Winter Olympics: Americans get their fix of swirling sprites and soaring snowboarders

The Winter Olympics start Thursday (Feb. 8), so it's time to get serious about it. If you scroll down one, you'll see a fun story I sent to papers, focusing particularly on NBC's Apolo Ohno. Now here's a look at some of the events and people likely to draw American viewers. One more thing, with some TV-time details, is next.

By Mike Hughes

As the Winter
Olympics arrive, NBC likes to offer grand vistas and great

Its viewers,
however, often want more. They want events that Americans understand
... and maybe have a chance to win..

Many Americans have
never quite understood the luge, the bobsleigh or the skeleton. NBC's
Mary Carillo once said the two-man luge looks “like a bar bet gone

Some find curling
and cross-country skiing too slow, short-track speed skating too
fast, the biathlon too weird. (Yes, it involves skiers with rifles;
at least they're not texting.)

But there's much
more, with strong American prospects.

“So much of Team
USA's strength involves the female athletes,” said Mike Tirico, who
will be NBC's main anchor. He points to the effects of gender-equity
rules that started 45 years ago. “Title IX's multiple generations
now are yielding strong women's teams in so many American sports.”

Some of the key
events and people are:

Americans have savored this, ever since the wins by Peggy Fleming
(1968), Dorothy Hamill (1976) and Scott Hamilton (1984). This time,
they have a front-runner among men (Nathan Chen), but not among

By comparison,
Americans used to scoff at ice dancing ... until Meryl Davis and
Charlie White won the silver medal in 2010 and gold in 2014. Now the
U.S. again has strong medal contenders, with the brother-sister duo
of Alex and Maia Shibutani.

Boosting NBC is the
relatively recent addition of a team event. That adds three more
days; the 18 Olympic days will include 12 days of figure-skating,
much of it in prime time.

The team portion
starts Thursday – before the opening ceremony -- with the short
programs for men and pairs. Saturday has the pairs finals and the
short program for women and ice dancing; Sunday has the men, women
and ice dancing finals and the team medals.

Then it starts all
over, with individual competition – short program one day, then
finals. Pairs will be Feb. 13-14, bringing some Valentine's Day
passion. Men are Feb. 15-16, ice dancing on Feb. 18-19, women on Feb.
20 and 22 and an exhibition by the medalists on Feb. 22.

-- SKIING: Here's a
prime example of the American women, with an old and new star.

In 2010, Lindsey
Vonn became the first American woman to go gold in downhill. She was
out with an injury in 2014, but is back; in the weekend before the
Olympics, she took her 80th World Cup victory.

And the new star is
Mikaela Shiffrin. In 2014, at 18, she became the youngest person to
win Olympic gold in slalom; now, at 22, she's favored in several

This is another event with old and new stars.

The familiar one is
Shaun White, who went gold in 2006 and 2010, then finished fourth in
2014. He's back at 31, after surviving a tough crash during training.

And the newcomer is
Chloe Kim, who would have made the 2014 team ... except she was too
young (13) to qualify. Now she's ready at 17, with a string of gold
medals in Winter X Games.

-- HOCKEY: For five
Olympics, hockey fans thrived. The National Hockey League took a
break, letting players join their home-country teams.

The Canadians won
three gold medals, the Czechs and Swedes took one apiece. Americans
took silver twice, losing to Canada in 2002 and 2010.

This year, however,
the team owners aren't going along and the pros won't be there.
“Clearly, it does disrupt the NHL season,” said Jim Bell, head of
NBC's Olympic coverage. He talks hopefully of “a good storyline
developing should some young Americans emerge, as they did in

And Tirico points to
the U.S. women, who “might become one of the biggest stories for
both hockey tournaments.” They took gold the first time women's
hockey came to the Olympics (1998), then have been won silver four
straight times, always with Canada going gold.


Olympics are ready to give us new heroes ... and, maybe, villains

Friesh from that high-octane Super Bowl, NBC is ready to deliver the Winter Olympics. That means more actions -- and occasional quirks, like the ones that made Apolo Ohno a hero and (to some) a villain. The games start Thursday (Feb. 8); here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

There are many
things Americans and South Koreans agree on. They like action movies,
for instance, and dislike North Korean leaders.

But there's one
sharp difference: “Short-track speed skating is their obsession,”
Apolo Ohno said.

Americans still view
that event warily; NBC's – which starts Winter Olympics coverage
Thursday -- will give its best times to the favorites. “Many of the
marquee events – figure-skating and Alpine skiing, among others –
will be in the morning in Korea,” which makes them live in prime
time in the U.S., said Jim Bell, head of NBC's Olympics broadcasts.

And no,
speed-skating – like curling and the luge -- is not a marquee event
for Americans. Ohno (a former champion) admits it's “this crazy,
obscure sport of these athletes wearing Superman outfits, skating
around an ice rink going 35, 40 miles an hour, leaning over at these
impossible angles.”

But the host country
knows the sport well ... and knows Ohno. “I was the
second-most-hated person in Korea,” he recalled. “No. 1 was Osama
Bin Laden. That's not a joke .... They started making toilet paper
with my face on it.”

That all goes back
to the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. In one event, Ohno was
involved in a pile-up; he got up and skated to a silver medal, the
Korean skater didn't. In another, the Korean was disqualified for
blocking, giving Ohno the gold.

“They came home
with zero medals on the men's side and they took that very
personally,” he said.

Now Ohno has friends
and business connections in South Korea, where he'll be NBC's
short-track commentator. He raves about PyeongChang (“an exciting
place”) and its people. And he went there early to prepare a piece
“focusing on the culture of the Korean short-tracks.”

That's the sort of
feature NBC savors. In another, Mike Tirico went to Wisconsin, to
meet ski champion Lindsey Vonn and her grandparents. It's “a kind
of piece that has become synonymous with the Olympics,” said Fred
Gaudelli, an NBC Sports producer, “where you really get to know the

The Olympics
coverage is rarely about enemies ... which will be scarce anyway.
North Korea has sent a small team that will enter Friday's ceremony
alongside the South Koreans; Russian athletes are included
individually, but their country is being punished for a doping

NBC News will also
be there, to report on any troubles. But winter events – despite
the occasional pile-up, knee-whacking or hockey game – tend to be

That's true of
winter places, Tirico said. “I live in Ann Arbor, Michigan; I went
to college at Syracuse. From all the cold-weather places come really
nice people, because we have to talk to each other.”

So NBC will have
moments of fun – Bell talks about Chef David Chang and about
“K-pop” music -- and goes for pleasant people and pretty places,
captured high-tech.

Bell plans to use
“anything from VR to AR to drones.” They'll catch scenery and
fresh views of action. “When you are coming down the mountain with
the slope-style snowboarder, it's just breathless.”

Technology also
means more events in more places. In 1996, Bell said, “the games
were only available on NBC and there were only 170 hours available.
(In 2014), there were nearly 7,000 hours available .... We put
extensive coverage on NBCSN, MSNBC, USA, CNBC. We stream everything

Some viewers will
stick to main events, helped by a time-zone quirk: If a
figure-skater is swirling at 10 a.m. Friday in Korea, that's 8 p.m.
Thursday in New York ... and 5 p.m. in California. “For the first
time ever at a Winter Olympics, we will be broadcasting in primetime
live across the country,” Bell said.

(That assumes, of
course, that Californians will accept the idea that 5 p.m. is prime.)

And some viewers
will go beyond the basics. They'll find sports like short-track

“You've got speed,
strategy, danger,” Ohno said. “It's one of the fastest ... sports
in the world. The athletes go around each corner, carrying about
two-and-a-half G's of force on each leg .... They go 35, 40 miles an
hour ... It's an exciting sport.”

In some countries,
its stars might be on posters and cereal boxes ... or on rolls of
toilet paper.


It was a grand, golden age ... for one-percent of us

Yes, this is a big time for the commercial networks -- Grammys, Super Bowl, Winter Olympics, more. But PBS is countering with three nights of terrific documentaries. It's Winnie Mandela on Monday (Feb. 5), "The Gilded Age" on Tuesday and the oldest human remains in the Americas on Wednesday. Here's the "Gilded" story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

As the 19th
century ended, Americans were known for wealth and power.

This was “a
country rising to become the economic powerhouse we know today,”
said Mark Samels, producer of PBS' “American Experience” series.

And it was
transforming. The rich – Rockefeller, Carnegie, Vanderbilt, Morgan
– were becoming much richer; the others were overwhelmed.

That's the focus of
Tuesday's “Experience” film. “The Gilded Age” sees the wealth
gap hit a dizzying extreme.

“In 1890, 51
percent of the wealth in this country was owned by the one-percent,”
said Edward O'Donnell, a history professor at College of the Holy
Cross. “It was reduced to 20 percent by 1980 – and it has since
rebounded to almost 40 percent.”

Back then, no
individual could stand up to the industrial giants. What about
unions? Or governments?

“The presidency
was so weak at this time,” Samels said. “I mean, really: Name the
presidents from 1865 (to the end of the century). They all have
beards and you can't remember their names.”

That was clear when
the financial system plunged. J.P. Morgan convened other money men to
prevent a collapse; the president was helpless.

“Nothing stopped
Grover Cleveland from grabbing the controls,” said Mark Zwonitzer,
the film's writer. “But when he grabbed them, they didn't connect
to anything”

And the workers?
“Industrialists in this period ... try to depict unions as
tyrannical,” O'Donnell said.

This was an era of
open arrogance, he said “Jay Gould said, when asked about the rise
of (a) labor union on his railroad: 'I could pay one-half the working
class to kill the other half.'”

One steel mogul was
an exception, he said. “Nobody in America of that status was more
aware of public relations than Andrew Carnegie.”

He was photographed
often and “always looks like Santa Claus; he's very genial.” He
said the right things and “probably did treat his workers better
than some major industrialists.” But in 1892, as a union contract
expired: “He said, 'Smash it. I'm going to Scotland. I don't want
the bad PR. Henry Clay Frick, you are my muscleman. You smash the
union, by hook or by crook.'”

Then the aftershocks
began – union-protection laws, political movements, government
controls. “What we learned was that people have to get involved in
politics,” said Nell Irvin Painter, a retired history Princeton
history professor.

It was the end of
the gilded age – at least, for a while.

-- “American
Experience: The Gilded Age,” 9-11 p.m. Tuesday, PBS

Roy Wood's world: serious satire and strip-club tales

If you see Roy Wood's stand-up special ("Father Figure") or his best "Daily Show" bits, you'll realize this is a sharp comedy mind, able to make dead-serious issues seem funny. Now Wood is also hosting the loose-spirited "This Is Not Happening." Here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

The funny-serious
world of Roy Wood Jr. is filled with opposites.

It involves
presidential politics and baby business, state-of-the-world issues
and beer buddies.

“The serious side
usually comes to me first,” he said. “Then I have to figure out
how to make it funny.”

That's his “Daily
Show” job. Now comes extra duty as the new host of “This is Not

The show has
comedians simply recount real-life moments. Some are quite adult,
which explains the odd time (Friday nights at midnight) and setting.
“We filmed (the season) in two or three weeks, in this wonderful
strip club .... It feels right to be doing it in a dark place.”

Wood adds his own
stories. He has plenty, he said, as do most traveling comics. “When
you spend your life drinking with strangers, a lot of things happen.”

By comparison, his
“Daily Show” job can be sobering. Just two days before his “Not
Happening” debut, Wood was presenting his State of the Union
variation – the State of Black (Bleep).

His own life
prepared him for the serious side. He talks fondly of his home state
(Alabama), his mother (who worked in college administration) and his
father, a “pretty dope guy who was a radio personality and a civil
rights activist (and) had about 15 different careers.”

Both parents went to
historically black colleges and his mom worked at one. It was no
surprise that he went to Florida A&M; “it was a very good
environment ..., with a sort of village concern for you.”

A bigger surprise
was that his first success was in his dad's field, radio. “That
just happened. I wasn't planning it; I went there to study

But he started doing
comedy on a Tallahassee station, then back home in Birmingham; he
continued until he was cast as one of the bar flies in “Sullivan &
Son.” It was an undemanding job -- “just fake drinking” -- but
things got much better when he joined “The Daily Show” in
September of 2015. “I got to have a one-year start, before it all
broke loose.”

That was the
presidential election. “Nobody thought Trump was going to win;
Trump didn't think he was going to win ... I didn't really process
the comedy part for a few days.”

Then came the comedy
explosion. “The show definitely ratcheted up the satire. (Viewers')
appetite for satire got a lot stronger.”

All of this happened
alongside fatherhood. His son is now 20 months old and, Wood said,
has altered his comedy outlook. “It's more now about the future and
not just about me.”

-- “This Is Not
Happening,” Friday nights at midnight, Comedy Central;
season-opener follows a rerun of the “Roy Wood Jr. Father Figure”
stand-up special, at 11 p.m. Feb. 2.

-- “The Daily
Show,” 11 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays, Comedy Central, rerunning
at 1:35 a.m.



Super Bowl Sunday: A time for Brady, booty and frozen fun

OK, many people are already hyped up for the Super Bowl game itself. For the rest of us. the event brings a mixture of quirky fun; here's the story I sent to papers.

By Mike Hughes

Each year, the Super
Bowl has a sort of double identity.

“You have every
big football fan in America,” said Al Michaels, who will do NBC's
play-by-play Sunday. “But you have people who only watch one game a

The big fans have
plenty to buzz about, including an extreme contrast: One quarterback
(Tom Brady of the New England Patriots) has already started in seven
Super Bowls; the other (Nick Foles of the Philadelphia Eagles) only
started four regular-season games in the past two years.

But what about all
the casual viewers? They get Justin Timberlake, clever commercials,
“This Is Us” and what passes for fun in Minnesota. Here's an
entertainment guide:

Halftime show

Justin Timberlake
was a young lad the first two times he did the Super Bowl's halftime

He was 19 when he
did it in 2001 as part of NSYNC; the group was alongside Britney
Spears (his former “Mickey Mouse Club” colleague), Nelly, Mary J.
Blige and Aerosmith. He'd just turned 23 when he was in support of
Janet Jackson and ripped part of her costume off, revealing a breast;
afterward, he coined the phrase “wardrobe malfunction.”

Now, at 37, he'll be
the first person with three Super halftimes. This time, it's his
show; he has about 13 minutes, which may or may not include surprise
guests and a Prince tribute.

It also could be
high-energy; in one interview, Timberlake spoke to the camera: “Al
Michaels, if we can get you to shake your booty at the Super Bowl

Michaels reaction to
that now? At 73, he could plead generation-gap. “Can you shake your
booty with the fox trot?” he joked.

In truth, Michaels
is a pop-music fan. (He was singing Katy Perry tunes off-camera,
years before she did the halftime show.) But he said he'll stay out
of the booty business.

“I have an
8-year-old granddaughter who now wants to give Pop Pop lessons. I
said, 'Honey, it's hard to do that with spinal stenosis.'”

The pre-game

That starts at noon
ET Sunday with “Road to the Super Bowl,” an annual creation of
NFL Films.

“It's the season
set to the sounds of the players who wear microphones during the
games,” said Fred Gaudelli, who produces NBC's football coverage.
A “great musical score kind of recaps everything.”

And then ... well,
the pre-game show goes on and on (and on). It runs from 1-6 p.m. ET.

Some people skip
that part ... and could skip it this year out of general principle:
Bob Costas – the best and most-honored sportscaster in TV history –
isn't included.

Costas, 65, had said
earlier that he's cutting back – no more Olympics and just this one
more Super Bowl. But NBC decided not to invite him ... apparently
linked to comments he made at a sports conference. Due to
concussions, he said, he wouldn't let a son play football; “the
reality is that the game destroys people's brains.”

Instead, NBC will
stick with its regular pre-game crew – Dan Patrick and Liam McHugh
hosting, with Tony Dungy, Rodney Harrison, Mike Florio ad Chris

Some frigid fun

Alongside the
football talk, there will be lots of promotion for the Winter
Olympics, plus coverage of the host city ... which sort of looks like
the Winter Olympics.

Minneapolis is going to really turn into a winter wonderland,”
Gaudelli said, “with mini ski slopes and rock concerts.” He'll
even have drones taping some of it. “We want to really cover what
it's been like that week in Minneapolis.”

There have been
predictions of temperatures hitting 7-below-zero on the eve of the
Super Bowl. That doesn't affect the game (wisely, played indoors) and
Gaudelli didn't expect it to affect the pre-game fun. “Things that
would paralyze other states ... pretty much go unfazed in that part
of the country.”

Almost gametime

At 6 p.m., the
coverage moves to the stadium, with Michaels and Cris Collinsworth.

Pink will sing the
National Anthem and Leslie Odom Jr. -- who won a Tony as Aaron Burr
in “Hamilton” -- sings “America the Beautiful.” Kick-off is

After the game

First we have the
trophy and interviews and such. Then – NBC estimates 10:15 p.m. PT,
which tends to be wildly optimistic – comes the post-game show.

This used to be a
time to debut a new series. After a few early successes (“The
A-Team,” “The Wonder Years”) that fizzled; now networks simply
show off their best.

For NBC, “This Is
Us” was the obvious choice. “These kind of game-changers just
don't come along very often,” said Bob Greenblatt, chairman of NBC

That's no
exaggeration. The show has best-drama-series nominations from the
Emmys and the Golden Globes, breaking a cable monopoly; Sterling K.
Brown, as Randall, has won best-actor awards in both.

In this episode,
Randall hosts a Super Bowl party and we get flashbacks, possibly
telling us how the dad died. (The previous episode ended with a house
fire caused by a faulty crock pot.) These people are big Pittsburgh
Steeler fans ... and the Steelers, alas, lost the 1996 Super Bowl to
the Dallas Cowboys.

Even later

After the show,
there's a 35-minute break to allow for local news ... and for “This
Is Us” fans to possibly dry up their tears. Then – NBC says 11:30
p.m., again optimistically – is “Tonight.”

This one will be
live from the Orpheum Theatre in Minneapolis. Jimmy Fallon will have
Timberlake, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and the “This Is Us”