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August 13, 2008

Why should NBC criticize China?

There's more criticism today of NBC's Olympics coverage being politically ambivalent, this time from the Washington Post:

"Political protests? Not on this channel; no sir. Beijing's fearful pollution? Maybe, but only if a marathoner coughs up a lung or it spoils a beauty shot. Doping scandals? In passing, perhaps. Tibet? China's role in Darfur? ... just once in the next two weeks, I'm hoping for something more than a postcard."

Keep hoping. Though it's a nicely written and well-reasoned column, you can't blame NBC for airing exactly the sort of coverage viewers want and expect.

When a network's sports division covers a Detroit Tigers game, we don't look for commentators to talk about the city's poverty rate or crime statistics. When other nations cover U.S.-hosted Olympics, we hope they produce stories on our events and athletes -- not use their army of cameras and reporters, here to cover gymnastics and swimming, to produce drive-by autopsies of our societal and political flaws.

The biggest practical difference between a Tigers game and the Summer Olympics is the variety of competition and length of telecast. Because there's so much attention given to the Games -- 3,600 hours on NBC platforms this year -- it's easy to think the event somehow deserves a focus that expands beyond mere sports reporting and fluffy travelogues.

But what is it about the Olympics that necessitates such heightened scrutiny? The number of nations involved? The national pride on display? The John Williams fanfare? The athletes are the best each country has to offer, not what is typical. Olympic coverage tends to likewise focus on what is optimistic and extraordinary about the host country. In other words, the coverage is thematically consistent ... if not honest and realistic.

And it's not as if Americans are deficient in news stories, videos and blogs that tell them about China's shortcomings. It's precisely because of the abundance of such coverage that some are disturbed when watching NBC: The network is failing to reinforce the facts and stories they already know ("Why isn't Bob Costas saying anything about the pollution?").

Now, here's where naysayers have a point: The Chinese government has reportedly done plenty to warrant outrage in its quest to host a perfect Summer Games. NBC should accurately report anything that directly impacts their sports coverage or the athletes. Having paid hundreds of millions for Summer Games distribution rights, the network shouldn't feel tongue tied by its own purchase. 

For most viewers, however, NBC has been providing precisely the Olympics they want to see: heartfelt stories of athletes from around the world overcoming all odds to win gold medals. If you tune into NBC's "Beijing Olympics" and NBC gives you Beijing Olympics coverage ... you can't say the network didn't deliver what it sold.


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