Verdi acknowledges that there’s “a little greater interest and excitement” when a TV news organization is associated with a major event such as the Olympics. “You might see a little more coverage [of the event] on our broadcasts,” he said. “We’re proud of it. It generates greater interest in the news.”
But, he adds, “if the question is, is our editorial process corrupted by an event like this, then the answer is no. We use the same editorial checklist to determine coverage [of the Olympics] as we would for any news event.”
Tyndall challenges that assertion by pointing to the Winter Olympics in Vancouver in 2010. During those Games, in which NBC also had the exclusive broadcast rights, “Nightly News” aired a total of 84 minutes of Olympic-themed news over two weeks — more than four times as much as CBS’s “Evening News” (18 minutes) or ABC’s “World News Tonight” (17 minutes), according to Tyndall’s tracking.
Conversely, when NBC didn’t have the Olympic rights, NBC News’s interest in the story flagged. During the 1998 Winter Olympics — which aired on CBS — “Nightly News” carried just 11 minutes of Olympic-related stories over two weeks. ABC had 18 minutes while “Evening News” ran 41 minutes about the Olympics.
This time, NBC’s rivals say they’ll cover Olympic stories as events warrant. “We’ll neither ignore them nor turn over our entire programming schedule to them,” said Mike Leber, ESPN’s senior coordinating producer. Leber notes that his network and others are handicapped somewhat in their reporting by NBC’s exclusive control over showing events. What’s more, non-rights holders such as ESPN must abide by restrictions on showing copyrighted Olympic footage.
But rival news organizations privately admit their enthusiasm for Olympic stories is tempered by the fact that the Games are being shown by another network. Too much coverage, they say, could drive their viewers to NBC.
“The Olympics are such an all-encompassing event that the other networks can’t ignore it,” said Paul Swangard, managing director of the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center at the University of Oregon. “But the broadcast-rights holder is much more willing to invest its news assets in covering it because they know it will fuel interest that comes back to the bottom line.”
Swangard, a former journalist, said the mingling of news and promotion “is the one place where I start to feel a little queasy about all of this. If credibility still matters to the news division, they should be a cautious partner in that promotional piece of the equation. If people start thinking they’re doing these cheesy stories to fuel the [prime-time ratings], their credibility will be in question once the Olympics are over.”
The London Games could set the tone for several Olympics to come. Last June, NBC signed a deal with the IOC to broadcast every Olympics — summer and winter — through 2020. The $4.4 billion agreement is the most expensive in Olympic history.