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The Sochi Olympics Are A Huge Test For NBC News

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This year, NBC and its corporate sister channels are airing over 1500 hours of Olympics programming from Sochi.

Its news channels are turning over huge chunks of their schedules to sports. Its biggest news programs have all packed up and headed to Russia for the rest of the month. It is using the Games to give Jimmy Fallon his biggest potential introduction as the new host of "The Tonight Show," and it will surely be promoting a huge number of its other corporate properties as well.

There is probably nothing more important to NBC than the Olympics. Unfortunately for the network, this year's Games are shaping up to be the most controversial in years, and that could cause NBC a giant headache—especially its news division.

It's hard to think of a more perfect example of the conflicts inherent in corporate-owned news than the Olympics. NBC News, as it does every two years, is turning itself almost entirely over to coverage of the Games. The "Today" show and "NBC Nightly News" are both airing from Sochi for the duration of the event. The shows will be filled with interviews with Olympic athletes and with lots of the footage that NBC paid $775 million to broadcast exclusively.

As if that wasn't enough, "Today," the news network's most profitable brand, has its biggest chance in years to beat arch-rival "Good Morning America" in the ratings. Ever since "GMA" snapped the 16-year "Today" ratings winning streak back in 2012, the NBC show has stayed solidly in second place. The only exception to that? The weeks that "Today" aired from London during the 2012 Summer Olympics.

NBC badly wants viewers tuning in, and it's a good bet that more will turn in if there's a sense that the Games are going well. But there many things that are patently not going well, and both "Today" and "NBC Nightly News" will be the targets of intensive scrutiny for how they cover the seemingly endless string of controversies that are plaguing these Games before they've even begun.

The Human Rights Campaign, for instance, has promised it will be tracking the levels of coverage NBC devotes to Russia's notorious anti-LGBT laws, with daily reports posted on its website. The organization is looking for continuing, primetime attention to the controversy.

“They’ve promised to not shy away from covering the issue, and we will hold them to their word," HRC president Chad Griffin said in a statement Wednesday.

Beyond that, there are the major security threats in Sochi, which the New York Times described in a recent article as "a tantalizing target for Islamic terrorists."

There are the wider issues of corruption in Russia. One recent headline: "Alleged Heroin Kingpin Helped Russia Win Olympics for Sochi."

NBC also has an opportunity to highlight the struggles facing Russian journalists, who are battling a heavily authoritarian government.

There are even more mundane things, like the hotel horror stories that have raced around the Internet in recent days.

All in all, there are lots of things to discuss. The question is how NBC will discuss them.

It's not the first time the network has faced these kinds of problems when covering the Games. In 2008, for instance, it drew criticism from many corners for its handling of the Beijing Olympics.

"Rather than expand our understanding of China beyond the Water Cube, NBC seems determined to shrink it, turning a blind eye to most any hint of a problem," USA Today critic Robert Bianco wrote. The AP's David Bauder said that the network had "done little to upset its hosts."

NBC, for its part, has promised to cover all of the controversies surrounding the Sochi Games. Host Bob Costas said he wanted to ask Russian president Vladimir Putin directly about the anti-gay laws.

Some of the network's recent reporting on Russia has also gotten attention. On Wednesday, for instance, correspondent Richard Engel's piece about his battles with Russian hackers went viral.

Yet in an age when it is easier than ever for people to pressure networks through social media, NBC will probably be seeing more pushback of its coverage choices than at any point in its history.

The big test for the network will be how it handles these issues once the Games actually begin. It can be sure that people will be watching—and, if they don't like what they see, protesting vociferously.

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