The first Winter Olympics on TV

Those of us who enjoy watching the excitement of the Olympics are also prone to complaining about the TV coverage. For every viewer who feels his/her favorite events are being shortchanged, there is another who can’t stand some other event dominating a big chunk of air time, at the expense of sports that never seem to get their due. The availability of live-streaming on various online outlets, or coverage from other sources via satellite, have improved the situation for some. But most of us remain at the mercy of what NBC and its sister networks on cable decide to highlight each day and night. Never mind that the events are sent to us instantaneously from halfway across the planet–we’ll find something to complain about.

Alas, this has always been the case, beginning with the very first network coverage of the Winter Olympics in Squaw Valley, California, in 1960.

To set the stage, historically speaking, the Berlin Olympics of 1936, under the menacing auspices of the Nazi party and watchful eye of Adolf Hitler, were the first ever to be televised, but only in Germany. With precious few TV sets in private homes at the time (mostly for party officials), public TV parlors were set up throughout Berlin, where about 160,000 viewers watched portions of the competition. The Games of 1940 and 1944 were, of course, canceled due to the war. They resumed in 1948 in London, but only limited newsreel highlights were seen on American TV.

Disney discussing the ceremonial events.

It wasn’t until the 1960 Squaw Valley Games when network television began to take a more active interest. Originally, ABC paid $50,000 for the rights to cover the event, but later backed out. At that point, as the legendary Roone Arledge (one-time president of ABC Sports and ABC News) explains, “CBS had picked up the Games, not out of any love for the Olympics, but as a favor from [CBS president] Bill Paley to Walt Disney.” What did Disney have to do with it? He was chairman of the Pageantry Committee, responsible for the opening and closing ceremonies. And Paley wanted to see his friend’s efforts televised from coast to coast.

Cronkite on the beat at Squaw Valley.

The reporters covering these Games included Walter Cronkite, still two years away from assuming his role as anchor of the evening news, Bud Palmer, and future ABC stalwart Chris Schenkel. But the CBS coverage was nothing like what we’ve come to expect from network coverage of the Olympics. The Squaw Valley broadcasts were initially limited to 15-minute recap segments each evening, beginning at 11:15 p.m., thus precluding the opportunity for any younger viewers to see the highlights. The miniscule time slot also didn’t allow for any in-depth reporting on the individual events or participating athletes. The New York Times TV critic Jack Gould blasted the arrangement. “For an event that occurs only every four years and is a matter of international interest,” he fumed, “it borders on ludicrous that only fifteen minutes a night should be allotted to the games…To assume that a day’s multiple list of events can be compressed into a visual account of ten minutes or so may make economic sense to a broadcaster, but it can only be regarded as foolhardy by the winter sports fan.”

However, CBS did expand its coverage later in the week, to include figure skating, hockey, and ski jumping, prompting Gould to backtrack: “These events were part of the original CBS plans for the Olympic coverage, not an afterthought,” he conceded in a follow-up column, “so that viewers who legitimately complained about those earlier 15-minute summaries, including this corner, were perhaps too quick in their judgments.”

Later in 1960, CBS also offered limited coverage of the Summer Olympics in Rome. This was still before Telstar and other satellites enabled live broadcasts from abroad, so films of the Games had to be flown to New York for broadcast.

For the 1964 Tokyo Summer Olympics, NBC used the Syncom 3 satellite for its coverage, which included live, color broadcasts of the opening and closing ceremonies. These were the first color transmissions via satellite from overseas to the U.S., but only the ceremonies themselves were shown in color.

The modern era of coverage began when ABC secured the rights to the 1968 Winter Olympics in Grenoble, France, and the Summer Games in Mexico City, which were broadcast in color throughout the 44 hours of coverage. NBC aired the ’72 Winter Games from Sapporo, Japan, but the

Summer Games in Munich were famously covered by ABC, as the sportscasters there (led by studio host Chris Schenkel) had to suddenly shift into hard-news mode during the final days of the Games, with the tragic events surrounding the terrorist attack and subsequent murder of the Israeli team. It was Jim McKay in particular who emerged as the personality viewers turned to for

the latest updates, and whose steady and compassionate reporting of the tragedy, including his chilling and heartbreaking announcement, “They’re all gone,” secured his role as host for ABC’s coverage of the 1976 Winter Games in Innsbruck, Austria, and the Summer Olympiad in Montreal, the rights of which were purchased for a then-whopping $25 million, for 76 hours of coverage. It was an early peak of ABC’s Golden Age of Olympics coverage.

McKay anchors the Montreal Games.

McKay’s easygoing personality, genuine interest in the athletes’ stories (highlighted in the “Up Close and Personal” features), and eloquent commentaries won him fans, praise from the critics, and multiple Emmys. NBC won the rights to the Moscow Summer Olympics in 1980, but the U.S. boycott put a kibosh on the coverage, except for occasional updates. ABC then returned for both 1984 Winter Games(Sarajevo, Yugoslavia) and paid a cool $225 million for rights to the Summer Games (Los Angeles), and later the 1988 Winter Games in Calgary, Canada.

Capital Cities’ purchase of ABC came with the announcement that the network would no longer bid for future Olympics, opening the door for NBC to secure the rights for all Games through the 2032 Olympiad. Bob Costas became the prime time host; he voluntarily left that post after the 2016 Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro. Mike Tirico has replaced him for the current Winter Games in PyeongChang, South Korea.

So here we are once again, watching another two weeks of the Olympics on TV, which will no doubt lead to complaints about the coverage, and which has already prompted objections to comments by an NBC on-air analyst about the history of relations between Korea and Japan. Yes, the more things change, the more they stay the same. But as long as I get to see the competitions I’ve always enjoyed watching since childhood, I’ll take the bad with the good.

Until next week…

(This week’s blog was adapted in large part from a section in my book For the First Time on Television. See more about it on my web site!)