Beijing Olympics: NBC Olympic Hosts Discuss Controversies Without Expressing Opinions; Event Commentary Is Better Than At Tokyo; Tara Lipinski, Johnny Weir, Katherine Adamek Shine
During last year’s Tokyo Summer Olympic Games, NBCUniversal’s coverage was a mixed bag. It received a failing grade from me mainly because it played by the International Olympic Committee’s playbook and ignored reporting on the many controversies, in addition to what I considered much sub par event announcing.
The big question among some media outlets, government and human rights organizations was how honest would NBC be when reporting about the lack of civil liberties ad other controversies during the Beijing Olympics in China.
The answers are now in. Based on what I saw primetime coverage was better than NBC’s Tokyo Game’s reports, solely because of superior event analysis. Nevertheless, because the prime time hosts wouldn’t express an opinion about the biggest controversy of these Olympics – human rights abuses by China – if I was grading the coverage I would give it a “satisfactory.” What was missing from the prime time hosts was a Bob Costas-type commentary.
The commentators I saw who expressed the most cogent personal opinions during the 17 days were figure skating analysts Tara Lipinski and Johnny Weir. Both were critical on several different occasions of the decision permitting the Russian skater Kamila Valieva to continue competing after a test revealed a banned substance from the moment the news broke on February 14, four days before prime time host Mike Tirico’ criticism of Russian officials for their treatment of Valieva after she failed to medal in the women’s individual event. But criticizing the Russians was an easy target for Tirico, who kept mute until the Russian coaches were widely condemned by others, including International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach.
Specific reasons for my grading below:
Even though the official opening of the games was on February 4, I tuned in the NBC coverage, which began on February 3, but not before I watched the world news on Shepard Smith’s CNBC program, CNBC is owned by NBCUniversal. Smith led with the Olympic story, detailing the human rights criticism of China and the tensions between the U.S. and China. He also had a segment in which Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi slammed the IOC for turning a blind eye to China’s human rights abuses and warned American athletes not to make anti-China statements while in the country. That was followed by a report of the FBI cautioning U.S. athletes about the risks of being hacked.
A half-hour later I tuned in NBC. In his opening commentary, prime time host Mike Tirico mentioned the controversies surrounding the Beijing Olympics regarding the country’s human rights policies, but parroted China’s position that it denies the accusations. Of note was that he said everyone associated with the games, including the media, was facing questions but did not state NBC’s or anyone’s position and added, “It’s our pleasure to be here.” He said that a more detailed look into the political aspects would be discussed later in the program, which turned out to be lame.
But despite Tirico’s “our pleasure to be here” comment, the first substantial indication of how honest the coverage of the Beijing Olympics would be – whether the network would act as a news organization or as a partner of the IOC and China – would not be known until the Opening Ceremonies telecast the following day. But if Tirico’s February 3 comments were indication viewers would have to turn to other news outlets for the entire unvarnished story. And that proved to be the case.
NBC’s Olympic coverage can be divided into two parts: How it reported on the political and other controversies of the Beijing Olympics and its coverage of the sports events.
1- Commentary about human rights violations and geopolitical situation:
During the February 3 program, NBC telecast a “he said, she said” pre-canned report on the controversies of the games, during which the U.S. accused China of human rights violations, China denied them and Thomas Bach, president of the International Olympic Committee once again was shown saying that the Olympics must be free of political considerations. (Given China’s censorship policies, I wondered if the report was purposely canned to get around China’s censors because even though it was not negative of China it mentioned the country’s human rights violations.) This was followed with a discussion hosted by Tirico with two Chinese experts, Jing Tsu, a Yale professor of Chinese history, and Andy Browne, editorial director of the Bloomberg New Economy Forum, which was free of propaganda but was mainly a scholarly classroom-type rehash of what has been reported by news organizations. But even this attempt to convince the audience that NBC was being forthright about the controversies engulfing the Beijing Olympics was sullied by Tirico when he ended the discussion by extolling the importance of the gathering of the world in China, a statement that might have been crafted by an IOC propagandist.
As with Tirico’s earlier “our pleasure to be here” comment, a cynic might think his statements were made as good-will gestures to China. And they might not be wrong. If anyone expected a frank no holds barred conversation with the guest experts regarding the controversies, this discussion didn’t provide it. Missing from Tirico’s commentary throughout the lengthy program was anything resembling his personal opinion about the human rights situations in the country, which have been covered by media outlets for over a year. Tirico promised that discussions about the situation in China would continue on the following day when he, from Beijing, and Savannah Guthrie, from Stamford, Conn., would be hosting the Opening Ceremonies.
2- The none political aspects of the games:
The announcers: (Analysis is limited to prime time NBC broadcasts.)
Opening Ceremony: Mike Tirico and Savannah Guthrie co-hosted the telecast, Tirico and the two China experts again addressed the geopolitical aspects of the games, including China’s human rights violations and Russia’s conflict with Ukraine. But the closest thing to a controversial statement was when Browne told viewers to expect “subtle propaganda and not-so-subtle power politics” during the ceremony, using the world “alleged” every time when the topic was about the reasons why the U.S. diplomatically boycotted the games. As usual when the Olympics are the subject, Guthrie recreated her Little Miss Sunshine Olympic role and said, despite the political twists, “What this is all about is the athletes.” Tirico, playing the good NBC soldier, put in a plug for NBC’s dual coverage of the Super Bowl and the Olympics on February 13 saying, “It’s going to be the day of a lifetime for sports fans” (although I can’t believe that too many football fans are devotees of figure skating). The bottom line: During the first two none event days of prime time coverage neither Guthrie, Tirico nor the two China experts uttered a single opinion that would upset the host country. It was as if viewpoint journalism was not yet invented.
(On the program following the Opening Ceremonies London-based Keir Simmons, the senior international correspondent for Today, unlike Guthrie and Tirico, was not afraid to express an opinion. Simmons provided NBC with journalistic respectability, also reporting on the controversies on other days on Today. But viewers who only tuned in to watch the prime time sports’ competitions had to rely on other news outlets for the complete story of these games.)
Closing Ceremony: As he did during the Opening Ceremony, and throughout the 17 days, Mike Tirico glossed over the political situations and didn’t express a personal opinion regarding the human rights abuse charges against China. Instead, his opening and closing remarks included such hyperbolized comments as “for the athletes of the world the Olympic experience was a lifetime in the making,” “the Olympics are for those who dream” and the Olympics “remind us of the power of sports.”
Major prime time hosts.
Mike Tirico: Prime time host Mike Tirico did his typical satisfactory job but, as usual, there was no expectation of his saying something that did not follow the NBC script or demonstrate journalistic independence. Condemning the Russian ice skating officials was a “gimmie.”
Savannah Guthrie: Nothing different from her Today show and Tokyo commentary was expected by this Olympic cheerleader. And nothing different was what audiences got from this prime time co-host.
Craig Melvin: The Today show regular filled in for Tirico, when the latter traveled back to the U.S. for his Super Bowl assignment. Like Tirico he didn’t say anything that might upset his Chinese watchers. If anything his commentary would have made them happy.
Prime time competition analysts
Sports that are not closely followed in the U.S. needed expert technical analysis. I thought the following commentators did that exceptionally well:
Figure Skating Events: Tara Lipinski and Johnny Weir did their usual superb analysis, giving praise as well as calling out major and minor mistakes.
Halfpipe Events: Todd Richards and Tom Wallisch clearly explained the intricacies. of this sport, detailing what the judges were looking for.
Bobsled Events: Analyst Bree Schaaf clearly described the good and bad performances of the sport.
Men’s Slopestyle: Tom Wallisch and Todd Harris explained and analyzed the pluses and minuses of the competitor’s performances and informed the viewers what the judges were looking for.
Men’s 500 M Short Track: The commentators who did the first eight heats were superb. Unfortunately for them the viewing audience didn’t know who they were. Tirico didn’t mention their names and there were no identifying graphics.
Women’s Downhill: I thought Lindsey Vonn conducted a Master’s Class in explaining the challenges a competitor in this event faces.
Men’s Aerials: Hannah Kearney provided an easy to understand tutorial in a sport that is difficult to analyze.
Other very good event analysis was provided during the Men’s Big Air Freestyle Skiing, Women’s Moguls, Women’s Slalom, Women’s Bobsled, Women’s Big Air Freestyle Skating and Ice Dance – Rhythm Dance.
Prime time event commentary
Even though I thought the event commentary was much superior than during the Tokyo Olympics, inadequate identification of the announcers, especially during the first week, often made it difficult to know which commentator was talking. Better identification was necessary because the voices were not as recognizable as broadcasters of the traditional American TV sports of baseball, football, basketball and hockey. But an A-plus for commentary to short track speed skating team relay analyst Katherine Adamek, who with the help of a diagram clearly provided the best analysis of any sport during these games.
Another negative, was NBC’s not identifying whether prime time commentary was initiated from Stamford, Conn. or Beijing, China, with Mike Tirico, after returning to the U.S. for his Super Bowl assignment, often saying “in our studio,” when he resumed his Olympic hosting, and other analysts not mentioning their locations. Also late night NBC newscasts’ Olympic reporting was introduced as from “Olympic Center.”
It was bad enough that the prime time coverage of the Olympics glossed over China’s civil rights abuses. But the worst aspect of NBC’s coverage occurred on the third hour of the February 18 Today show. In a closing wrap-up segment titled Sights and Sounds From The Winter Olympics, featuring highlights of U.S. athletes, the commentators completely neglected to mention the controversies and made it sound like these were an Olympics that would be remembered as the good times and fun games.
Whether NBC delivered a credible journalistic report from Beijing will be debated by the network and its critics. Perhaps NBC could not cover the Beijing Games as a news event because of Chinese government restrictions and the time difference between China and the U.S. But, to me,
the coverage too often resembled a 17 day sponsored none controversial infomercial featuring sports that only have niche interest in the U.S.