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NBC coverage drops the ball

With coverage limited to one network, there was no way NBC could please everyone, but solving the riddle of the sphinx would be easier than determining who the target audience was Tuesday night.

At the heart of the mystery is the United States' gold-medal softball victory over China. The teams are considered the best in the world. Fast-pitch softball, springing up with new collegiate programs around the nation, continues to rise in popularity. And the U.S. team has a wealth of colorful personalities.

NBC has aimed for more women viewers, and here it had an up-and-coming women's sport dressed in red, white, blue and gold. But the network passed on softball for a potpourri that included weightlifting, diving and a gymnastics "gala."

Weightlifting was more about big guys eating big meals than competition. Diving, at least the first few rounds, could have been reduced to highlights, then rejoined later. It was only the preliminaries.

And nothing called a gala should be part of an Olympic broadcast. The Olympics is supposed to be about competition and winning medals, not preparation for a moneymaking, 60-city tour.

If NBC had eliminated the weightlifting/dining features, taken out the gymnastics gala and capsulized the diving into a highlights package, it could have shown the last three or four dramatic innings of the softball game, if not the entire game before going on to mountain biking and a compelling Carl Lewis feature.

The Americans won 3-1 with a controversial home run and a rally-killing relief appearance by Lisa Fernandez.

This was the day's only significant gold-medal victory involving a team or athlete from the United States, but it was reduced to two brief highlights packages and a post-game interview. Unbelievable.

You saw the team's joy, you saw Dot Richardson's tears on the medal stand, but you never saw the game. Style did not triumph over substance this time.

Ironically, Bob Costas remarked about the popularity of softball, and the fans in Columbus, Ga., still around after the game, responded with a raucous cheer that seemed to say, "Tell us something we don't know."

The down-to-earth interview, in which Richardson had the entire team join her and insisted on introducing each member, made the softball snub more difficult to accept. From what I could decipher _ since I never saw the team play _ Team USA embodied the competitive spirit of the Games.

NBC researchers and programers will point to ratings, which indicated a record 103.1-million American viewers tuned in Monday night, and say their decisions are flawless.

Yet the ratings argument can't make up for the opportunity the softball team lost Tuesday night. The players were on a world stage battling for their country, and could have been the inspiration for all the young girls who are playing softball. While they surely will cherish their gold medals, the softball players always will wonder why men eating Big Macs and gymnasts competing only for attention received more air time.