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    Monday, February 23, 1998

    Games retain grip on viewers

    By ROB BRODIE -- Ottawa Sun
      NO MATTER how many times I watch an Olympics closing ceremony -- and I've seen more than a few in my life -- the feeling it elicits is almost always the same.
     Fatigue? An understandable response, given what the 14-hour time difference has done to many viewers during the Nagano Winter Olympics' 16-day run. It's been a grind, to be sure, and a lot of us probably really don't want to know how many hours -- or at what hour -- we found ourselves parked in front of the tube during that stretch.
     Safe to stay, it's been a lot.
     Maybe that, in part, underscores the true feeling that envelops many of us -- sadness -- when the Olympic flame is extinguished.
     Sadness because, most of all, we know that something special -- so special that they only schedule a Winter Games once every four years -- has come to an end.
     The feeling prevails because, in all those hours of Olympic viewing, we build a connection. We share in their joy and we feel for their frustrations and disappointments.
     For most of the world, it is television that provides the window, that helps us forge the link. That opens the door and allows us to get to know talented men and women who, outside of this brief period, are relative unknowns.
     On the stage that is the Olympics, though, the anonymity of it all hardly matters. Put a red maple leaf on their backs and suddenly, a nation cares. And watches intently.
     No wonder the television industry is willing to place such huge faith in this huge global event, in the most tangible way of all -- with their chequebooks. NBC has literally shelled out billions of dollars to keep the Olympics through 2008.
     In Canada, there was much head-shaking in the industry when CBC agreed to pay a reported $22 million for Nagano broadcast rights. Look who's laughing now.
     The network is likely to post a healthy profit from these Olympics. And the ratings number speak for themselves. At least two times in the first week of the Games, CBC's Olympic coverage posted peak audiences topping three million. An astounding 2.9 million pulled themselves out of bed on a Saturday morning to watch Elvis Stojko skate for gold.
     When all is said and done, the audience figures should be a record-breaker for CBC -- and that's without the five or six million that surely would have tuned in had Canada reached the gold-medal game in hockey. Still, CBC's numbers figure to be up 20% over the audience CTV attracted in 1994 from Lillehammer, Norway.
     For many, it's the shocking hockey loss to the Czech Republic (who know how many were still watching at 4 a.m.?) that will define their Olympic viewing. The gold medal that means the most of all to Canadians had slipped away again.
     But this experience isn't just about medals. While I will always remember U.S. figure skater Tara Lipinski squealing with delight when she made her Olympic dream come true, I'll never forget the sight of China's Lu Chen sobbing uncontrollably into the ice after showing the world, and herself, that she could still do it. And make us all notice. That this beautiful skater also wound up with a bronze medal ... well, that was just a bonus.
     It's such sights and sounds that reach out and grab viewers, and pull them in and keep them there. And all but guarantee that, when the flame is lit again, we'll be right back again for more.
     Riveted to our television sets.
     Sydney 2000 isn't that far away.
     DOWN UNDER DREAMIN': Does CBC morning man Ron MacLean know something that most of us who follow the TV game don't? After giving viewers a tour of the setup for Australia's Channel 7 in Nagano a few days back, MacLean said "they'll be our hosts when we go to Sydney in 2000." Well, CBC is sure hoping to be there, but Canadian rights for the Sydney Summer Games have yet to be awarded. The word right now is that the International Olympic Committee wants to sell Sydney rights as part of a five-Games package (much like NBC). CBC figures to face a stern challenge from CTV, which can now offer up a cable component with its soon-to-be-launched Sports Net. But CBC and its French-language arm, Radio-Canada, have made another compelling argument with their work -- and ratings they attracted -- in Nagano. Stay tuned ... we should have a final verdict within two months.
     CLOSING THOUGHTS: CBC gave viewers a few features worth noting on its final full day of Nagano coverage. Couldn't help but chuckle when the Louis Armstrong hit, Hello Dolly, led off a tribute to Norwegian cross-country skiing legend Bjorn Dahlie. A more poignant piece, delivered by CBC's Mark Lee, focused on the almost-medal winners at these Games. For a lot of folks, fourth in the world would be a dream come true. But when that medal is oh so close -- well, the pictures told the story ... Most amusing tidbit from the closing ceremony: Playboy magazine has approached Marianne Timmer, the Dutch double gold medallist in speed skating, about posing for a photo spread. No word yet on whether she will ... If you haven't had your fill of Nagano yet, there's one final Games wrapup tonight at 7:30 on CBC.
     THE LAST WORD: Before we say Sayonara, this thought ... it's only 934 days until Sydney (and 1,445 to the next Winter Games, in 2002 in Salt Lake City, while we're at it). Some advice ... start getting ahead on your sleep now.