Today's lessons is "Critics: You Can't Live With `Em, and You Can't Live With 'Em." Our purpose is to show how two respected television critics can look at the exact same program and see two completely different things. Our subject is NBC's coverage of the Summer Olympics in Seoul, South Korea, and our text will be taken from reviews of the Games by Pulitzer Prize-winning television critics Howard Rosenberg of The Los Angeles Times and Tom Shales of The Washington Post.
First up, Mr. Rosenberg. How would you rate NBC's coverage of the Games, Howard?
"So far, about a 9.7. That's the mark that NBC has earned for its fine early coverage of the Seoul Summer Olympics that began with Friday's spectacular opening ceremony."
You're squirming a bit over there, Mr. Shales. I take it you disagree.
"Already it's clear that we'd be better off if ABC were covering the Summer Olympics from Seoul instead of NBC. Many of the pictures from South Korea have been stunners, but the coverage is confused and often lethargic . . . The tone was set with bungled coverage of the spectacular opening ceremonies, much of which NBC missed because it had junk to unload. Of the four hours of air time, fully an hour was given over to commercials, NBC promos and cutaways to local stations."
Well, I have to agree with you there, Tom. We do seem to be getting more than our fair share of ads. Wouldn't you say so, Howard?
"Fault NBC for undermining the impact of Friday's traditional parade of nations - potentially the most electrifying element of the opening - by repeatedly pulling away for commercials. Otherwise, Friday's coverage was exemplary, and the Opening Ceremony a rich extravaganza that played well even on the small screen. Two moments especially stood out: The visually awesome Olympic-rings formation in midair by sky divers, and 76-year-old Korean Sohn Kee Chung, a 1936 gold medal winner under the flag of Occupying Japan, skipping and leaping joyfully as he participated in Seoul's torch relay, this time under the banner of his true homeland."
Do I sense a "Yeah, but . . . " coming from you, Mr. Shales?
"NBC even interrupted the awe-inspiring display by precision parachutists - above and into the stadium - on opening night. (Announcers Bryant) Gumbel and (Dick) Enberg were of course at the height of their descriptive powers as the 'chutists hovered above.
"Enberg: `Look at that shot!'
"Gumbel: `Look at that shot!'
"Home viewer: `Shut up and let me look at that shot!"'
Speaking of the announcers, how would you rate the NBC team so far, Howard?
"NBC has assembled an able group of studio anchors led by host Bryant Gumbel, whose `Today' program and sportscasting experience are an ideal pedigree for fronting the telecast of an event that is traditionally as political as it is sporting. The smooth and efficient Gumbel has come through so far . . ."
"Bryant Gumbel, the highly paid anchor for the whole shebang, tends toward a dry pomposity in the role. He doesn't appear to be enjoying himself . . .
"Worse, NBC's full-tilt hype-meisters cannot suppress the urge to foist network anchor Tom Brokaw on viewers in the hope that more exposure will boost the ratings for his third-place `NBC Nightly News.' Some of the grander moments in the opening ceremonies were interrupted for irrelevant blabbings from the boy baritone. Can you believe they sent this joker all the way to Seoul to sit in a pagoda and read news from back home in the States?"
I take it, Tom, you haven't been too impressed with NBC's performance so far?
"Little that NBC has done could be called an improvement over the winning Olympic style perfected over the years by Roone Arledge and ABC Sports. Sometimes it seemed as if ABC owned the Olympics. Maybe it should."
How about you, Mr. Rosenberg? Aren't you missing anything about ABC's past Olympic coverage?
"It seemed strange to watch the Opening Ceremony and not hear the droning of ABC's veteran Olympics voice Jim McKay, who never met a sports event he couldn't talk over."
Well, that's it folks - two perspectives on the same video event. But which critic is right?
The way I see it, they both are. Although I happen to agree more with Shales' assessment (especially about Gumbel - boy, has he been dry) than with Rosenberg's, the fact is there is no such thing as "Truth" in criticism. There is only "honesty." So as long as both critics are expressing honest opinions, they're both right.
That's why it's important that readers become familiar with a given critics' point of view by reading their work and then comparing those written opinions with their own reactions to the show. Only then can they decide whether or not that critic's opinions are generally "true" for them.
What's that, Mr. Shales? You want to add something?
"NBC has done a terrible job of telling viewers what's ahead on each day's schedule and when it will be seen. They also have an obsessive fear of staying with any event from its beginning to its end."
OK, OK - once in a while a critic can speak absolute "Truth."