chart with Hughes's five No. 1 placements in the long program and Slutskaya's four. The final calculation that gave Hughes the gold was more complex, but not so difficult that it kept Bruce Beck from laying it out yesterday on Channel 4's "Today in New York" program.

NBC's further disservice was not letting viewers see all of Slutskaya's placements in the long program, wiping the screen clean of a graphic before the final of the nine figures came up. With only eight of nine figures shown, viewers did not know if she had added to the four No. 1 placements that appeared on the screen.

After the performances, the NBC reporter Beth Ruyak interviewed Hughes, who hugged Ruyak. Like a teeny-bopper fawning over her idol outside MTV's Times Square studio, Ruyak said: "Oh, you're hugging me. What a treat!"

A heebie-jeebies moment for the ages.

As Hughes celebrated, NBC's crew failed to shut up, to let the images speak for themselves. Tom Hammond, the play-by-play announcer, could have shushed his partners, and could have directed them to answer pressing questions. But he did not.

And there was no reason for Hammond, during Silvia Fontana's program, to note that her father was manic-depressive and committed suicide when she was 18.

Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company