Why should NBC criticize China?


There's more criticism today of NBC's Olympics coverage being irresponsibly 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 that viewers want and expect.

When a network's sports division covers a Tigers game, we don't look for commentators to talk about Detroit's poverty rate or crime statistics. When other nations cover our U.S.-hosted Olympic Games, we hope they will 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 difference between a Detroit Tigers game and the Summer Olympics is the number of hours of coverage and variety of events. Because there's so much attention given to the Games -- 3,600 hours on NBC platforms -- it's easy to think the competition 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 critical news stories, videos and blogs to tell them about China's shortcomings. It's precisely because of the abundance of such coverage that critics are disturbed when watching NBC: The network is failing to reinforce facts and stories they already know: "Why isn't Bob Costas saying anything about [fill in the blank]?"

Now, here's where naysayers have a point: When China's issues unavoidably intersect with the story of the Games; if there's a gaping hole in the network's coverage of an event or participant because of issues that make NBC uncomfortable while in bed with Beijing. Certainly one would think that NBC, having paid hundreds of millions for coverage rights, should accurately report whatever occurs rather than feel tongue tied by their own purchase.

So, sure, it would be nice if NBC gave the Olympics a more news-driven, critical perspective. The Chinese government has done plenty to warrant outraged reporting -- in the name of hosting the Games and otherwise.

But most viewers are watching the Olympics for exactly what NBC is showing: soft-focus, 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.