NBC was presented with unprecedented challenges when covering the Tokyo Summer Olympics amid COVID-19 but without spectators in the stands last year. But as The Hollywood Reporter writes, the U.S. Olympic TV partner is probably looking back almost wistfully on those comparatively straightforward games as the politically fraught Beijing Winter Olympics rapidly approach on Friday.
The Chinese staging of the global sporting event, taking place amid a worldwide surge of the highly contagious omicron variant inside an authoritarian country bent on total elimination of the virus, is shaping up to be a precarious balancing act between business interests and journalistic integrity for the broadcasters that paid billions for this privilege.
“NBC is basically in business with the International Olympic Committee, and they have a clear interest in promoting the event; but at the same time, they are a news organization which makes claims to journalistic integrity — so it’s an odd place to be,” says Jules Boykoff, a professor at Pacific University who specializes in sports politics (and who also once played on the U.S. Olympic soccer team).
In December, the Biden Administration announced that it would stage a diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Winter Games because of China’s use of forced labor and concentration camps to suppress its Muslim minority population in the western Chinese province of Xinjiang—human rights abuses that the U.S. has declared a genocide. Since then, eight other U.S. allies, including Britain, Japan, Germany and Australia, have joined the largely symbolic boycott.
For its part, NBC executives say they are going into the games clear-eyed, and expect to address human rights issues, China’s stifling of the press, and the pandemic, although as one would expect, that will be secondary to covering the sporting events themselves.
“We are going to be focusing on telling the stories of Team USA and covering the competition. But the world, as we all know, is a really complicated place right now, and we understand that there are some difficult issues regarding the host nation,” Molly Solomon, the executive producer and president of NBC Olympics production, speaking during a press event Jan. 19. “So our coverage will provide perspective on China’s place in the world and the geopolitical context in which these games are being held.”
“I think it’s always important to remember that we have a record of not shying away from these topics,” Solomon added. “Not in 2008, the last time the games were in China, in Sochi and Pyeongchang. And most recently, we covered COVID and the athlete protests in Tokyo.”
To that end, NBC has tapped Andy Browne, editorial director of the Bloomberg New Economy, as well as Jing Tsu, a Yale professor of China Studies, to join NBC’s team in Beijing and provide context on the host country.
But that context may come with close scrutiny from the Chinese government itself.
The host country’s actions closer to the games themselves have raised alarm among onlookers, such as Beijing organizers’ requirement that all athletes download a smartphone app to monitor their health status—an app that researchers at the University of Toronto recently revealed contains a “devastating” security flaw that could allow surveillance of users’ data and messages. Several Olympic teams, including the U.S., U.K. and Canada, have advised their athletes to leave their personal devices at home and to use only “burner” phones while in China.
A source at a U.S. news organization that is planning to have reporters cover the games told The Hollywood Reporter they are advising their staff on the ground in Beijing to use burner phones as well.
Of course, China’s strict COVID protocols, combined with security concerns, may also serve to hinder critical coverage by limiting the number of people even able to cover such news. For the first time, NBC will not have any announcers on-site in Beijing, instead having them call all the events from the company’s Olympics headquarters in Stamford, Conn.
While there will be studio hosts on-site in Beijing, and NBC News does have a Beijing bureau with some reporters able to report from the ground, China’s closed Olympics “loop” means that access to anyone outside of Olympics venues will be nonexistent, and even access to athletes and others inside the loop will be extraordinarily limited.
NBC isn’t alone in cutting back on having people on the ground; ESPN also opted not to send any reporters to Beijing. “With the pandemic continuing to be a global threat, and with the COVID-related on-site restrictions in place for the Olympics that would make coverage very challenging, we felt that keeping our people home was the best decision for us,” said Norby Williamson, ESPN executive VP of event and studio production, and executive editor.
An ESPN source added to THR that the access their reporters would have had would be so limited that it simply wasn’t worth it.
But the strict rules have already impacted NBC’s Olympics plans, which traditionally have included field reports from historic sights of the host country. (In 2008, the Today show had live reports originating from the Great Wall). Even in Tokyo, NBC was able to have some reporters out of quarantine and able to report from the streets.
“The late great Jim McKay said to me when I had begun hosting the Olympics and he had established the standard at ABC: ‘Remember, yes, it’s a sports event, but it’s a cultural panorama. It’s a travelogue,’” NBC’s former Olympics host Bob Costas told CNN Jan. 23. “NBC has no ability under these circumstances to take people around China, to have people share in the emotion of cheering crowds and family. All of that is reduced.”
In this age of athlete empowerment, there also is the distinct possibility that some Olympic competitors will make political statements in Beijing in protest of China’s human rights record. China has warned of vague but chilling repercussions for such actions. “Any behavior or speech that is against the Olympic spirit, especially against Chinese laws and regulations, are subject to certain punishment,” Yang Shu, deputy director of international relations for the Beijing organizing committee, said at a press briefing in mid-January.
NBC says it is preparing for such a possibility.
“We plan to have reporters at all Beijing venues. If something happens, we’ll have our own cameras on site,” Solomon says. Ironically, by having so much coverage originate from Connecticut, NBC’s commentators may have more freedom to speak critically if such an event does occur.
The IOC’s checkered history has meant that it’s almost de rigueur for an array of social concerns and criticism to be mounted prior to an Olympics opening ceremony. During an investor conference in the lead-up to the Tokyo Summer Games last year, NBCUniversal CEO Jeff Shell noted how there were worries about traffic snarls ahead of the London Olympics and the Zika virus prior to the Rio Games. “And then once the Opening Ceremony happens, everybody forgets all that and enjoys the 17 days,” he added, emphasizing NBC’s interest in focusing on the sports.
But there could be good reason that U.S. viewers expect a more critical stance and a closer look at the context this time around. In 2021, the Pew Research Center estimated that 67% of the U.S. population held negative feelings toward China, up from 42% back in 2008 during the lead-up to the Beijing Summer Olympics. At the same time, hardline policies towards China have become the exceedingly rare area of bipartisan consensus among U.S. politicians. Should NBC gloss over the broader circumstances of these games and focus solely on the sports and pageantry, the network would risk alienating a portion of its core audience, while also opening itself up to a hammering from hawks in Congress.
Indeed, both Democratic and Republican members of Congress have already sent letters to NBC in the past few weeks, urging critical coverage of China, and asking questions about what influence, if any, China will have over NBC’s coverage.
For its part, Discovery Inc., which holds the pan-European Olympic rights through its Eurosport subsidiary, has also pledged to engage with the broader issues while beaming its Olympics coverage from Beijing to Europe. Andrew Georgiou, the company’s president of sports, described human rights in China as a “massively important issue,” at a presentation in London on Jan. 24. “It is not a topic that we are going to shy away from, we are going to address it,” given that Discovery is “really focused on social justice issues,” he said.
Many analysts believe that China feels it has less to prove to the world with the 2022 Winter Olympics than it did during the 2008 Summer Games, which were treated as a high-stakes coming out party proving that the country had arrived as a major power on the world stage. Given how much China’s geopolitical influence has grown since then, Beijing is expected to use these Games primarily as a showcase for its domestic populace, whose pride in China’s place the world is currently soaring but requires regular reassurance (particularly amid a slowdown in economic growth, as Xi Jingping prepares to accept an unprecedented third term as the country’s president later this year).
In that case, China’s emphasis, as usual, will be on the total control and manipulation of the local media portrayal of the country’s handling of the Olympic moment. But what if NBC commentators, or athletes given air time in an international broadcast, make statements that are perceived within in China as beyond the pale—“an insult to China?”
“I do think they expect that there will be some criticism that accompanies these Olympics, because it’s such a global moment,” notes Aynne Kokas, the author of the book Hollywood Made in China and a nonresident scholar in Chinese media at the Baker Institute of Public Policy at Rice University. “But if there is coverage that is perceived as very critical, or something that amounts to some kind of embarrassment for China, then there could be something like the asymmetric responses we have seen before.”
Examples of such responses include the reaction when Daryl Morey, then the general manager for the NBA’s Houston Rockets, put out a single, seven-word tweet voicing support for Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement in 2019 (“Fight for Freedom. Stand with Hong Kong.”). Within days, the NBA—the most popular and profitable U.S. sporting league in China by far—was banned from broadcast in the country for a full year.
An outsized payback against NBCUniversal for any perceived slight would be well within China’s reach, considering the revenue Universal Pictures generates in the country (F9: The Fast Saga was Hollywood’s highest-grossing movie there in 2021, earning $217 million) and that the parent company’s multibillion-dollar Chinese theme park, Universal Studios Beijing, launched just last September.
For an indication of how tricky the tightrope walk for U.S. businesses has become for these Olympics, consider the path taken by the event’s biggest multinational sponsors. After spending billions to align themselves with the event as top-tier sponsors, companies including Visa, Coca-Cola and Procter & Gamble have almost entirely abstained from running their usual Olympic-themed global marketing campaigns ahead of the opening ceremony. Coke, for example, is running an Olympic ad campaign only within China.
And that advertising impact is being felt at NBC. A source at a media buying firm confirms that NBC has cut its Olympic ratings guarantee “significantly,” hoping to reduce the need for any potential make-goods if viewers don’t tune in. While it isn’t immediately clear why that decision was made, a lack of clear “star athletes” to feature may be at play, in addition to broader concerns about the host country. The primetime TV audience for the Olympics also has been in steady decline since the 2012 London Summer Games. The average primetime viewership for the Rio Olympics fell 18% in 2016, followed by a further 42% ratings slide during Tokyo Games last year.
Dan Lovinger, the head of ad sales for NBC Sports, said Jan. 19 that the company was “trying to help our advertisers understand that all of the different narratives are in play here,” and suggested that by advertising during the games, sponsors were also helping the athletes, as well as his network.
“While we wish that there was no diplomatic boycott, we certainly understand it. But a diplomatic boycott is really just that—it just means that our diplomats won’t be in Beijing. Our athletes will be there, and they’ll be excited to be there, and we’ll be there to bring the games to them,” Lovinger said. “And what’s really great for our advertisers to know is that our athletes need them … Their families live to help them train for the games; they get no financial support from our government, which is fine. So, they rely on the generosity of corporate America and some individuals to help them realize these dreams.”
“So, when our advertisers decide to sit these games out, it really hurts the athletes, because now they have to go compete with the Chinese and the Russians and athletes from other countries that already receive massive state funding,” Lovinger added.
The critical role that the Olympics plays for NBC’s own ad sales revenue was underscored on Jan. 31, when Lovinger was elevated to a new role of president of advertising sales and partnerships, with a focus exclusively on the Olympics. NBCUniversal ad sales chairman Linda Yaccarino told staff Lovinger’s new role was because Olympics sponsorship and advertising was an “enormous opportunity and priority for our company,” one that would required a “dedicated leadership role” leading into the 2024, 2026 and 2028 games.
“These are capitalist firms, not altruistic human rights organizations, so it’s not surprising that they would see all of the potential controversy and opt to keep their heads down,” adds Boycoff of the move by many marketers to maintain a lower profile and avoid speaking out on China’s abuses. “But NBC doesn’t really have that option.”
And so the network will once again walk the tightrope, knowing the 2024 Summer Olympics in Paris, the 2026 Winter Games in Milan, and the 2028 Los Angeles Games, may well mark a return to simpler times, when the Today show can originate from, say, the Eiffel Tower or the Santa Monica Pier, and NBC News can focus most of its coverage on sports and not geopolitics.
“The restrictions on press freedom and the sense that everyone there is being monitored in some way, we had that feeling in 2008 in Beijing, and I think if anything, it’s been ramped up now,” Costas said. “And it isn’t just NBC. Any network that broadcasts big sports events is simultaneously in a position, it’s quasi-journalistic at best … you’re reporting an event, but you’re also promoting the event.”
“NBC pays a huge rights fee, along with the production costs,” he added. “They want people to watch it. It’s a centerpiece of the entire network strategy. At a time where everything is fractionalized, very few things draw huge audiences. The NFL does, the Super Bowl, the Olympics do. It’s almost 24/7 Olympic stuff. You promote your other upcoming programs. All of that is diminished—it’s not gone, but it’s diminished under these circumstances.”