The Media's Olympics
NBC's News Leads with the Olympic Games
The NBC television network paid $894 million for the exclusive rights to televise the Beijing Games. On its multiple platforms, NBC’s planned to broadcast a staggering 3,600 hours of live event coverage. Outside of that event coverage, the two primary news programs on NBC’s broadcast channel, the Today Show and the NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams, also devoted immense resources to covering the games.
Together, during the ten weekdays of NBC News programming studied, the two shows devoted almost half (48%) of the airtime to stories about the Games or China. That is more than 3 times as much coverage as the media overall. Forty percent of all NBC News coverage was about the Games, while another 8% was about the country of China.
Between the two NBC News programs, Today spent more time on the Games than its nightly sibling. The Today show devoted 54% of its newshole to China and the Olympics, while the NBC Nightly News devoted 42%. The anchors of both programs, Brian Williams for the Nightly News and Matt Lauer and Meredith Vieira for the Today Show, broadcast from Beijing.
NBC’s rival broadcast networks gave considerable attention to the Olympics as well, but not nearly as much as NBC. ABC’s two main news shows, Good Morning America and ABC World News with Charlie Gibson, devoted 16% of their airtime to the Olympics and China while CBS’ two main news shows, the Early Show and CBS Evening News, spent 19% of their newshole on the games. Unlike NBC, CBS and ABC did not send its morning or evening anchors to China to report on the games.
The financial contract with the Olympic Games puts the journalists of NBC in an unusual position. Its parent company has a financial interest in people watching the Games and, gambling hundreds of millions on it. Journalists, generally, try to avoid financial conflicts of interest with those they cover. Their professional norms call on them to judge events for their news significance, not exploit events to serve their corporate strategy. This is arrangement, inevitably but perhaps unavoidably, adds unique cross currents.
To get a sense of the difference in NBC coverage vs. others, consider the night of August 11, the first Tuesday of the Games. That evening, NBC Nightly News ran six stories on the Olympics and China (69% of their news coverage). That included a brief tour of Tiananmen Square by host Brian Williams and an update on the gold medal-winning exploits of U.S. swimmer Michael Phelps. In comparison, that same night CBS Evening News ran no stories on either, forgoing even a recap of the day’s results. ABC’s World News Tonight offered a profile of Michael Phelps and how many in China are becoming his fans, along with a brief mention of the fact that China is set to overtake the U.S. as the world’s largest manufacturer, which is to happen four years ahead of schedule.
What has NBC devoted less time to during the period, at least relative to its competitors? The answer is a little bit of everything. Take the two biggest stories. The two NBC news shows devoted 9% of the newshole studied to the presidential campaign, less than half that of the media generally (23%) and than its network TV rivals (20%). NBC also devoted 7% of the airtime studied to the conflict between Russia and Georgia. That was also roughly half than that the media overall (13%) and about a third less than its broadcast competitors (11%).
What about MSNBC, the main general-interest NBC-owned cable news channel? From 5:00 am ET to late afternoon MSNBC aired Olympics event coverage, making full use of the 12-hour time difference. But in prime time, MSNBC went back to its regular programming.
When it was not airing the Olympics, MSNBC’s programs, which already have canted heavily toward politics this year, did not mimic their broadcast sibling and orient themselves to the Games. Overall, the MSNBC news programs studied devoted just 2% of their time to stories about the Olympics. And during the first week of the games themselves, the prime time news shows that appeared on MSNBC (Hardball with Chris Matthews, Countdown with Keith Olbermann and Verdict with Dan Abrams) devoted less than 1% of their time to the Games.
Instead, the cable channel stuck to its regular formula. During the two weeks studied, two-thirds of MSNBC’s news airtime (66%) was devoted to the presidential campaign.
The two other major cable networks did not have the rights to show any of the Games, and spent little time covering the events. Both Fox News and CNN devoted 3% of their airtime to the Olympics and China. While the Olympics were being shown live elsewhere, in other words, the cable news universe was counter-programming.
While the news shows on MSNBC in prime time stuck more to their usual guns, MSNBC.com, the popular news Web site that is associated with NBC News and MSNBC, did highlight the Olympics within its top news stories. Of the top coverage on that site, 29% of it was about China and the Olympics. 
For example, one of the lead stories on the site on the morning of August 14 was a roundup of a basketball victory for China and its star Yao Ming over Angola, a win that gave the host country their first victory in that sport. The Web site also had a prominent link on their homepage to another page that was focused solely on the Olympics which included videos, highlights, scores, and standings.
1. PEJ’s weekly news index studies the top five stories on each web page, a number generally equivalent to the number of stories on a newspaper front page.