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Originally published August 10, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified August 11, 2008 at 9:55 AM

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Ron Judd

High-def viewing puts handball in a whole new light

It's basically every guy's dream. You're sitting in your living room, aka Olympic Central, on a Saturday morning, watching the Olympics...

Seattle Times staff columnist

2008 Olympics Video Coverage at NBC Olympics.com!

It's basically every guy's dream.

You're sitting in your living room, aka Olympic Central, on a Saturday morning, watching the Olympics on three separate TV screens and a computer monitor. Your wife comes down the stairs yawning, stops in the middle of the room, freezes.

You brace for the worst.

Instead, she lights up, points at the flat-screen, and yelps, "Cool! Team handball!"

Welcome to the modern TV Olympics.

After the first full day of viewing, one thing is clear: Dedicated Oly watchers are going to get right in the high-def huddle with a slate of sports they likely never have seen before, anywhere.

I've been to every Olympics for the past 10 years, but never seen team handball. Or badminton. Or table tennis.

Didn't know what I was missing. Neither did Emjay, who, five minutes into the action, was doing her own play-by-play:

"Did you see that? Right in the face!"

Five minutes later, we were watching a replay of the women's saber finals in fencing. And then rowing. And then women's basketball. And gymnastics. And road cycling. And swimming. And judo.

All before lunch. Mostly in stunning high-def, which we've been watching for a long time, but somehow looks all new again delivering the color and action punch of Olympic sports.

The point: For the first time ever, being here is like being there. Without the bus rides. The mag-and-bag security checks. And the heat, my God the heat.

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The main problem — and this was expected — is triage. You need to pick your spots, lest you wind up bonding with the fabric of your favorite chair. Our advice: Don't overlook the sports you've never seen.

Team handball, it turns out, is a kick — it's fast, dangerous, high-scoring, and occasionally violent. It makes beach volleyball look like a knitting circle. Surprisingly, it's also something America isn't very good at (our team didn't qualify), so if you're only about watching Americans weep on the medal stand, this sport's not for you.

You might encounter other new-favorite sports via random channel surfing, which is a challenge, even for the true clicker master, given the broad spread of networks over which coverage is spread.

One provider, DirecTV, has made it easier. The satellite company has grouped all the NBC-affiliated networks — plus the new soccer and basketball channels — adjacent to each other on the program grid, starting at channel 750. It also has added a separate pop-up menu that displays the full Olympic TV schedule, and a click-at-a-glance medal count. Very cool.

We're still waiting for DirecTV to put all the channels up in thumbnail size on one screen, the way they do with news and other sports.

Yes, that's called getting greedy.

For NBC, it's all riding on Phelps

Call it a Freudian slip.

NBC's Dan Hicks, as Michael Phelps took to the starting blocks for the first of his 17 races in Beijing, proclaimed: "He's really the only swimmer to watch here."

He meant in that one heat, not the whole Games. But his superiors in New York might think it works either way. Nobody has more invested in Phelps' quest for eight golds than NBC. The network has built its billion-dollar Beijing gambit around the Baltimore swimmer.

An eight gold-medal haul would rank with the greatest achievements in Olympic history, and create the buzz that brings golden ratings.

Here's what has kept network execs awake at night: NBC's prime-time show for the next week is built around Phelps. But the two events in which he might be most vulnerable fell on the first two nights. The first, the 400 individual medley, was no contest: Phelps swam 4:03.84 to destroy his own world record as Ryan Lochte faded for the bronze.

One down. But it only gets tougher, instantly, for Phelps.

Next up is the 400-meter freestyle relay. It's a race that Phelps, for all his greatness, can't win alone. As usual, America's stable of 100 free swimmers is well-stocked. But the U.S. was beaten in this event by Australia in 2000 and South Africa in 2004, when Phelps' quest for seven golds was squelched early on. And the squad is expected to get all it can handle from France, led by world-record sprinter Alain Bernard, and perhaps South Africa.

The U.S. still holds the world record at 3:12.46 but might need to drop it into the low 3:10s to take the crown. The final, with Phelps likely leading off, is set for 8 p.m. PDT Sunday.

Still looking for that first Phelps race?

Not to beat a dead horse, but: When Phelps swam his 400 IM final, NBC viewers in Seattle were watching a repeat of "Northwest Backroads." Someone please explain the logic of shielding your marquee event from West Coast viewers at 7 p.m. on a Saturday. Repeat after me: Thank God for CBC.

Protest, schmotest

What are the odds that the hail of protest over NBC's decision to delay the opening ceremony up to 15 hours on Friday night will make a difference?

Zippo. Because the very next morning, NBC woke up to big, fat ratings.

The canned version of the opening ceremony drew a record audience for any Olympic opener on foreign soil. The show averaged 34.2 million viewers, compared with an average of 25.4 million for the 2004 Athens opening broadcast, according to Nielsen Media Research.

The numbers still trailed the more time-zone-friendly opener at Atlanta (39.8 million) and Salt Lake City (45.6 million viewers). But NBC was crowing about their success in battling the time-zone dragon.

Unfortunately for fans of live viewing, the bottom line here is the bottom line.

Ron Judd: rjudd@seattletimes.com

Read his daily Olympics Insider blog at www.seattletimes.com/Olympics.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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