The pictures have been spectacular, the competition stirring. Since the beginning of the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, nearly two weeks ago, NBC has kept a tight focus on the athletes and their stories, from Meryl Davis and Charlie White’s gold medal-winning performance in ice dancing to Bode Miller’s emotional reaction to winning a bronze medal in the super-G ski race.
Only rarely have some less pleasant realities been allowed to intrude.
NBC hasn’t entirely ignored the non-athletic events and issues surrounding these Olympics, from the widely reported concerns about terrorism to cost overruns, corruption, worker exploitation, shabby hotels, problematic weather, suppression of political dissent and other bummer topics. Anchor Bob Costas’s sharp criticism Friday night of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s regime and its links to the unrest in neighboring Ukraine was a notable exception.
Otherwise, the network has largely pushed the controversial issues to the margins, usually out of prime time and into late-night hours, where the audience is smaller and the downer talk doesn’t distract from the glossy main event.
With the Winter Games drawing to a close Sunday, the network’s presentation seems to have been a solid hit with viewers. Ratings have been strong, if not golden: NBC had attracted an average audience of 22.5 million viewers per night through Thursday, a decline of nearly 9 percent from the comparable nights during the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver, which had the advantage of live events in prime time. On the other hand, the Sochi Games are drawing about 6 percent more viewers than the 2006 Olympics in Turin, Italy, which, like Sochi, had no live events in prime time.
For many viewers, the biggest controversy has had nothing to do with geopolitics. NBC’s decision to show recorded events in prime time — its usual practice with games in distant time zones — elicited some grumbling. But only some. NBC’s head of research, Alan Wurtzel, told reporters in a conference call last week that its surveys showed that only 15 percent of viewers said knowing the results in advance made them less interested in watching the delayed telecast. “For most viewers,” he said, “it just doesn’t matter.”
No one expected Russian history lessons or penetrating reporting about Russia’s human rights record during the network’s nightly coverage of speedskating and snowboarding. But non-Olympic topics have occasionally leaked through on NBC. And for the most part, it has been quite flattering to the Games’ hosts.
However, Costas’s comments Friday came in sharp contrast to that, as he pulled no punches about Putin’s Russia: “While Russian citizens have better lives than Soviet citizens of a generation ago, theirs is still a government which imprisons dissidents, is hostile to gay rights, sponsors and supports a vicious regime in Syria, and that’s just a partial list.”
Before that, the most hard-nosed analysis that NBC has offered may have come the night before the Opening Ceremonies. In a conversation with Costas, New Yorker magazine editor David Remnick, hired as an analyst by NBC, opined that the Games represented an opportunity for Putin to “reassert Russia on the world’s stage.”
He added: “Remember, he’s an autocrat; he’s no democrat. He has no interest in LGBT issues or human rights, all the things that are being discussed. And he doesn’t care that you care that much.”
Fellow analyst Vladimir Pozner, a former Soviet propagandist, noted in the same interview that Russia’s anti-gay “propaganda” law would have “zero, no effect at all” on visitors, athletes or the conduct of the Games. But Pozner also said: “This is a very homophobic country. I would guess that 85 percent of the population are really, really anti-gay. I mean it can be physical. [Gay Russians] are in a very difficult situation.”
Costas’s set-up piece for that discussion — in which he noted Putin’s role in averting a U.S. military strike against Syria last year and in nudging Iran toward negotiations over its nuclear intentions — was blasted by conservatives as overly friendly to Russia. “Bob Costas ought to stick to sports,” Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) told Fox News, “because he obviously didn’t know what the hell he was talking about.”
Other conservatives, including Glenn Beck, jumped on NBC the next night for describing communism as “one of modern history’s pivotal experiments” during a recorded segment that preceded the Opening Ceremonies. “Pivotal experiment?” Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) tweeted. “Really, no, it was an evil empire that murdered and oppressed.”
Since then, not much. But NBC, which paid $775 million to the International Olympic Committee for the U.S. rights to the Games, has largely steered clear of controversy by avoiding potentially touchy subjects.
Among others, the absence of further discussion about the anti-gay law has disappointed gay rights advocates. “NBC promised to give adequate coverage to the horrible situation LGBT Russians are facing, but so far little has aired during actual Olympic programming,” said Charles Joughin, a spokesman for the Human Rights Campaign, a Washington-based organization. “NBC should use what little time they have left to report on the hate-based violence taking place across Russia and the government-led campaign to marginalize and discriminate against LGBT people.”
In an interview, Remnick, the author of “Lenin’s Tomb,” a Pulitzer Prize-winning account of the fall of the Soviet Union, declined to assess NBC’s Olympic coverage. But he noted that American TV in general has shown waning interest in international news. “Whether it’s Russia or China, they need to spend more resources to tell those stories,” he said. “That’s a much bigger point than whether it made it into [prime time during] the Olympics.”
When it has focused on Russia during the Games, NBC has tended to put a happy face on the host nation. The primary vehicle has been a series of “travelogue” pieces highlighting regional and historical aspects of Russia, each hosted by correspondent Mary Carillo.
In a segment about Siberia, for example, Carillo noted the region’s vastness and forbidding climate (at one point, she playfully asked a workhorse if he was cold), but said little about its poverty and dark history as part of the Soviet and Russian prison system. Another segment about the Russian tradition of vodka consumption made no mention of the nation’s devastating alcoholism crisis. A third report, about Russian billionaires, featured an opulent Moscow party and an interview with Donald Trump but avoided the word “oligarchs” or any explanation of how so many in Russia became so wealthy so fast.
NBC Sports spokesman Greg Hughes defended the network’s presentation, noting that it devoted time in its first two prime-time shows to non-athletic subjects. The network “promised we’d continue to address [those subjects] if they became relevant again during the Games. We’re all thankful that security has not been an issue, and the other [issues] have not had any Games relevance, either.”
Carillo’s travel segments, he said, were designed to give the broadcast “texture, and to show the culture of the host country to our viewers, many of whom will never get the chance to visit Russia. We believe viewers tune in for the athletes, the stories and the context of the country that’s hosting them.”
Russia expert Fiona Hill of the Brookings Institution in Washington said the Olympics might be the wrong place to look for a greater socio-political understanding of the host nation. “No one saw lessons about British colonialism in London [during the 2012 Summer Games] or the torturous history of the settling of the American West in Salt Lake City [site of the Winter Olympics] in 2002,” she said.
The Olympics, she added, “are always kind of overblown, overpriced, and overrated events.”