Sochi Olympics: NBC Reveals Strategy on Terror Threat, Anti-Gay Uproar
"We go there with our eyes open," says Matt Lauer of the controversies plaguing the Games as the network preps an unprecedented coverage blitz.
This story first appeared in the Jan. 17 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Chechen militant leader Doku Umarov, known as Russia's Osama bin Laden, has vowed to "derail" the Winter Olympics in Sochi, which he called a "satanic dance on the bones of our ancestors." Bombings Dec. 29 and 30 in the southern city of Volgograd that killed more than 30 people have put the international community on edge (no one has claimed responsibility), and NBCUniversal says it is taking the threat seriously but will not enhance its security measures to protect its 2,700 employees in Sochi. "The security of our employees, of our freelancers, of our guests is our highest priority," says NBC Sports chairman Mark Lazarus. "We take it very seriously."
The terror threat is just one hurdle for NBC to overcome in Sochi. The Games also have put a spotlight on Russia's recent anti-LGBT law, which criminalizes expressions of gay "propaganda." NBC's Olympics executive producer Jim Bell says that employees traveling to Sochi will be briefed on security protocols. And last summer, Craig Robinson, NBCUniversal's chief diversity officer, reassured gay and lesbian employees in a memo that their "security" was paramount.
Beginning Feb. 6, NBCUniversal will program more than 1,500 hours of coverage across NBC, NBC Sports Network, MSNBC, USA, CNBC and NBCOlympics.com. With 12 new Olympic events (including halfpipe skiing and luge relays), there will be more coverage than the previous two Winter Olympics combined. A nine-hour time difference on the East Coast means that NBC will once again present a tape-delayed primetime package, with all events streamed live.
With his country in the global spotlight, Russian president Vladimir Putin has promised to "annihilate" the terrorists. NBC employees argue that the Olympic Village actually will be the safest location in the country because Russia's security services have been busy establishing a "ring of steel" around Sochi. Drones, underwater sonar and high-speed patrol boats will monitor the area, and Russian security services will collect data and phone communications of anyone in the city. About 40,000 special forces will man checkpoints. "There are a lot of groups that would like to use the Olympics to make a point -- positive or negative," says Today host Matt Lauer, who will anchor the Opening Ceremony with Meredith Vieira. "We go there with our eyes wide open." The biggest security concerns will be outside of Sochi. "Obviously we're very prepared to cover terrorism, were there to be any incident in the entire country," adds Alexandra Wallace, senior vp of NBC News. The decision to hire Russophile and The New Yorker editor David Remnick to provide context on the cultural landmines gives the network credibility on the subject while relieving sports correspondents from weighing in.
"It's important to note that our people are there to cover the Olympics and not necessarily to offer social commentary," says Bell. "If something happens that requires some comment that's outside of that purview, we will certainly look at it."
Remnick will be on hand at the Opening Ceremony on Feb. 7; it was at the London Opening Ceremony that veteran Olympics host Bob Costas, whose outspoken voice has earned him plaudits and detractors, called out the International Olympic Committee for declining to acknowledge the 40th anniversary of the massacre of Israeli athletes in Munich. (Costas already has skewered one of the Games' new events, slopestyle skiing, telling Today on Jan. 6 that "the president of the IOC should be Johnny Knoxville because basically this is just Jackass stuff.") NBC executives say there has been no interference from the IOC to head off potentially embarrassing stories, including pro-LGBT protests. And NBC News expects an interview with Putin during the Games. "No punches are ever pulled, that's for sure," says Bell.
Wallace adds that NBC News has been "very on top of" LGBT issues out of Russia; openly gay U.S. hockey player Caitlin Cahow appeared on Today on Dec. 18, the day after President Obama announced that Cahow, Brian Boitano and Billy Jean King would lead the U.S. delegation at the opening and closing ceremonies. Stephanie Gosk, who last summer welcomed a daughter with partner and fellow NBC News correspondent Jenna Wolfe, will be in Sochi. "That's not why we chose her," says Wallace. "We chose her because she's a great reporter." Gosk already has filed multiple reports about the issue.
The dicey geopolitical terrain certainly hasn't dampened advertisers' enthusiasm. The Games are sold out, say ad buyers -- the first time in a decade NBC has moved its entire Olympics inventory. Lazarus in November asserted that Sochi will be "comfortably" profitable with close to $1 billion in ad revenue. (In 2010, then-NBC-parent GE reported a $223 million loss on the Vancouver Winter Olympics.) One buyer notes that many of the biggest deals are multiyear partnerships that brands enter into knowing that politics can come with the territory: "If you're looking for brand exposure on a big scale, the Olympics will do that, whether or not there's a controversy."
"We have our fingers crossed that nothing happens," says Costas. "If anything, the prospect of a terror event, the controversy of the anti-gay laws, in an odd way, have increased awareness of these Games. Framing those issues is part of the backdrop."