How NBC's Olympics Team Plans to Handle the Zika Crisis in Rio

Zika_Fears_Comp - H 2016
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Zika_Fears_Comp - H 2016

"It's full steam ahead," says the head of the network's Summer Games, but a widening health crisis centered in Brazil threatens 2,600 employees, who will be given the choice of whether to attend.

This story first appeared in the Feb. 26 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

NBC sports executives are remaining optimistic that the spread of the mosquito-borne Zika virus won't interrupt plans to deploy thousands of employees to Rio de Janeiro for the Summer Olympic Games. "We are packing our shipping containers and bringing down our many thousands of pieces of equipment," NBC Olympics president Gary Zenkel tells THR. "Right now it's full steam ahead, and we anticipate a great Olympics."

The positivity comes as Brazil has become the epicenter of an outbreak linked to a spike in cases of microcephaly, which causes small heads in newborns. The World Health Organization, which in January declared Zika a global health emergency, said Feb. 12 that vaccine trials still are 18 months away and advises pregnant women to consider delaying travel to affected countries. The same day, International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach stressed that there is "no intention" by any countries to pull out of the Rio Games. But Bach's remarks came after a drumbeat of reports revealed concern in the athletic community. U.S. women's soccer star Hope Solo says that if she "had to make the choice today," she "wouldn't go" to Rio.

Most of NBC Sports' roughly 2,600 employees are not scheduled to travel to Brazil until a couple of weeks before the Games, which take place Aug. 5-21, though the network will begin to ramp up in the spring. NBC's medical unit, which will travel to Rio with employees, has been monitoring the Zika outbreak and remains in close contact with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, adds Zenkel. So far, he says none of NBC's employees has opted out of going to Rio; other sources inside NBC tell THR there is concern but not quite panic.

The Rio Games are part of NBC Sports chief Mark Lazarus' $4.38 billion four-Games package that extends to 2020. So far, NBC says advertisers have not expressed concerns. Multiple buyers tell THR they do not expect fears of Zika to have a material impact on the Games or the ratings (ad revenue in 2012 topped $1 billion). And some buyers point out that negative headlines inevitably adhere to the Olympics. Security concerns were an issue for the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, after Chechen rebels detonated bombs that killed 34 people in the nearby city of Volgograd. The violence occurred weeks before the Games, and NBC Sports did not require employees to travel to Sochi if they were concerned for their safety. The network is employing the same protocols with Rio. Still, Olympic tourism and even event attendance also could be impacted. "I don't think anyone is going to go to the Olympics because of the virus," says Tracy Lonsdale, a former CAA assistant who runs Karma Travel. "My clients don't want to go anywhere near there. They're changing their plans to go to Europe instead."

According to the WHO, Zika has been detected in at least 33 countries, mostly in South and Central America. In Rio, organizers are spraying pesticide to attack mosquitoes. And several world-class athletes already are participating in events there. The world's No. 5 ranked Rafael Nadal and top-seeded American John Isner are playing in the Rio Open tennis tournament, and nearly 300 athletes from 50 countries are due to compete at Rio's Olympic aquatics center in the Diving World Cup beginning Feb. 19.

TV series still are shooting in Central or South America, including Netflix's Narcos and AMC's Fear the Walking Dead. Production managers on Narcos — filming its second season in Colombia — say they take precautions like avoiding standing water. Production in Baja, Mexico, on Fear the Walking Dead hasn't been affected. Studios like Warner Bros., Fox and Universal say they have no active productions in South America.

It's clear that all those potentially impacted — including NBC — are monitoring the news. Asked what would happen if athletes began pulling out, Zenkel demurs: "I don't even want to speculate. That's a big if."