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In its marketing push for the Tokyo Olympics, NBC is promoting it as the first post-COVID global event, the beginning of a return to something closer to a pre-pandemic normal. But that does not mean the pandemic will be absent from the company’s coverage. Rather, executives say they are hoping to strike a balance in providing a dose of “optimism” with the reality on the ground.
“You won’t be able to avoid acknowledging that we are still in what’s hopefully the tail end of this horrible chapter in the world’s history. We will not ignore it, much like we don’t ignore anything that goes on during the games,” Mark Lazarus, chairman of NBCUniversal television and streaming, tells The Hollywood Reporter. “If it has an impact on the field of play, or in the Olympic Games, our sports and Olympics team will cover it. And NBC News will be there to cover any news events. Savannah [Guthrie], Lester [Holt], Hoda [Kotb], Craig Melvin, they will all be there to cover news as it may impact not only the games, but the outside world as well.”
“We have been talking about the pandemic, and it is obviously going to be a topic of conversation, one that will be covered throughout,” adds Mike Tirico, who will be the lead primetime anchor for NBC’s Olympics coverage.
The Tokyo Olympics, already delayed by a year due to the pandemic, have remained controversial in Japan, with some calling for the games to be called off entirely, particularly given the country’s lackluster vaccine rollout.
NBC executives believe that the International Olympic Committee’s health protocols are enough to keep participants and locals safe.
“The Japanese [government and organizing committee] have done an amazing job responding to the disappointment of the postponement, and figuring out over the last 14 months how they are going to operate an Olympics safely in that environment,” says NBC Olympics president Gary Zenkel. “What they had the true benefit of, unlike some of their predecessors, is that the games were ready to be staged in March of 2020. So their focus has been on health and safety. The protocols that we have been subject to are quite strict, but we are working within them.”
“We have to be tested twice within a very narrow period of time before we get on the plane, and we will get tested when we land,” Lazarus says, adding that “Operationally, we will be bubbled. We are only going to be allowed to be in our hotel, or in the venues we work in. You can’t go to restaurants, you can only be in your hotel.”
The restrictions are presenting unique challenges for the television production as well. Right now, NBC has between 150 and 200 people in Tokyo, and that number will grow to 1,600 during the games. But many will instead work the games from NBC Sports’ headquarters in Stamford, Connecticut, or 30 Rockefeller Plaza, or CNBC’s headquarters in New Jersey, or Telemundo’s studios in Miami.
There are also unknowns about how the events themselves will play out. There will be live crowds (Lazarus says he is hopeful that some U.S. servicemembers stationed in Japan will attend events and cheer on the U.S.), but it isn’t clear whether there will be full socially distanced crowds, or cardboard cutouts, or piped-in crowd noise.
“I think we are fortunate where you can use audio to build energy on television, and in buildings, but we are very encouraged that they will have people in the crowds,” Lazarus says, noting that the company will use whatever tools it can to recapture some of the energy that would normally come from a lively crowd.
Ultimately, NBC is hoping that the country, and the world, is ready for the games, betting that there is still pent-up demand for a live event like the Olympic Games. If there is, NBC says it has held back some advertising space in case marketers decide to get in the game late.
“I would say we are in a robust position but still open for a little business,” Lazarus says. NBC Sports executive vp advertising Dan Lovinger says the company is “happy with our pacing and expects to exceed the Rio Games” in terms of ad sales, with more advertisers than any previous Olympics.
As for the controversy, NBCUniversal CEO Jeff Shell said Wednesday that he thinks the games will be a net positive.
“Every four years it feels like there is something bad going on and people are fighting with one another. This year in particular, it feels like the whole world is coming off a global trauma,” Shell said. “I think for the world it is really important, I think for the country it is really important, and I think for NBC it is part of the heartbeat of our company.”
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