THE SUPER BOWL COMES early tonight — and probably again Friday — for CBS, which figures to score massive ratings with its Tonya Harding-Nancy Kerrigan skateoff, which is rapidly turning into the most successful limited series since “Roots.” That said, the hype from Skategate alone doesn’t come close to explaining the enormous numbers that have been put up over the last 10 days by the Winter Olympics, and whether those results offer any lessons to TV programmers. First off, the Harding-Kerrigan affair — which should produce shares with a 5 and possibly a 6 in front of them when the two skate this week — can only be given credit for raising the public profile of the Games. Indeed, if Harding’s ex-husband, Jeff Gillooly, has finished his jail stint in time, CBS might want to consider signing him up to handle promotion for the 1998 Winter Games from Nagano, Japan. Those who deride the attention the story has received by citing its triviality in light of other events in the world miss the point.
Indeed, the insignificance of the whole affair — the absurdity of someone trying to cripple someone over ice skating — is precisely what makes it so riveting. With complex issues to consider, from health care to the economy, the motivating greed and corresponding stupidity of the Kerrigan attack provides a perfect, made-for-TV diversion. Still, the contribution of other factors to CBS’ astonishing Nielsen performance — even with those biased Russian judges — can’t be overlooked. The ubiquitous skating aside, why are Americans glued to the set watching sports like luge and downhill skiing, events so far removed from their usual televised diversions? Perhaps the most comical aspect of the Olympics, in fact, is the sudden transformation of half of America into instant experts on such sports.
Within days, natives of Sun Belt states can discern between a performance worthy of a 5.7 or 5.9 score in something as nebulous as ice dancing. One obvious factor in the ratings success, discovered by CBS during 1992, is that airing tape-delayed actually provides an advantage. Knowing the outcome in advance, the network can craft a tear-jerking miniseries or uplifting story of triumph around events each night, building toward a seemingly preordained outcome. Those stories tap into the same vein as primetime and syndicated news magazines, but the Olympics have the advantages of mixing in the allure and seeming unpredictability of sport — a means of attracting elusive male viewers — as well as the “special” feeling of an international, quadrennial event. CBS has also been particularly adept at cross-promoting the Olympics in different broadcast venues, from the brilliant incorporation of “Late Show With David Letterman” to the role of anchor Connie Chung as Harding’s new traveling chum.
These overlapping circumstances provide a unique mix that can’t be easily duplicated. As amply demonstrated in the recent past, viewers turn up in a big way for events — the Super Bowl, the Michael Jackson-Oprah Winfrey interview, “Queen”– but can’t be counted on to make the same sort of commitment on a regular basis, short of a few select series, in a stressed-out society. The networks have already tapped into this notion by going back to longer miniseries , from CBS’ plans for “Scarlett” to ABC’s upcoming eight-hour “The Stand.” They’ve also learned the hard way that big sports numbers don’t translate into long-term ratings success, as evidenced by CBS’ heavy promotion during the World Series for “South of Sunset.” Even so, the sustained performance of the Winter Games can only be described as extraordinary. Too bad there’s no obvious formula the networks can use to put some of that much-needed interest in the airwaves on ice.
THE MASTER: As a member of the media, one has to admire, if grudgingly, a master manipulator — a title that belongs to Roseanne Arnold, whose self-christened show, assuming everyone can get their act together, will be around three more years. In interview after interview, Arnold has managed to make herself appear to be a victim of the big bad network — a network that has repeatedly bowed to nearly all of her whims and desires, putting up with outlandish on- and offscreen antics because, in a business starved for hits, there’s no arguing with success.
Arnold has employed this strategy repeatedly, whether the target is ABC or the tabloids. The star has criticized the press for inaccurate accounts regarding her, for example, but has also disseminated misleading information — her three-way marriage serving as a crowning example — while frequently cozying up to the least reputable media, from the tabloids to “The KTLA Morning News.” In the same vein, Arnold has presented herself as a champion of gay and lesbian causes, yet sent a letter to a TV critic laced with anti-homosexual venom in retaliation to a negative review. The justification? The critic was a misogynist , making Arnold, again, a victim. What’s remarkable is that the strategy has worked so convincingly and effectively, with most of those in a position to call the star on the carpet either afraid or unwilling to do so — largely because she delivers where it counts, with a sharply executed series that continues to connect with viewers. “Roseanne” obviously gives ABC a terrific base to build upon, and one can certainly understand the renewal from a business point of view. Still, with three more years of the show — and hopefully its star — ahead of them, officials at the network are also doubtless pondering what new thrills lie ahead.