If anything illustrated the difference between NBC and CBC's coverage of the Sydney Olympics on opening weekend, it was the treatment of the men's and women's triathlon.
CBC carried the first Olympic women's event involving swimming, biking and running live on Friday night, when NBC was finally carrying that morning's opening ceremonies.
On Saturday night, NBC was carrying the women's triathlon on tape at the same time that CBC was carrying the men's event live.
A funny thing happened on the way to the Sydney Opera House.
Even though the men's event was live and wasn't edited, it finished on CBC earlier than NBC's edited cover of the women's event. Why? Because NBC doesn't believe America's attention span is long enough to focus on just one event, it interrupted the triathlon with coverage of weightlifting and swimming before coming back to the spectacular finish of the women's race. It was won by Switzerland's Brigitte McMahon, the wife of an American who also is the mother of a 3-year-old. She won in the last 100 yards over Australian favorite Michellie Jones.
NBC viewers had to wait until Sunday night to see the men's race, which was won by Canadian Simon Whitfield. Whitfield was so overcome with emotion that he cried into the flowers he was given before the Canadian anthem was played during the medal ceremony.
Speaking of flowers, that brings to mind another difference between the coverage of the two networks. While CBC lets the race speak for itself, NBC's Al Trautwig (women's race) and Harry Smith (men's race) added flowery, dramatic commentary to the coverage.
Trautwig's commentary focused on strategy. He also addressed Jones' victory dream, which she explained to viewers herself.
"The opera house glistens like it was just polished," said Trautwig. "The water is calm. It is time to race."
A few miles into the run portion as they neared Sydney's St. Mary's Church, Trautwig said: "It was special when the pope visited here in 1988. And it is special here today."
As McMahon pulled ahead and the finish neared, Trautwig said: "If the Aussies could push her from behind they would. And it is the screams of 'Go Aussie, go Aussie' that are coming from the Opera House steps, just as Michellie Jones dreamed they would."
She ended up second, just as she had the night before on CBC without the pope being mentioned.
Trautwig's conclusion: "It was a dream finish after all. Except it was 33-year-old Brigitte McMahon's dream. . . ."
With syrupy music and shots of the statuesque Jones posing on top of a building and a replay of the competition, Trautwig added: "It had a finish that after miles came down to strides. A hometown hero reconciled the result. It had athletes who embraced the history that was made. And reminded us that everything we dream is fragile at best. An Olympic debut became a spectacle. It riveted a nation and offered a salute to motherhood all at once. Not a bad day for triathlon."
The next night, Smith got the silver medal for flowery commentary by noting that Whitfield said his goal before the race was: "I just want to hear the Canadian anthem. That's all."
"The triathlon is a contest of two things really," said Smith. "An athletic contest and a test of wills. . . . Today a 25-year-old from Canada reached a place no man had been before."
The win by a Canadian also accentuated the cheerleading tendency of our neighbors to the north. Anyone who accuses NBC of jingoism or cheerleading, should be sentenced to watching CBC after a Canadian wins a medal -- any medal. The CBC commentators often behave like reporters for a small hometown weekly newspaper, showering its heroes with praise and adulation.
Whitfield got the full treatment.
"What a great day for Canada," enthused CBC analyst Paul Regensburg. "For triathlon, for Simon Whitfield. My heart stopped. I had to control myself in the control room. This is amazing."
Whitfield then told interviewer Terry Leibel: "I can't tell you how proud I am. How proud I am to be a Canadian." "You started it all for Canada," replied Leibel. "Congratulations."
In its first weekend, one could sense some defensiveness over NBC's decision to carry everything from Sydney on tape. On Saturday, both Hannah Storm in the daytime and Bob Costas in the evening offered explanations for the policy.
"In Sydney, we're 15 hours ahead of New York, 18 hours ahead of America's West Coast," explained Costas. "And to present these Olympics at a time convenient to you, preferably while you are awake, the event you'll see broadcast from Sydney will be on tape."
The explanation rang as hollow as a Senate political ad in Western New York. As Costas was saying that, CBC was carrying the men's triathlon live. CBC's coverage helps us realize that NBC could have shown some events live. However, it would have made the Games more difficult to present, eliminated the network's exclusivity to footage earlier than it wanted, and cut down on the flowery commentary from Trautwig and Smith that appeals to the female viewers the network covets. By presenting the entire 4 1/2 -hour opening ceremonies on tape-delay Friday night, NBC pushed itself a day behind CBC in the coverage of the triathlons as well swimming and gymnastics events.
At times, NBC is carrying events so far after they occur that you think they almost are eligible to air simultaneously on ESPN Classic.
With Buffalo now a metered market, Nielsen can tell us how many people are watching the local NBC affiliate, Channel 2, and the CBC affiliate, Channel 5, on a nightly and daily basis. It is no contest.
CBC's live early morning coverage of the opening ceremonies on Friday morning hit a peak of 1.2 about when the Olympic flame was lit by Australian track star Cathy Freeman. Its afternoon replay hit a high of a 4.2 rating at about 5:45 p.m. Its live coverage of the women's triathlon had ratings between 2.8 and 3.5.
Those figures undoubtedly affected Channel 2's prime time coverage. It still averaged a healthy 14.0 rating, though that is well below the 16.1 NBC scored nationally.
On Saturday, CBC didn't hit a 1 rating until after 8 a.m. for its live coverage and hit a high of 2.4 at 10:15 a.m. Its live, prime time coverage of the men's triathlon hit a peak of 2.6. Channel 2, meanwhile, averaged an 13.9 for the entire night, hitting a low of 9.2 at 7 p.m. and a high of 19.2 at 9:30 p.m. The station had higher ratings than the 13.1 that NBC recorded nationally from 8 to 11 p.m.
On its first two nights, NBC hasn't come close to the 17.5 prime time rating it is hoping to average. A stronger performance by Americans and some exciting track events later in the week probably are needed to juice the ratings.