Any TV network airing major sporting events, by nature, faces a conflict of interest. You pay millions of dollars for the rights to broadcast big events, so there’s little economic incentive to report news, or air programming, which reflect badly on the games you’re endlessly promoting. And that also ticks off your business partners.
A decade ago, for example, the NFL famously threw a fit over a fictional ESPN series called Playmakers, whose scripts included pro football players smoking crack and swiping painkillers from a child with cancer. Under pressure from the league, ESPN pulled the series. To the network’s credit, ESPN’s news-gathering unit has aggressively reported on performance-enhancing drugs in baseball (ESPN airs lots of baseball games), football concussions (back in 2011, ESPN renewed its Monday Night Football contract for $15.2 billion, through 2021) and other issues.
NBC is facing similarly tough issues in the run-up to next year’s Sochi Olympics, for which, as the sole broadcaster of the games, it paid a serious sum for network rights. The controversy stems from a bill passed on June 11 in Russia’s lower house of parliament banning “propaganda on nontraditional sexual relationships,” which is nominally designed for “protecting” children (Vladimir Putin signed it into law on June 30). What exactly that means remains murky, but without question the law stigmatizes gays in Russia. As the New York Times reported in a front-page story on Monday, news articles about homosexuality and gay rights in Russia now come with a disclaimer: “This article contains information not suitable for readers younger than 18 years of age, according to Russian legislation.” Also reports the Times:
Despite the breathtaking wealth and vibrant culture in the metropolises of Moscow and St. Petersburg, Russia remains a country where discrimination and even violence against gay people are widely tolerated … Few gay people in Russia openly acknowledge their sexual orientation, and those who do are often harassed. When some gay people protested the propaganda law by kissing outside the State Duma, the lower house of parliament, police officers stood by and watched as the demonstrators were doused with water and beaten by anti-gay and religious supporters of the bill. An overwhelming 88% of Russians support the gay-propaganda ban, according to a survey conducted in June by the All-Russian Public Opinion Center.
The anti-gay legislation has added to the tension between the U.S. and Russia, which was already sky-high because of Russia’s refusal to extradite NSA leaker Edward Snowden from Moscow (Russia gave Snowden temporary asylum in early August). Last week, President Obama canceled a September summit meeting with Vladimir Putin: in both an interview with Jay Leno that aired last Tuesday and in a press conference last Friday, Obama addressed the law. “Nobody is more offended than me by some of the anti-gay and lesbian legislation that you’ve been seeing in Russia,” Obama said during a Friday press conference.
So how does NBC, which in 2011 paid the International Olympic Committee (IOC) $775 million for television rights to the Sochi Olympics, and another $3.6 billion for the 2016, 2018 and 2020 Olympics, handle this story? Over the past week, the network has certainly given it more attention, as President Obama’s comments thrust the law into the news cycle. NBC Nightly News and the Today Show had barely covered the issue from the time of the law’s passage through Aug. 5, according to Media Matters, a left-leaning watchdog group. But since last Wednesday, both programs have done several segments on Russia’s legislation; Nightly News aired one on Monday night. And during the network’s coverage of the World Track and Field Championships on Sunday, NBC aired a 3½ minute feature that covered the global opposition to the law, and included comments from American diving legend Greg Louganis, who is gay, opposing an athlete boycott of the Games. The track world championships are being held in Moscow.
NBC News has written several pieces about the legislation on its website, and NBCOlympicTalk, an NBC Sports blog, had six pieces on the issue from July 26 to Aug. 10. MSNBC dedicated about 21 minutes of programming to the law between July 18 and Aug. 5, while CNN had over 67 minutes, and Fox News didn’t mention it, according to Media Matters.
NBC has critics like Media Matters at its heels. And the story is only getting bigger, and more serious. After conflicting public statements from the IOC, which initially said the law would not apply during the Olympics, and the Russian government, which insisted it would, Russia’s Interior Ministry said on Monday that, in no uncertain terms, the law would apply in Sochi. The statement, though, made a calculated effort to put the onus on the athletes and spectators. “The law-enforcement agencies can have no qualms with people who harbor a nontraditional sexual orientation and do not commit such acts [to promote homosexuality to minors], do not conduct any kind of provocation and take part in the Olympics peacefully,” said an Interior Ministry in a statement. Said Alexander Zhukov, head of Russia’s National Olympic Committee: “If a person does not put across his views in the presence of children, no measures against him can be taken. People of nontraditional sexual orientations can take part in the competitions and all other events at the Games unhindered, without any fear for their safety whatsoever.”
In other words, gay athletes and fans can be seen at the Olympics, just not heard. The law puts behavioral restrictions on a targeted group of people. It discriminates.
NBC will face increasing pressure to cover this story extensively, and report critically on the IOC, its business partner. Will the IOC accept such a discriminatory law? In the Olympic Charter, the sixth “fundamental principle of Olympism” states that “any form of discrimination with regard to a country or a person on grounds of race, religion, politics, gender or otherwise is incompatible with belonging to the Olympic movement.” Rule 50 of the Olympic Charter also bans political and religious demonstrations at Olympic venues. So the IOC does not like discrimination. But athletes cannot speak up about a law that is clearly discriminatory. “We always say to our athletes, ‘We do not want any demonstrations in one or the other direction,’” Gerhard Heiberg, an IOC member from Norway, told the Associated Press. “‘Please, you are there to compete and behave. Please don’t go out on the Net or in the streets.'” NBC will have to question, and criticize, this glaring IOC hypocrisy.
An NBCUniversal spokeswoman says the network, before and during the Olympics, has a track record of covering big news events, like the bid-rigging scandal surrounding the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics, security concerns in Athens in 2004, and criticisms of China’s human-rights record in 2008. Russia is not the only Olympic host with an oppressive human-rights history. Once the Olympics start, NBC has to strike a balance: many viewers tune into the Olympics for an escape. They just want to see the snowboarding, skiing and human-interest profiles accompanied by the appropriate piano music. But mere lip service to the host country’s controversies is a disservice. “I cannot tell you how we’re going to cover it,” NBC Sports Group chairman Mark Lazarus said about the Russia controversy, while speaking at a Television Critics Association event in late July. “If it is still their law and it is impacting any part of the Olympic Games, we will make sure that we acknowledge it and recognize it.”
The Olympics are difficult enough to cover, and NBC has often come under fire for inelegant actions like airing tape-delayed events in prime time. But now, thanks to Russia’s public policy, the network is facing its toughest test yet.
(CORRECTION: Story updated to properly reflect the minutes – not hours – of programming MSNBC and CNN dedicated to the law between July 18 and Aug. 5, according to Media Matters).