NBC Sports this week made the not-too-surprising announcement that much of its Beijing Olympics team would be covering next month’s Winter Games from afar, in Stamford, CT, as the Covid pandemic once again disrupts the event.
But the international outcry over human rights abuses in China, leading to a U.S. diplomatic boycott, has put extra scrutiny on how the network covers the Games, starting with the telecast of the opening ceremonies on February 4, with Mike Tirico hosting from Beijing and Today‘s Savannah Guthrie in the states.
Human rights groups already have called on NBC and other broadcasters to drop plans to carry the Games, and while that was never a likely prospect, network executives said this week they will add two China experts: Andy Browne, former China editor at the Wall Street Journal and now editorial director of Bloomberg New Economy, as well as Jing Tsu, a cultural historian who is Yale professor of China studies.
“Our coverage will provide perspective on China’s place in the world and the geopolitical in which these Games are being held,” said Molly Solomon, president, NBC Olympics Production, in a presentation last week in which she was interviewed by Tirico. “But the athletes do remain the centerpiece of our coverage.”
Solomon told Tirico that NBC News, with a bureau in China, will be on site to “cover the news in China,” and that they have covered issues at the Games in the past. “And most recently, we covered Covid and the athlete protests in Tokyo,” she said. The news division has yet to announce its plans but its correspondents have been reporting on the human rights situation for years.
The U.S. boycott is tied to China’s “ongoing genocide and crimes against humanity” against the minority Uyghur population in Xinjiang. Last fall, a coalition of 200 human rights groups called on media outlets around the world to cancel their broadcast plans. “All of your companies are at serious risk of being complicit in China’s plan to ‘sport wash’ the severe and worsening human rights abuses and embolden the actions of the Chinese authorities,” they wrote in the letter. Mandie McKeown, a spokesperson for the group, said that they have not received a response.
Andrew Zimbalist, economics professor at Smith College and author of several books on the business behind the Olympics, says that NBC is in “an impossible situation” in carrying a major sporting event amid international human rights concerns. He said that there is the question of how many people will watch, and prospect of having to do “make goods” if ratings fall below guarantees to advertisers. Given the controversies that have beset recent Games there is also the long-term concern of more companies being reluctant to sign on as sponsors to the Olympics in general, he said.
“There is not much [NBC] can do about it, frankly,” Zimbalist said. “… All they can do is try, in a subtle way, without offending the Chinese too much, is to have a few news stories about it. They are between a rock and a hard place.”
If the past is any guide, the most scrutiny will be paid to the opening ceremonies, which in any Games are a pageantry of propaganda for the host country. Back in 2008, when Beijing hosted the Summer Olympics, the opening ceremonies were lauded as a “wow” display and spectacle like no other, under the unifying slogan of “One World, One Dream.”
As Browne wrote in a recent column, now Chinese President Xi Jinping “boasts that ‘the East is rising and the West is declining.’ “
“This newfound assertiveness has provoked precisely the response that the 2008 Games were intended to avoid: Pew surveys show views of China are at historic lows both in the West and among China’s Asian neighbors. But now Beijing doesn’t seem to care,” Browne wrote.
Bob Costas, the primetime host of NBC’s Olympics coverage from 1992-2016, has been outspoken on what NBC faces as it goes into the Games. “This is tricky terrain now for NBC and for other Americans. We don’t know what sort of peril anybody might be in if they speak forthrightly,” he said on CNN last month.
Costas cited an instance when he hosted the Games in 1996, when China had been readmitted to the Olympics. When their athletes came into the parade of nations during the opening ceremonies, “I pointed out because it was pertinent to the Olympics: If there is any nation that has the means and motivation to replicate the old Soviet and Eastern bloc sports machine, with everything that implies, you are looking at that nation.”
“Well, the internet was in its early stages, but orchestrated out of Beijing, there was some kind of attempt to get me fired,” Costas said “There were protests outside 30 Rock. They demanded a complete public apology from me in primetime, which was not forthcoming.”
NBCUniversal is in the midst of a $7.75 billion deal with the International Olympic Committee for rights to air the Games through 2032. On a Ricochet podcast last month, Costas noted how unlikely it would have been for NBC to drop the Games, given the huge investment and because it is one of the few big events left that cuts across demographic segments.
Costas acknowledged that there is a “diplomatic aspect” to being an Olympics broadcaster in a host country, but international situations still cannot be ignored. He said that if he were still hosting, he would be mindful that “you’re not trying to stir the pot. You’ve got friends and colleagues there, and who knows what the Chinese might do to make their lives difficult or uncomfortable. But, as skillfully as I could, I would try to make sure that we did not turn a blind eye to that very large elephant in the room.”
Zimbalist, though, thinks that it is still in China’s interest to avoid public disruption with the IOC’s key broadcast partner. “Both sides know that there needs to be cooperation for this to be pulled off successfully,” he said.
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