Olympics Put NBC News In Difficult Position

NBC has a lot at stake in the 2008 Olympic Games. That includes the reputation of the network's news division and its bottom line. Its position is complicated by the fact that NBC's role in the Olympics is one of observer and partner.

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And I'm Renee Montagne. The Chinese government has a lot riding on the summer Olympics. The showcase opening ceremony is tomorrow, and that's where China is hoping to recast its image in the midst of protests accusing it of human rights violations going back to the bloody suppression of the Tiananmen Square protestors.

Now NBC is a partner in the Olympics, both as the exclusive American broadcaster of the games and through other corporate ties. And as NPR's David Folkenflik reports, that puts NBC's journalists in something of a spot.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK: So what's it going to be, NBC News? Will it be like this Matt Lauer piece from "The Today Show," a stunning travelogue from an exotic land?

(Soundbite of TV show, "The Today Show")

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. MATT LAUER (Host, "The Today Show"): The sun sets on Beijing the same way it did for China's emperors through the ages.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. LAUER: The Summer Palace was the royal court's playground in the summer months.

FOLKENFLIK: Or like this news report by NBC chief foreign correspondent, Richard Engel?

(Soundbite of TV news broadcast)

Mr. RICHARD ENGEL (Chief Foreign Correspondent, NBC News): Outside stadiums, in train stations, in Tiananmen Square, they're watching. About a half-million soldiers, police and volunteers...

FOLKENFLIK: From Beijing, NBC News President Steve Capus says he intends for viewers to learn more about China by the end of the games.

Mr. STEVE CAPUS (President, NBC News): We are here with a different mandate than NBC Sports, and their focus will be on the field of play. Our focus will be on the country and this city to see how they handle their hosting responsibilities.

FOLKENFLIK: Capus has nearly 300 people there to cover the story, and NBC is the only American television network with a full-time correspondent currently based there. He points to NBC's coverage of the earthquake in Chengdu and of the pollution clouding the games. But long-time media industry analyst Larry Gerbrandt says the entire NBC network has a lot of money riding on these games.

Mr. LARRY GERBRANDT (Media Industry Analyst): This is a huge corporate bet. They want the American viewing public to perceive the Olympics and, to some extent, the host country in a favorable light.

FOLKENFLIK: It's hard to know where the Olympics stop and NBC starts. NBC Sports paid for the rights to be the exclusive broadcaster in the U.S. An NBC sports executive sits on the governing International Olympics Committee, and NBC is owned by the GE Corporation. GE is a global partner of the IOC, another major investment.

NBC stands to profit not only by charging top prices to advertisers, but by promoting its prime-time shows. All in all, Larry Gerbrandt argues, it puts the news division in a tough spot.

Mr. GERBRANDT: From a corporate standpoint, this is a positive story, and looking around trying to make it negative or embarrass the host is really not necessarily good business strategy.

FOLKENFLIK: Remember, that host country is considered the first authoritarian state to host the games in a generation. To win the Olympics, the Chinese government agreed to relax restrictions on foreign reporters, but China is still the world's leading jailer of journalists.

Tibet remains off-limits. Reporters are cut off from some news and advocacy Web sites, and two Japanese journalists were beaten by Chinese police this week, trying to cover a bombing attack in the western part of the country.

Despite the relaxed restrictions, NBC hasn't done a lot of enterprise reporting. A database search of stories that ran on the "NBC Nightly News" for the 18 months ending in June, 2008, found, on average, a story once every two and a half weeks.

Arvin Ganesan of Human Rights Watch says NBC's corporate investment in the Olympics gives its news division the leverage to create more leeway for all journalists there.

Mr. ARVIN GANESAN (Human Rights Watch): If a network the size and the stature of NBC misses the opportunity to critically cover human rights in China, it will be a real loss. And the real test for them is to see whether there's that critical reporting or whether we see, essentially, a two-week infomercial for the games.

FOLKENFLIK: NBC News president Steve Capus says his network's investment has no bearing on his journalistic mandate to cover the news fully.

Mr. CAPUS: And we believe we have an obligation to do that, but I would say that that obligation would exist regardless of whether NBC/Universal was the rights-holder for the Olympic Games.

FOLKENFLIK: You can judge for yourself. Throughout the Olympics, there will be Beijing broadcasts not just of "The Today Show," but "NBC Nightly News" and "Meet the Press," as well. David Folkenflik, NPR News.

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