NBC News: Olympic Tout?

So I happened to glance up at the bank of TV sets in The Post's gym (excuse me, "Fitness Center") last night and noticed a curious thing. Three sets were going, one tuned to ESPN, one to CNN and the last to WRC, the local NBC affiliate. CNN had on Mr. Scowly Face himself, Mr. Lou Dobbs. ESPN had "SportsCenter" and WRC was carrying "NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams."

"SportsCenter" had a bit of news about the Olympics, but only a bit. The announcers mentioned Usain Bolt's world-record 200, reviewed the medal count and ... well, then it was back to Brett Favre and pre-season NFL football (for a while in August, ESPN was the all-Brett Favre network).

"Nightly News," by contrast, was all over the Olympics. Man, were they all over them. First, Ann Curry gave the opening "billboards" for the top stories, which included a couple of Olympics-related features. Then, on came the Olympic news like the parade at the Opening Ceremonies. Curry mentioned Bolt, the medal count, and the news that an athlete from Afghanistan had won his country's first medal ever. Then there was a feature on American sprinter Allyson Felix, and another feature on a Chinese woman who coaches the American women's volleyball team. Even Tom Brokaw's story on how Chinese students out-perform Americans in math and science (this is news?) had an Olympic peg (Curry's intro: "Here in Beijing, China's athletes have proven themselves to be tough competitors in these Olympics. The fact is Americans have found in recent years that competition from China extends far beyond sports to science and mathematics..."). Oh, yeah: Curry managed to squeeze in a story about the Spanish plane crash and a new presidential poll (I don't think either mentioned the Olympics).

In other words, "Nightly News," which rarely cares about sports, was out-reporting "SportsCenter," the leading sports-news broadcast on TV, about the Olympics. High-fives, NBC News!

But hold on a second.

What I was really witnessing was a little lesson in media economics. The contrasting priorities of "SportsCenter" and NBC tell you loads about how money can drive the TV news agenda.

NBC has a massive investment in the Olympics (parent General Electric shelled out $894 million in rights fees alone), and has made an equally massive commitment to showcasing the Games on "the networks of NBC." Said networks (CNBC, MSNBC, etc.) are devoting a record 3,400 hours, on the air and online, to the Big Show this time around.

But all those decisions were made on the corporate side of NBC, not in the news division. Call me old school, but in the journalism textbooks, it says the news division is supposed to make up its own mind about what to cover without being too mindful of what the bosses in corporate are pushing. In other words, GE's need for a return on its investment in the Olympics isn't supposed to be NBC News' problem.

Yet for the past two weeks, the line between NBC News and NBC's corporate priorities has seemed awfully blurry. Since the Olympics began, "Nightly News" (emanating live from Beijing) has been larded with the kind of soft-focus/feel-good Olympic stories that are a staple of the soft-focus/feel-good stuff that's appearing on NBC in primetime. On Wednesday's "Nightly News," it was Allyson Felix and the Chinese volleyball coach. On Tuesday, it was a story about BMX bike racing, a new Olympic sport. On Monday there were stories about the American basketball team and a "conversation" with Michael Phelps. On Sunday, it was ... well, you get the point.

The quasi-news-y "Today Show" has also been broadcasting live from Beijing, too. Guess what kinds of stories they've been doing?

But if the Olympics are such a big deal, how come the rest of the non-NBC TV world is more or less shrugging its shoulders about them? If Allyson Felix and Chinese volleyball coaches rate so many precious minutes on "Nightly News," how come "SportsCenter" or "Nightline" or CNN isn't chasing those stories?

One obvious reason is that ESPN and every other non-NBC news organization in America (including this here Web site), don't have access to NBC's copyrighted Olympics footage. In TV news terms, that's like not having access to oxygen. No pictures, no story.
But a more important reason is that ESPN and everybody else doesn't have $894 million invested in Beijing. ESPN does have a few billion dollars riding on NFL TV rights, which is why "SportsCenter" has been droning on for so long about Favre and pre-season football.

I know, an old story -- money talks. But when it comes to the news, I think maybe it should just shut up.

By Paul Farhi  |  August 21, 2008; 12:24 AM ET
Previous: Glad You Asked, NBC | Next: NBC News Responds


Please email us to report offensive comments.

SportsCenter has long been an informercial for ESPN/ABC products.

Now if they'd just hire Billy Mays, it'll be complete.

Posted by: Kim | August 21, 2008 9:04 AM

The Jamaican people are among the best around the globe always and forever.
The People of that island are very competitive and there is hardly any other country in this world that can out perform the people of Jamaica West Indies. I see
Jamaicans as top performers and trend setters on or off any public stage. Jamaicans are for God glory even in Beijing 2008

Posted by: Jimima Ewers | August 21, 2008 9:46 AM

Coverage on ESPN's website has been quite good, with several of their writers over in Beijing reporting. I tend to go to their site first to find Olympic information as it is simple to use, especially with event schedules, and doesn't require plugin's to view video. I guess the lack of coverage with SportsCenter is just due to NBC's video blackout.

Posted by: Mark | August 21, 2008 10:34 AM

The fact that NBC (and parent GE) paid close to $900 million for rights to broadcast these games, I guess, does give them the right to restrict access to video and just about everything else having to do with these games. Still, that does not mean that it should be able to restrict Americans access to the games from other websites. It is no secret that whenever the Olympics are held outside the US, geography, including time differences, come into play and one would hope that US TV networks bidding on these games would keep this in mind when bidding for the broadcast rights. What really galled me was that I had to stay up until almost midnight on both Saturday and Sunday nights to see Usain Bolt 100M semi-final and WR sprints. On the other hand, if you live in Canada or Europe you're getting to see him lower his WR in real time. Even worse is the fact that Usain Bolt, who has now become the face of these Olympics (yes, I know some Americans will beg to differ, those Michael Phelps fans) cannot even get air time on the 'Today' show. So, what we have here is not just money talking but jingoism as well and any degree of objectivity and fairness has been given a swift kick in the you-know-where. And then a lot of these TV journalists and news personalities wonder why significant segments of the public view them with disdain and suspicion.

Posted by: Trevor Dawes | August 21, 2008 10:34 AM

Not that video of Favre in practice is more exciting, but if I want results displayed on a screen with no video, it's a lot more efficient to go to a website than watch SportsCenter. The video embargo means no one else will give much coverage . . . such is life in big-bucks media world.

Posted by: ah | August 21, 2008 11:30 AM

The thing is with ESPN, if they don't broadcast it, it barely get's any coverage. They'll deem something worthy if they have the TV contract......witness the Arena Football league coverage for an example.

SportsCenter is confused as some sort of sports news device, because that's what it once was. Now it's an infomercial.

Posted by: Kim | August 21, 2008 4:51 PM

NBC puts onerous restrictions on the use of its Olympics footage. Their exact rules take up about three typewritten pages. Basically, they say that footage of events can't be used by any broadcaster in the U.S. but NBC until they are a day old. They even specifically preclude "sports shows" from using any footage at all, which I suppose includes SportsCenter. Lacking any breaking news footage to use (except still pictures and press conferences, both of which are subject to a half-hour delay), the others have basically given up.

Posted by: arky | August 21, 2008 9:31 PM

If GE -- a major defense contractor -- were consistently interested in using NBC's "family of networks" to advance its corporate interests, viewers wouldn't find an anti-capitalist ideologue such as Keith Olbermann pontificating on one of those networks. His nightly "Meltdown with Keith Olbermann" celebrates liberal zealouts who would be happy to disembowel GE and every other sucessfuly U.S. corporation -- especially those that cooperate with the military.

Posted by: Robert F. Sanchez | August 22, 2008 1:51 PM

I would just like to thank NBC for force feeding beach volleyball down my throat and making sure everyone knows it's the world's premier "sport" and otherwise ignoring coverage of the "world's greatest all-round athlete" Brian Clay, and I would have missed your cursory summation of all of five minutes if I had not already many, many hours beforehand checked in with Goggle News! Does G.E. get to choose the broadcasting venue also?

Posted by: Aloha from Hawaii | August 23, 2008 4:14 PM

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