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Approval lags behind ratings

Debates usually are wars of words, but NBC responds to critics of its Olympic coverage with numbers. Big numbers.

The Nielsen ratings for Tuesday night's broadcast _ with the U.S. women's gymnastics team winning the gold medal _ were astounding: 27.2 with a 47 share. It was the highest prime-

time Olympic event coverage since July 29, 1976, and the highest NBC rating for a Tuesday night since a 1982 World Series game.

So maybe the balance between features and action leans too far to the warm and fuzzy side, and maybe the "virtually live" concept under which NBC tapes events and then broadcasts them as if they are live is incredibly deceptive. But can you really knock it when all of America appears to be tuning in?

Yep.

No one is saying the coverage is bad; it just has flaws. NBC delivered all the wonderful moments from the United States' gold-medal gymnastic chase. Kerri Strug's courageous vault, Bela Karolyi carrying Strug to the medal stand, the Georgia Dome crowd's standing ovation. The commentators (yes, including John Tesh) were solid, and the pictures were splendid.

And in the next few days, young athletes at LaFleur's Gymnastics in Tampa will sit in the lobby and watch the memorable performance for the first time on videotape. Why? The youngsters failed to stay up and see the broadcast, which did not climax until 11:50 p.m.

"Everybody who saw it is just in awe," said Jeff LaFleur, who once coached Dominique Moceanu in his gym. "It's just really unfortunate they could not have gotten on the air earlier. The little ones just couldn't make the long haul."

The competition actually ended at 6:40 p.m., but NBC did not begin to air the gymnastics coverage until 9:30. NBC Sports president Dick Ebersol makes no apologies about trying to show the best events to the largest audience possible, and late East Coast starts mean more West Coast viewers.

With European rights holders clamoring to show gymnastics in their prime time, the IOC set an afternoon start. NBC was basically forced to air delayed coverage in prime time, but that did not mean it had to start at 9:30, and that didn't mean it had to be on for nearly three hours. The coverage was extended by the inclusion of several features.

The greatness of the event and the quality of the network's coverage may keep us watching well past midnight, but when we awake the next morning with tired eyes, we are going to be unhappy.

WHERE'S BROOKE?

NBC did not televise Brooke Bennett's 800-meter freestyle heat during its daytime broadcast.

A network official said it decided only the heat involving Janet Evans would air, with a mention of Bennett's speedy qualifying time. There also was a Bennett profile.

NBC aired another 800-meter heat just before it went off the air at 1 p.m. because Evans' spot in the final was in jeopardy. Swimmers in the last heat could have ruined her last chance to win gold.

Chris Thomas, the sportscaster for WFLA-Ch.

8 working in Atlanta, apologized to viewers during the 5 p.m. newscast for the omission, blaming it on the long list of events NBC had to air.

WFLA eventually acquired tape of Bennett's heat and aired it during its late-night broadcast.

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