It may be the most troubled Olympic Games in the long history of troubled Olympic Games.
Construction backlogs. Crony contracts and kickbacks. Security fears. Hotel horror stories. And all of it hosted by an autocratic government that has made hostility to gay people a matter of national policy.
Will NBC let all that messy reality intrude on its presentation of the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi?
The Olympics — at least in their televised form — are typically feel-good events, filled with athletic striving, dramatic personal narratives and soaring flyover shots of snow-capped peaks. Ever since ABC perfected the “up-close-and-personal” storytelling style in the 1970s, the Games have effectively been primetime reality programs, packaged and edited for entertainment value rather than as news events.
But the unusually fraught circumstances of the Sochi Games pose something of a challenge for NBC: How to present another upbeat Olympics while balancing the less savory context of this year’s competition.
As is, NBC has at least a billion reasons to emphasize the uplifting. It secured the American TV and digital rights to the Games by paying the International Olympic Committee $775 million; it will invest as much as $250 million to produce its coverage, which begins Thursday night. Over the next 18 days, the network and four sibling cable channels will devote more than 500 hours to Olympics programming; NBCOlympics.com will live-stream an additional 1,000 hours, including every event except Friday’s Opening Ceremonies (NBC will carry the opening and most events in primetime on a delayed basis, 11 hours after the fact). “It’s almost impossible to overstate how important the Olympics are to this company,” NBCUniversal chief executive Steve Burke told reporters last month.
The huge investment, and more than $800 million in sponsor commitments so far, has some observers primed to expect that the grimier aspects of the Games will be scrubbed from the picture. Much of NBC’s coverage of the Beijing Summer Olympics — the last hosted by an authoritarian government — was at pains to stress China’s social and economic progress, not its repressive recent past.
“I don’t think [NBC] will go out of their way” to show the full context of Russia, said James Kirchick, a fellow at the Foreign Policy Initiative, a Washington think tank. “Most people who will tune in to the Olympics don’t know about Russia and what’s happening there. It’s a real tragedy for the Russian people, who have been swindled to an outrageous degree. . . . People need to understand all the moral compromises that went into these Olympics.”
NBC, and its news division, say they are prepared to report on all aspects of the Games, come what may. Mark Lazarus, chairman of NBC Sports Group, said in a January news conference that “we will cover any social issues or political issues as they are relevant to the Games from a sport perspective.” Everything beyond that, he said, is fair game for NBC News.
His comments were echoed by Bob Costas, who will again be the network’s principal Olympics host. “I think people will be curious about” the extracurricular issues, said Costas, who appeared with Lazarus during last month’s news conference. “Framing those issues is part of the backdrop. It’s like describing what the weather is at a ballgame or what the crowd is like. . . . If something [unexpected] should occur, it will be part of our coverage.”
Costas has waded into controversy before, most notably in late 2012 when he commented during “Sunday Night Football” that the murder-
suicide involving NFL player Jovan Belcher and his girlfriend would not have occurred if Belcher had not owned a gun. He was widely criticized by, among others, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee (R) and Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain.
During the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, Costas suggested during the broadcast of the Opening Ceremonies that the IOC should have used the occasion to memorialize the 11 Israeli athletes killed by Palestinian terrorists at the Munich Games 40 years earlier.
He also opined that the Redskins name was “an insult, a slur” during NBC’s broadcast of a Dallas-
Washington game in October.
But Costas said his preference in Sochi wasn’t to comment but to report. “If [Russian president Vladimir] Putin doesn’t drag his butt into the studio, then we’ll talk about [anti-gay laws] without him,” he said. “But if he shows up, then we’ll talk about it with him. Wouldn’t you rather hear about it straight from the horse’s mouth? I would.”
NBC News will send “Nightly News” anchor Brian Williams and the hosts of the “Today” show to the Games, along with hundreds of other news-division employees. Its 10 owned and operated stations, including WRC in Washington, will have 25 journalists in the Black Sea resort city for local-news reports as well.
But NBC News tends to get in the Olympic spirit for the Games, too. Its coverage typically has been dominated by results and highlights of the day’s action, with human-interest features mixed in.
After the Beijing Olympics, critics torched NBC News for the soft, promotional quality of its reporting. The New York Post’s Phil Mushnick called Williams “NBC’s head Olympic cheerleader” and described the news division as “drum-bangers to NBC’s Olympic ratings.” A writer for the Hollywood Reporter, Barry Garron, wrote: “Network reporters, announcers and analysts won’t touch any controversy with a 10-foot javelin. As we near the end of this two-week extravaganza, it is clear NBC left its journalistic integrity stateside.”
As the dominant Olympics TV rights-holder since the 1988 Summer Olympics, NBC has historically ignored or played down some of the least appealing aspects of the Games and the IOC.
According to the Nexis database, NBC News has never mentioned allegations — documented in two books and highlighted in reports by HBO and CBS’s “60 Minutes” — that the longtime former head of the IOC, the late Juan Antonio Samaranch, had been part of the Fascist establishment in Spain until the death of long-time dictator Generalissimo Francisco Franco in 1975.
On Samaranch’s death in 2010, Williams reported that he was “credited with expanding participation in the Games, making the general Olympic organization far stronger, more unified, a real global force. As one former IOC colleague said, ‘He got us into the 21st century.’” The tribute skipped lightly over a long-running series of financial and sexual corruption scandals that engulfed the IOC during Samaranch’s 21-year tenure.
So far, NBC hasn’t reported on allegations that an alleged Russian mobster and Putin crony, Gafur Rakhimov, was instrumental in swaying the selection of Sochi as the Winter Olympics site among IOC voters. Or how Russian oligarchs profited from construction contracts. Those stories were featured on ABC News last week.
Which is why Peter Hart, an analyst with the media watchdog organization Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), isn’t hopeful about the next few weeks. “The network least likely to cover the most scandalous elements of Sochi is NBC,” he said. “It’s always possible that there will be some dramatic incident, a planned athlete protest or demonstration, that they can’t ignore. But when it comes down to it, is it more important to document human rights in Russia or to get people to watch the coverage? I suspect it’s the latter.”
In the days leading up to the Games, NBC News has reported on a number of aspects of the preparations. Some of its coverage has been lighthearted, such as a report on stored snow in case the ski slopes are bare, and some of it has been promotional, with reminders about when to tune in.
But the network hasn’t entirely ignored some of the harsher realities, either.
As correspondent Richard Engel reported on “Nightly News” on Saturday, “Everything isn’t quite done, far from it. Workmen have less than a week. Some hotels were just today loading in furniture. And security, Russia denies there is any threat, but you have to go through airport-style checks to board a train in Sochi.”
He concluded, “So far, it appears the athletes and tourists have been able to ignore the controversies.”