Last year, NBC Sports executives called the Tokyo Olympics their most challenging undertaking ever.
Now that experience is starting to look like a cakewalk.
For this month’s Winter Games in Beijing, NBC confronts an even trickier mix of challenges, threatening to diminish one of the network’s signature products and one of the last major draws to broadcast television.
The list of headaches is long: an event nearly free of spectators, draining excitement from the arena and ski slopes; the threat of star athletes testing positive for Covid, potentially dashing their Olympic dreams; and the vast majority of its announcers, including Johnny Weir and Tara Lipinski, offering color commentary from a network compound in Stamford, Conn., instead of China.
The rising political tensions between the United States and China, including over China’s human rights abuses, add a troubling cloud to a typically feel-good spectacle.
“My friends and colleagues at NBC have been dealt the worst hand imaginable,” said Bob Costas, who served as the network’s Olympics prime-time host for more than two decades.
The success of the Games is critical to NBC. Even as streaming services like Netflix and Disney+ have lured millions of people from broadcast networks, sports have remained a reliable moneymaker. The company has exclusive broadcast rights to the Olympics through 2032, at a cost of $7.75 billion.
Ratings for the Olympics have dipped in recent years — and fell sharply during last year’s Summer Olympics. NBC has told advertisers to expect the ratings to be lower than the 2018 Winter Olympics, according to three people familiar with the network’s ratings estimates.
The Olympics, however, remain so central to the NBC brand that the five-rings logo has been affixed to the bottom-right-hand corner of its broadcasts for much of the last year.
And NBC Sports executives said they were up to the challenge to produce a compelling event.
“The good news, if there is good news, in dealing with live sports in a pandemic, is we have a ton of experience at this point,” said Pete Bevacqua, the chairman of NBC Sports. “Think about the last two years across our portfolio. We have become skilled out of necessity. We saw that in Tokyo, where we had an unbelievably large presence in Stamford.”
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Mike Tirico, an NBC Sports anchor, is in Beijing and will host the first few days of coverage from China. Craig Melvin, an NBC News anchor, will be in Beijing as well, along with 600 other staff members on the ground.
But because of China’s Covid-19 restrictions, most of the sports commentators will be in Stamford, part of a crew of about 1,500 people there. And NBC will not have access to many aspects of the Games that viewers are accustomed to: charming travelogue segments about a host city; live shots of an athlete’s family and friends, who have traveled to a foreign country to see a loved one compete; commentators rushing up to a competitor who just scored gold.
NBC will deploy workarounds, including setting up cameras in the homes of athletes’ family members to try to replicate a celebratory television moment that viewers expect to see. And in interviews, producers and executives said that NBC’s wealth of Olympic production experience would only help matters.
“The replays will be there, the slow motion will be there, the graphics, all of that will be visually spectacular,” said Mike Weisman, a former longtime executive producer for NBC Sports who oversaw coverage of the 1988 Summer Olympics.
Still, because of China’s strict virus-testing policy, there are many promotional benefits to other parts of NBC Universal that the company will have to forgo this year. For years, the NBC morning franchise, “Today,” as well as the “NBC Nightly News,” moved their broadcasts to the Olympic host city, providing a ratings lift in the process.
But this year, the “Today” anchors, Savannah Guthrie and Hoda Kotb, will stay in New York, the first time in nearly two decades that the morning show has not traveled for the Olympics. Lester Holt, the “NBC Nightly News” anchor, will also remain in New York.
“Would you rather have ‘Today’ there? Yes,” said Jim Bell, a former executive producer of “Today,” as well NBC’s Olympics coverage from 2012 to 2018. “Would you rather have fans in the stands? You bet. Would you rather have Johnny and Tara and set them loose on the streets of Beijing? Of course. But if it comes down to you can’t have the Olympics because of the pandemic, it’s better than not having it.”
Politics is adding another twist. NBC executives usually bank on the Olympics as a politics-proof treat for viewers that transcends ideological differences. But even that bubble has been pierced. Last week, House Republicans sent a letter to NBC executives asking about the “the extent of influence” that the Chinese government will have over the network’s broadcast of the Games. In December, President Biden announced a diplomatic boycott of the Olympics because of China’s human rights abuses.
“The circumstances put an inevitable damper on the whole thing,” Mr. Costas said. “The average person now fully understands the nature of the Chinese regime. It’s not something that just news nerds are aware of. This is broadly understood.”
Mr. Weisman, the former NBC Sports producer, said, “Especially being in China, I think it may not have the same feel-good celebration that had made the Olympics so special in the past.”
NBC said it would use Andrew Browne, an editorial director at Bloomberg and formerly the China editor at The Wall Street Journal, and Jing Tsu, a professor at Yale, to help provide analysis on China during the broadcasts.
“The world, as we all know, is a really complicated place right now,” Molly Solomon, the executive producer of NBC’s Olympics coverage, said in a news media briefing in January. “And we understand that there’s some difficult issues regarding the host nation. So our coverage will provide perspective on China’s place in the world and the geopolitical context in which these games are being held.”
“But,” she continued, “the athletes do remain the centerpiece of our coverage.”
NBC is also hoping that the Games can provide a boost for its fledgling streaming app, Peacock. The company is encouraging people to sign up for a paid version of the app that will show all the Olympic events live.
Executives have vowed to make Peacock easier to use this year after an outcry from subscribers who complained the streamer was a baffling mess for last year’s Summer Games.
There is a bright spot for NBC: The network is guaranteed to get a ratings boost in the middle of the Olympics. On Feb. 13, NBC will broadcast the Super Bowl, and immediately after the presentation of the Vince Lombardi trophy, the network will go straight to Olympic coverage. In recent years, programs that followed the Super Bowl generally have drawn more than 20 million viewers.
With the Super Bowl gradually drifting later into February, this will be the first time that the two signature sporting events will overlap. NBC switched its spot with CBS in the Super Bowl broadcast rotation to ensure it could broadcast both events on the same day. NBC executives are calling it Super Gold Sunday.
“A once-in-a-lifetime moment,” Jenny Storms, NBCUniversal’s chief marketing officer for entertainment and sports, said last month.
Mr. Bevacqua, the NBC Sports chairman, said he was hopeful that the Olympics, instead of being a downer, would be a tonic to viewers exhausted by the pandemic.
“Certainly there are challenges, and certainly there are harsh realities,” he said. “But I think the beauty of sports and the beauty of Olympic sports is really needed right now more than ever, and that’s the story we want to tell.”
Mr. Costas said he expected NBC to be smart and resourceful. “But inevitably, no matter how good a job they do, those circumstances are going to have an impact,” he said.
Tiffany Hsu contributed reporting.