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CBS waits for its "big' Olympic moment

From the 1972 tragedy of Munich terrorism, to the 1980 ecstasy of U.S. hockey, to the 1988 trauma of Dan Jansen, to the gold-medal heroics of Spitz, Retton, Lewis, Heiden, Clay, Griffith-Joyner and Killy, our conscience is loaded with blockbuster news stories from Olympics past.

"We're still waiting for The Big Story of Albertville 1992," said Mike Pearl, the CBS producer who is deciding what 19-million prime-time viewers are seeing of the XVI Winter Olympics. "Oh, yes, I'm the guy to get mad at, because there's no way to satisfy every segment of such an incredibly diverse TV audience.

"Our ratings have been tremendous, and there've been strong news stories like Bonnie Blair's speed-skating golds and a few surprise U.S. medals, but I'm convinced The Big Story is yet to occur."

With seven days of competition left, I agree with Pearl. Olympics have long been lightning rods for smashing news _ both positive and negative. Albertville's Games are yet to deliver such a haymaker.

"Hockey is getting attention, but I'm convinced this U.S.A. team could crash any day now," the CBS decision-maker said. "Italy's Alberto Tomba is a celebrity skier, so maybe he'll become the No. 1 headliner. Who knows?"

Pearl serves, in a way, as CBS' traffic cop. Seeking an orderly, professional flow of Olympics coverage while dealing with 640 square miles of Winter Games geography and a flood of network-television egos.

"We've got 10 Olympic venues, about two dozen CBS announcers, an army of technical people, and everybody is understandably fighting for air time," he said. "We do make educated guesses, and certainly some mistakes, but a few programing decisions are carved in ratings granite. For instance, Olympic ladies figure skating always gets big TV audiences, so only a bonehead wouldn't have it dominating CBS' prime-time hours this week."

Mike is no bonehead.

Pearl broke away from his CBS battle station for 45 minutes, so we could converse in private at International Broadcast Center, headquarters for TV and radio operations of many nations during the Olympics.

"I'm getting phone calls and faxes every day from my old associates at ABC," he said. "From (ABC News president) Roone Arledge on down, they are deeply missing not doing Albertville. ABC had great pride in being identified as the "Network of the Olympics.' But now it's CBS' turn." Last time CBS did an Olympics was the 1960 Winter Games from Squaw Valley, Calif.

It's the biggest of TV jobs.

I'll not waste much newsprint on television X's and O's, but one technical aspect did smack my mind. May I explain how a live TV picture, say from an Olympic hockey game in mountainous Meribel, gets to a television set in the Tampa Bay area?

From Meribel, the TV picture is sent thousands of miles into the heavens, to Eutelsat, a European communications satellite. It's bounced down to Moutiers, Mike Pearl's locale, which by land is 15 miles from Meribel.

From Moutiers, by fiber-optic phone line, the live TV picture goes to the west coast of France. Then it's up to another satellite, Intelsat 2, which will bounce the picture to a receiving station in Holmdel, N.J.

We've got a ways to go.

Our TV picture then travels by phone lines to CBS headquarters in New York, then by fiber optics to a Group W transmitter near Stamford, Conn. One more time, it's sent to a high-flying satellite, AT&T's Telestar, which takes the Meribel TV picture on to WTVT in Tampa. Then it goes a final few miles, to your TV set, perhaps via a local cable company.

It all happens in one second.

Aren't the '90s wonderful?

Now, back to Pearl.

"Demographics show that women viewers have more intense interest in Winter Olympics than in Super Bowls, World Series or any other sports event," said the producer who worked three Olympics at ABC-TV before being hired by CBS specifically for Albertville and the 1994 Winter Games at Lillehammer, Norway.

"Women are in love with figure skating. Research tells us that young adults prefer aerials, such as ski jumping. Men tend to enjoy downhill skiing, bobsled, luge and things where crash-and-burn is possible. And, of course, some of our most popular stuff has been Bernard Goldberg features on characters like ski jumper Eddie "The Eagle' Edwards, and Charles Kuralt offering things like the mesmerizing sound of snow melting."

Pearl's eyes were bloodshot. For a 10th straight day, he was working on three hours' sleep. "With a six-hour time difference between here and the United States, our nightly Olympic show goes off the air at 5 a.m. French time," said the 48-year-old Miami native. "I then run to bed, but I'm back at work by 9 a.m."

CBS paid $243-million for U.S. television rights to Albertville. For three years, Pearl has worked full-time on these Winter Olympics. He has made 20 trips to France.

"We know what we're up against, and I'm talking nightly prime-time competition from major rivals (ABC/NBC)," Pearl said. "There are little tricks, such as "bridging.' Let me explain.

"Sunday and Monday nights are big movie nights on the other networks. If we've got a compelling figure-skating show going, we'll delay showing our commercials until maybe five minutes past the half-hour or hour. If we broke away right on the time-slot numbers, people are more liable to flip the dial and check out the ABC or NBC movies."

Just as you suspected.

With the six-hour difference between here and the United States, a majority of CBS' coverage is on videotape. Four years ago from Calgary, Winter Olympics on ABC mostly could be shown live.

CBS was criticized in the United States for delaying the showing of Blair winning her second speed-skating gold medal. There were endless CBS teases that night, but Americans would not see Bonnie until just before the 11 p.m. local news, or about 12 hours after she raced.

"Yes, we did use Blair to help hold our audience all night," Pearl said, "but we are flexible. When Jansen missed his medal chance in the 500 meters, that was a surprise, and had more actual news value than Blair's victory. We decided not to hold the Jansen failure until the 10 p.m. hour back in the States. Blair's win, in comparison, was highly predictable."

CBS' co-anchors, Paula Zahn and Tim McCarver, also have endured their share of criticism as they attempt to replace ABC-TV's longtime Olympic voice, Jim McKay.

"Nobody was going to come in and be Jim McKay for CBS in '92," Pearl said, "so we didn't want somebody trying to emulate the legendary anchor from ABC, who happens to be a great friend of mine.

"CBS decided long ago, with the unique demographics of an Olympics television audience, to go with male/female dual anchors. Tim McCarver and Paula Zahn knew all the barriers, and that comparisons to McKay were unavoidable. After being somewhat tense at the beginning of the Games, they're getting more and more comfortable. I agree with critics to a degree, that Tim was a bit out of his usual element. But he's a pro, a hard worker and getting smoother every night.

"Paula is a wonderful interviewer and a newscasting pro, so we're now working to get her out more, away from our studio in Moutiers and talking with Olympic figures and just plain people. I'll bet that by Feb. 23, when we sign off from France, American viewers are going to feel pretty darn good about Zahn/McCarver."

You'll be the judge of that.