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Figure Skating: Got Milked

By RD Heldenfels Published: February 17, 2006

I liked to get a good night's sleep. NBC would rather I didn't.

On Thursday night, the network's Olympics coverage ran four hours, with the big event -- men's figure skating -- scattered like crumbs behind Hansel and Gretel.

NBC provided 24 minutes of coverage at the beginning of its telecast, then went to other events, mainly the snowboard cross, for almost an hour. (It did at one point put up a graphic promising more men's figures in 27 minutes -- an estimate that brought viewers back several minutes before skating coverage actually resumed.) Another 43 minutes of figure skating -- taking viewers past the 10 p.m. hour -- led into more snowboard cross.

At this point, I have to concede that NBC's strategy worked somewhat with my viewing. I did sit through snowboard cross to get to more figure skating. (I had already read some notes online about Johnny Weir's troubles, and wanted to see for myself.) Not only that, the snowboard cross was exciting both in the semis and the final.

Still, NBC let itself be too focused on the gold-medal finish in snowboard cross, especially after American Seth Wescott won the gold. In a race with four men vying for three medals, we saw Wescott's win and replays of the big moments. But we never saw how the race for the bronze played out, even though it involved two racers who had been impressive earleir. Instead, we just got the information in a graphic with voiceover.

Skating resumed at 10:40 p.m., and would fill almost another hour. There were shots of skaters warming up, and a profile of Russian Yevgeny Plushenko, whose family-sacrifice tale makes for heart-warming television. Then Plushenko himself was on the ice, moving in a way that piled up points but found the NBC commentators carping about a lack of artistry.

Then, finally, came Weir. It was after 11 p.m. when he took the ice, an hour when many sensible viewers had gone to sleep. (I was among them, having wearily set my recorder before Plushenko's performance, to watch the rest of the coverage this morning.) He had a shot at a medal, but he didn't take it. In fact, I could almost feel the disappointment from the commentators, in their awkward silences during his routine, along with their acknowledging of his errors.

One blamed Weir's struggles on ''Olympic-itis.'' Maybe. But that's a disease that takes many forms. One is nervousness in an event. Another is a network stretching things out to keep viewers.

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