Kudos to NPR’s David Folkenflik for asking a great question about the upcoming coverage of the Olympics: How much corporate baggage will NBC take to the Beijing Olympics?

At the root of this inquiry are a slew of complicated issues. Folkenflik reports that the network’s parent company, General Electric, is a global partner with the International Olympic Committee. An NBC Sports executive sits on the IOC board.

And on Monday, Marketplace reported that GE paid $200 million to sponsor the games until 2012, and is currently angling for hundreds of millions of dollars in contracts for Chinese infrastructure development.
So it’s clear that GE stands to benefit from the games’ success. But the Chinese authorities may measure success in terms of the kind of coverage that the games receive in the media. And those same authorities may also be involved in awarding those lucrative construction contracts to GE.

All this puts NBC in a difficult position. Media analyst Larry Gerbrandt told Folkenflik that NBC is making “a huge corporate bet. They want the American public to experience the Olympics and, to some extent, the host country in a favorable light.”

This sounds simple enough. All NBC has to do is focus on fascinating, uncontroversial subjects—the development of the Chinese economy, the rich history of the nation, the vibrant artistic culture, and of course, the athletic glory of the games themselves. And sure enough, Chinese officials are likely to be pleased.

And that’s not bad, Folkenflik told me: “It’s not a horrible thing for people to be informed and educated and enchanted. There’s nothing wrong with that.”

But the real test may come for the network, and the rest of the media, if an unsanctioned protest occurs in, say, Tiananmen Square. In such a hypothetical, Folkenflik wonders, “Can reporters move around the area? Can they interview people? Can the network continue broadcasting live?”

Human Rights Watch director Arvind Ganesan told Folkenflik that GE’s corporate ties to China may benefit NBC News’s reporting efforts. “If a network the size and the stature of NBC misses the opportunity to critically cover human rights in China, it will be a real loss. And the real test for them is to see whether there’s that critical reporting or whether we see essentially a two week infomercial for the games.”

It may be that viewers won’t know what forces ultimately shape the coverage they see—the restrictive hand of the Chinese government, pressure from GE executives, or NBC’s own reluctance to confront sensitive issues or break the rules set by the Chinese government.

Two weeks of beautiful footage of China’s engaging countryside and people would certainly make compelling television. But it won’t be the entire story.

Looking back to the question posed above, it seems unlikely that NBC could shirk from covering spontaneous protests or other news events that might draw the ire of the Chinese government, if only because in has to compete with the rest of the American and international media.

But if something occurs in the middle of, say, women’s gymnastics —a particularly popular event that may boast the most expensive ad rates—will they interrupt the broadcast?

And, if something doesn’t specifically happen during the games, will NBC, and the rest of the media, pursue the types of enterprise stories that are likely to push beyond what viewers already know about China and beyond what the Chinese authorities have sanctioned?

Given that Beijing will be crowded with 500,000 soldiers, police, and volunteers, it is seems just as likely that NBC may be prevented from covering breaking news not by corporate red tape, but by a sea of people.

 

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Katia Bachko is on staff at The New Yorker.