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NBC is in an awkward position with the politics around the Beijing Olympics

TAMARA KEITH, HOST:

The opening ceremony for the 2022 Olympic Games is tomorrow. It's the start of 17 days of grand spectacle, competition and controversy. At the heart of all three is NBC, the game's exclusive broadcaster in the United States. NPR's David Folkenflik reports.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: Bom, bom, bom, bom, bom, bom, bom (ph) - sorry, I get a bit carried away by the opening of the Games, and that's kind of the point. Molly Solomon is executive producer of NBC's Olympic broadcasts.

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MOLLY SOLOMON: A favorite feature of mine that we introduced in Tokyo, we actually talked live to the flag bearers as they walked into the stadium. We had their family back home. And to me, it was one of those spine-tingling moments.

FOLKENFLIK: Solomon spoke last month in a preview for the press. She talked about capturing excitement even though - thanks, COVID - there's no one in the stands.

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SOLOMON: You were experiencing the emotion and the pride of the American flag bearers - so very excited about February 4.

FOLKENFLIK: NBC has paid billions upon billions for the right to broadcast the Games, and it's the single-largest source of revenue for the International Olympic Committee. The fact that these games are in China, ruled by the increasingly autocratic Communist Party, complicates matters for NBC. Most of the network's team is operating from studios in Connecticut due to the pandemic.

Minky Worden is the director of global initiatives for Human Rights Watch.

MINKY WORDEN: The first thing that comes to mind is sports washing.

FOLKENFLIK: Sports washing?

WORDEN: Using beloved sporting events to cover up, in the case of the Beijing Olympics, crimes against humanity, including torture, slave labor, forced labor, mass incarceration, pernicious surveillance and a strategy that has persecuted 13 million Chinese citizens in Uyghurs and Turkic Muslims.

FOLKENFLIK: And the Chinese are cracking down on journalists, too. The Chinese government, to be clear, rejects or dismisses all of this. Yet in December, the White House announced the U.S. would lead a diplomatic boycott of the games.

Bob Costas told CNN that the International Olympic Committee was shameless in heading to Beijing, and he was NBC's chief host for 11 Olympics.

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BOB COSTAS: The IOC deserves all of the disdain and disgust that comes their way for going back to China yet again.

FOLKENFLIK: Top Olympics officials say they pick sites simply based on how effectively countries can put the Games together. Here's IOC official Dick Pound in November to ESPN's Jeremy Schaap.

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DICK POUND: It's harder for the Western democracies to get an act together than it is in more authoritarian countries. So we've completely changed the way we choose our hosts now.

FOLKENFLIK: So how does NBC at once celebrate and mark such an event held, by the organizer's own admission, in an authoritarian state? NBC has ramped up its news coverage, including this recent story about Uyghur families being torn apart.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Tonight, Madine Azimi (ph) is in Turkey, showing us a picture of her sister back home in China, who's been missing for four years.

JIM BELL: You can't ignore those issues. You present them, I think, at the outset, as if you were producing the Olympics.

FOLKENFLIK: Former NBC sports and news executive Jim Bell oversaw its broadcasts in four separate Olympics. In the Sochi Olympics in 2014, Bell brought in The New Yorker's executive editor, David Remnick, a noted chronicler of repression in Russia, to offer viewers needed context on opening night. And then, Bell says, absent major news, that's probably enough.

BELL: We would like to see Americans competing and doing well and winning medals. And that's really, I think, why most people are watching, not necessarily to get nightly lessons about certain issues that are beyond the field of play.

FOLKENFLIK: Republican lawmakers have asked NBC pointed questions about its plans. NBC promises coverage of geopolitical concerns tonight.

Human Rights Watch's Minky Worden says weak coverage would serve as propaganda for China. She has been pressing NBC as a major corporate backer of the Olympics as well.

WORDEN: They're creating the problem, and at the same time, NBC is not pressuring the IOC to reform, not pressuring the IOC to adopt human rights.

FOLKENFLIK: Executives at NBC's parent company, at NBC Sports and NBC News, declined to comment for this story. NBC's lone piece of advice - watch what we do in the days ahead.

David Folkenflik, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF ANGEL OLSEN'S "ALL MIRRORS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.