Throughout the massive two-hour spectacle, Olympic themes intertwined with political imagery to depict the party as a benevolent, beloved world leader. In one number, women plucking traditional instruments accompanied hundreds of dancers dressed in Olympic colors, who held hands to form dozens of spinning rings as a digital display blared a retrospective of President Xi Jinping’s diplomatic milestones.
In another key scene, hundreds of performers in Beijing 2008 jerseys held aloft Olympic torches and ran in unison to militant music below videos of Chinese athletes receiving gold medals. A screen overhead showed an animation depicting the blastoff of the nation’s first space mission.
Politicians and rights groups around the world have called for a boycott of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics over China’s campaign against the Uyghur ethnic minority group in Xinjiang, which the Trump and Biden administrations have deemed a genocide. U.S. lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have repeatedly compared Beijing 2022 to the 1936 Games in Berlin under Hitler — except “worse,” since the world already knows about the genocide underway in the host country, said Democratic Sen. Jeff Merkley last month.
The controversy has not, however, deterred the International Olympic Committee from moving ahead with the event, or convinced corporate sponsors to pull out.
Yet it does pose a sticky problem for NBC, which has paid historic sums for U.S. Olympic broadcast rights but risks directly purveying Chinese propaganda and legitimizing a regime seen as committing crimes against humanity if it proceeds with business as usual.
NBCUniversal, which also broadcast the 2008 Beijing Olympics, forked out $7.7 billion for U.S. rights to the six Olympic Games between 2022 and 2032, 16% more per event than it did for its previous four-Games contract.
Tough moral dilemmas are easily lost amid such big business.
“It’s worth remembering the PR value the Chinese government got from broadcasts of the 2008 Games, which allowed them to present to the world exactly the image [the government] wanted at that time — not that all of that was within NBC’s control. But anybody sponsoring or covering these Games or supporting the Chinese government hosting them has to realize what role they’re playing in promoting the government’s narrative,” says Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch.
“The cost won’t necessarily accrue to those companies, but there will be many people across China who pay a horrific price.”
Early ratings and viewership for NBCU’s Tokyo Olympics TV broadcasts have been lower than expected, with opening ceremony audience size slipping some 36% from those of the 2016 Rio Summer Games. Nonetheless, NBCUniversal execs said on a July 29 earnings call that they expect this year’s Games to be profitable.
Villanova marketing professor Charles Taylor says the profitability of Olympic programming ultimately matters less than its ability to help NBC “build its brand.”
Ratings from the short duration of the Games spill over to the whole quarter, and the network can piggyback off high Olympic viewership to funnel audiences to new shows in its lineup.
“More important than offsetting rights fees is the giant impact the Olympics have on ratings and prestige,” Taylor says.
But Beijing 2022 may bring more reputational risks than acclaim.
Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, considered NBC’s difficult position in a March New York Times op-ed, suggesting the network “refrain from showing any jingoistic elements of the opening and closing ceremonies and instead broadcast documented reports of China’s abuses.”
But when it comes to the strictly choreographed opening and closing ceremonies, it will be all but impossible to avoid their inherent nationalistic displays since NBC will almost certainly be working off a pool feed controlled by China.
The Beijing ceremonies will likely include sprawling historical pageants and parades of happy ethnic peoples “that implicitly assert PRC sovereignty and Communist Party rule over Hong Kong, Tibet, the Uyghur region and all non-Han peoples,” says Georgetown University history professor James A. Millward, whose areas of focus include Xinjiang. “What camera angles could NBC select for that? Such spectacles are not delivered à la carte.”
While NBC could prepare critical pieces on China to air in the rare interstices between sports events, press restrictions will make that an uphill battle. Yet to report solely on what authorities permit could lead to a sort of censorship by omission, with the network generating only positive stories and obfuscating unapproved topics.
The best approach may be to focus coverage strictly on sports and avoid airing the ceremonies or other footage of China, analysts say. Richardson also recommends that news outlets be as transparent as possible about their experiences — for instance, by telling the public the topics to which they requested access but were denied.
Human Rights Watch sent NBC a letter in mid-May inquiring about the network’s strategies regarding human rights due diligence for Beijing 2022 but hasn’t received a response. “I look forward to NBC figuring out how they don’t just wind up looking like CCTV. There are a lot of questions that they should be answering publicly,” says Richardson.
NBC declined to comment on any of these issues. A spokesperson from NBC Sports said, “We’re currently focused on producing the Tokyo Olympics.”