The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

NBC is nearly mum on China abuses in its wall-to-wall Olympics coverage

The network avoids mentions of diplomatic boycotts, human-rights abuses and questions about the host nation as it seeks to build an audience

People from China's Uyghur Muslim ethnic group attend a rally against the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympic Games over China's treatment of the minority, near the Chinese consulate in Istanbul on Feb. 4. (Murad Sezer/Reuters)
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As NBC kicked off its marathon of Olympic snowboarding, skiing and skating coverage earlier this month, network host Mike Tirico spared a few words for the less TV-friendly activities of the event’s host nation, China.

“Everyone and everything attached to these games is facing questions,” he said during a broadcast of the Opening Ceremonies in Beijing on Feb. 4. “The United States government is not here. A diplomatic boycott announced this fall, joined by Canada, Great Britain and Australia, cited China’s human rights record and the U.S. government’s declaration that the Chinese Communist Party is guilty of committing genocide on the Uyghur Muslim population.”

But any viewers hoping for further exploration of those “questions” would probably be disappointed.

NBC, which has paid the International Olympic Committee billions of dollars for the exclusive U.S. television and digital rights to the games, has scarcely broken from its wall-to-wall sports coverage to report on any of the more troubling aspects surrounding China.

Since opening day, Tirico and NBC’s other hosts haven’t said another word about the diplomatic boycott (which India has also joined) or a long list of other issues, such as the Chinese government’s oppression in Tibet, its crackdown in Hong Kong, its threats to invade Taiwan, its aggression in the South China Sea, or its lack of cooperation in international efforts to investigate the origins of the coronavirus pandemic.

Nor — besides brief mentions — has the network delved into issues specific to the Olympics, such as China’s surveillance of athletes, or government threats to punish those who speak out during the Games. NBC also hasn’t explained why the IOC awarded the games to Beijing in the first place, just 14 years after the city hosted the Summer Olympics. (Short answer: Beijing was one of only two cities to guarantee funding for its bid.)

American Olympic telecasts, of course, are rarely seminars on geopolitical issues, just as broadcasts of NFL games aren’t typically forums for discussing football’s association with traumatic brain injuries or domestic violence. The Olympics tend instead to be glossy entertainment spectacles, built around sports and the stories of superstar athletes, particularly Americans. The feel-good production is driven by the need to deliver large audiences to satisfy advertisers and to recoup prodigious rights fees. NBC’s parent company, Comcast Corp., paid about $1.3 billion to the International Olympic Committee to carry this year’s Olympics, and billions more to broadcast future Games.

To be clear: NBC’s sports division — not its news division — produces the telecasts.

Nonetheless, the network’s avoidance of many of the issues surrounding the host nation is striking, given that these Olympics may be among the most controversial and politically loaded in recent Olympic history. The circumstances this time appear even more fraught than in 2008 when China presented the Summer Games as a kind of party celebrating its emergence as a global superpower.

“It’s not too much to ask [NBC to cover] both the scintillating athletic performances and the wider political context in which they are unfolding,” said Jules Boykoff, a professor at Pacific University whose research has focused on the Olympics’ political history.

Given bipartisan criticism of China and deeply negative public opinion in the United States, he added, NBC essentially has “structured permission” to examine more than just the results of the curling and bobsled competitions. “To not offer such vital political context may actually be more conspicuous than just offering it,” he said.

What’s more, NBC may be in the strongest position of any broadcaster in the world to withstand criticism from China or the International Olympic Committee by raising issues that go beyond the arena. Its rights payments to the IOC — some $7.75 billion, covering six Olympics until 2032 — account for as much as 40 percent of the international organization’s revenue, giving NBC ample clout and leverage.

In response to a request for comment, NBC Sports spokesman Chris McCloskey said in a statement: “We have covered the geopolitical issues of these Games extensively and, as we’ve said all along, we’ll continue to cover them if and when they impact the athletes and the competition. Viewers are tuning in to watch the Olympics.”

NBC has previously pointed to Tirico’s comments, and those by “Today” show co-host Savannah Guthrie and two analysts, during the Opening Ceremonies as evidence that it is providing the full context of the Games. (Guthrie during the Opening Ceremonies commented, “There is unquestionably more controversy and complications around these Games than any in our lifetimes” and also described China’s selection of a Uyghur athlete to light the Olympic torch as an “in-your-face” response to the diplomatic boycott.)

Outside these mentions, however, NBC couldn’t provide further support for McCloskey’s assertion that it has “extensively” covered these issues.

The network also cited Tirico’s report a week ago about Peng Shuai, the Chinese tennis star and three-time Olympian who has been the subject of international attention.

When tennis star Peng Shuai disappeared after accusing a former senior Chinese official of sexual assault, global outrage put a spotlight on the Winter Games. (Video: Jason Aldag/The Washington Post)

In November, Peng posted allegations of sexual assault against China’s former vice premier, Zhang Gaoli, on social media. The post was quickly removed, and Peng then disappeared for nearly a month, prompting concerns for her safety. When she reemerged last month, she disavowed her allegations — a reversal many suggested was prompted by threats from Chinese officials. Tirico reported that IOC President Thomas Bach had met with Peng over the previous weekend, and that she had attended several Olympic events. He added that “questions about her ability to speak freely continue to persist.”

But NBC went no further. In a conference call with reporters on Thursday, an executive producer said the network hadn’t requested an interview with Peng, despite her presence at times just a few feet from NBC’s cameras at the Games.

As it has in previous Olympic telecasts, NBC has left many of the harder realities of China and the Olympics to its news division, segregating these reports from its hours-long prime time broadcasts.

“NBC Nightly News,” anchored by Lester Holt, reported on several unflattering aspects of the Games before the competition began, including the Chinese government’s pursuit of fugitive Hong Kong protesters, its spying in the United States, and the systematic abuses of its Muslim citizens.

But the bulk of its coverage has been about the competition itself, along with soft features on American athletes, including a compilation of their TikTok videos.

The network’s prime-time telecasts haven’t differed much from its sports-only Olympics coverage in years past. NBC’s approach was even predicted by the sportscaster Bob Costas, who hosted 12 previous Olympics telecasts for the network. During an interview on CNN last month, he anticipated that NBC would “acknowledge the issues at the beginning, and then address them only if something specific that cannot be ignored happens during the course of the Games.”

NBC may be faced with a no-win situation no matter how it presents the games, said Paul J. MacArthur, a Utica College professor who has studied Olympic broadcasting.

“No matter how much or how little airtime the network dedicates to geopolitical issues during the Olympic broadcast, it will face criticism,” he said. “Some will want NBC to focus more on political issues, some will be unhappy with the nature of its political coverage within the Olympic broadcast, and some will want NBC to just stick to sports.”