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.
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