July 14, 2016

Michele Tafoya executed what can only be termed as a pre-emptive strike.

The veteran sports reporter was assigned to moderate a session with NBC Sports Chairman Mark Lazarus Monday during the big media gathering to highlight the network’s coverage of the upcoming Olympics in Rio. All the heavy hitters were there, including Brian Roberts, the CEO and chairman of Comcast.

As always, NBC put a celebratory touch on the proceedings, highlighting the magical moments that await the world’s athletes in a few weeks. And yet there is no getting around the fact that there are major issues in Brazil that threaten to sidetrack these Olympics.

So Tafoya put it out there for everyone.

“There’s no shortage of headlines surrounding these Games,” Tafoya said. “You’ve got everyone just automatically (saying) Zika. There’s the financial crisis in Rio. There’s the president being impeached. It goes on and on. So how is that going to affect how NBC covers the Olympics?”

Lazarus tried to keep it light.

“I’m not familiar with that,” he said.

“You didn’t hear about Zika ever?” Tafoya said. “Let me fill you in.”

“My vocabulary doesn’t go to Z,” Lazarus replied.

Indeed, NBC faces an unusual challenge in covering the Olympics. It is spending billions of dollars to air 6,700 hours of televised and streaming content from Rio. For that ample investment, NBC needs viewers to be invested in the athletes and their stories.

First and foremost, the Olympics are about entertaining programming for NBC. This is bigger than a sporting event. It is counting on huge ratings, especially in primetime, boasted mainly by non-traditional sports viewers who only tune in for an Olympics.

What NBC doesn’t need is for the Olympics, or any Olympics, to be dominated by people who aren’t athletes. That goes tenfold for mosquitoes carrying the Zika virus. If things go wrong in Rio, it definitely will detract from the network’s coverage of sporting events. And ultimately, it could be a turnoff for viewers.

So Lazarus and NBC have to do a difficult balancing act. From a programming standpoint, they want to keep everything positive to engage viewers. Hey, isn’t Rio beautiful?

But Lazarus knows the network also has a responsibility to tell all the stories, including the negative ones. Its crew of more than 4,000 staffers includes “Nightly News” anchor Lester Holt.

So after the initial jokes, Lazarus turned serious, saying NBC is monitoring “all these issues closely.” He added that the network plans to address Brazil’s problems during its preview show on Aug. 4, the day before the opening ceremonies.

“Hopefully these other issues will not rear their head [once the games begin],” Lazarus said. “If they do, we’ll be there to cover them. Our colleagues at [Nightly News] will be there to cover them in their fullness.”

“The Today Show” will also be there in full force, he said.

“So we’ll be able to cover and hand off back and forth between sports and news. There’s a process in place for that to happen. And if it impacts what’s going on with the Games, sports will be there to cover that. If it’s strictly a news item, news will be there to cover that. And I think we’ve handled that responsibility well over time and I’m confident we will again.”

Lazarus correctly noted that there are doom-and-gloom forecasts before almost every Olympics. The 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi had major security concerns; The 2012 Games in London had various challenges; There were questions whether major venues would be ready for the 2004 Summer Games in Athens.

“And all of those things have always worked themselves through,” Lazarus said. “Some have been impacted in small ways. Many have not.”

Yet the forecasts for Rio seem more dire than normal. Given all the issues currently facing the Brazil, it seems unlikely that these Olympics will go off without a hitch.

In his remarks, Jim Bell, NBC’s executive producer for the Olympics, called Rio “one of the most telegenic cities in the world.” He tried to paint a glowing picture of what is taking place on the ground over there.

Bell, though, acknowledged the uncertainty when he said, “we feel cautiously optimistic that Rio is going to be a great success.”

Through the years, the networks have had to pivot when news, and unfortunately tragedy, hit the Olympics. NBC covered the bombing during the 1996 Games in Atlanta. Jim McKay nimbly guided ABC’s coverage of the murder of Israeli athletes in Munich in 1972. Hopefully, nothing of that magnitude will happen in Rio. But if people start getting sick, or there are security problems for visitors or if the water is beyond bad, the Olympics will be about more than sports for NBC.

Bob Costas, who will serve as NBC’s primetime host for his 11th Olympics, summed up the network’s sentiment.

“We will frame all those issues that precede the Rio Games,” Costas said. “We’re not unaware of them. We’ll set it up beforehand. We’ll have our fingers crossed that none of them intrude upon the real reason we’re there and the real reason why people tune in, which is to see the Simone Biles of the world, to see a veteran like Usain Bolt or Michael Phelps try to add to their Mount Rushmore status.”

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Sherman wrote for the Chicago Tribune for 27 years covering the 1985 Bears Super Bowl season, the White Sox, college football, golf and sports media.…
Ed Sherman

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