Anyone who watches NBC Nightly News on a semi-regular basis knows that one of the main goals of Brian Williams and his producers is to use their broadcast to promote NBC sports, entertainment and news shows, as well as cable shows that appear on the many NBC/Universal networks such as USA, Bravo, SyFy, E! and The Weather Channel. For example, on Monday, Feb. 17, Nightly News featured Brian's four-minute short-form documentary about Jimmy Fallon's new gig as host of The Tonight Show. Obviously, this "news report" was meant to increase viewership for Fallon's premiere show later that night. While some Nightly News promotions are blatant, some are not so obvious. Last June 23 & 24, Lester Holt (Sunday) and Brian Williams (Monday) spent a combined 4:35 promoting Nik Wallenda's tightrope walk across the Little Colorado River Gorge (adjacent to the Grand Canyon) which was also being aired as a Discovery Channel special. Since Discovery Channel is not owned by NBC/Universal, these may have seemed like just another couple of stories that fell under the category of entertainment news. However, neither Lester nor Brian (nor reporters Ben Fogle or Anne Thompson) disclosed that the Discovery Skywalk special was produced by Peacock Productions--a company owned by NBC/Universal. So in actuality, this was a sleazy and deceptive way for Nightly News to drum up interest in a show that NBC would profit from--without any disclosure about the relationship between NBC and Discovery. This is business as usual for Brian Williams and his Nightly News producers. (Sidenote: In his June 23 story, Lester Holt announced that Wallenda would be walking across "the Grand Canyon". That was an intentional lie--the Little Colorado River Gorge is not part of the Grand Canyon. But Lester and his producers knew that invoking the Grand Canyon would be better for Discovery's Skywalk ratings.) Another example: Nightly News occasionally does stories about the popularity of PBS's "Downton Abbey", but Brian and his correspondents often "forget" to disclose that "Downton Abbey" is produced by Carnival Films--which is owned by NBC/Universal. These omissions are, of course, intentionally meant to fool viewers by promoting the show while masking the relationship between NBC and its subsidiary production companies.
But the Olympics are an entirely different animal. No subterfuge is needed or even attempted in NBC's blatant and aggressive promotion of the Olympics every other year. Since NBC paid dearly for the privilege of carrying the Olympics (their most recent deal, which began with the 2014 Olympics and runs through the 2020 Olympics, cost NBC $4.38 billion), they make sure to promote the Games through all NBC/Universal platforms. And, of course, NBC Nightly News is a big part of that promotion. A promotional story about the Olympics that airs on a news broadcast carries a lot more gravitas with the viewers than a similar story shown on an entertainment show.
Nightly News began promoting the 2014 Sochi Olympics on Feb. 5, 2013--more than a year before the opening ceremony was scheduled to begin. That night's broadcast featured a 2:15 story on Lindsey Vonn's knee injury, and also included her then-rumored (and now public) romance with Tiger Woods. Over the next 11 months, Nightly News aired 8 more Vonn stories totaling more than 14 minutes. But those stories ended abruptly with a Jan. 7 story reporting that Vonn's knee injury had finally forced her to withdraw from the Olympics. While this injury was devastating to Vonn, I suspect that it was even more devastating to NBC. Up to that point, Vonn had been NBC's poster person for the Olympics. And Nightly News had reported on every aspect of Vonn's life from her skiing to her romance with Woods to her "pretty" looks and "blonde hair". After Vonn's knee injury, Nightly News's Vonn stories became a running will-she-or-won't-she soap opera about whether she would actually compete in Sochi. When she finally announced that she would not compete, Nightly News dropped Vonn like a not-so-hot potato and instead began focusing on other Olympic stars like Gracie Gold, Lolo Jones and the Jamaican Bobsled Team.
So how much time did NBC Nightly News actually spend promoting the 2014 Olympics? Beginning with that 2/5/13 Lindsey Vonn story, NBC Nightly News spent a total of 225 minutes--3 hours 45 minutes--promoting the Sochi Games. Before the Sochi Opening Ceremony took place on Feb. 7, Nightly News had already spent 101 minutes promoting the Olympics. And over the 17 days of competition, Nightly News spent another 124 minutes on stories meant to insure that viewers would tune in. Permit me to state the obvious: The more people that watch the Olympics, the higher NBC's ratings will be. And higher ratings translates to more ad revenue--either for these games or for subsequent Games. So--no surprise--Nightly News's extensive promotion of the Olympics was really just a way to generate revenue for NBC. Let's put this in perspective. Nightly News isn't a 30-minute broadcast. It isn't even a 24-minute broadcast. After filtering out the commercials, the opening tease, the incessant promotions (for The Today Show, The Tonight Show, Meet the Press, Dateline, etc.) and Brian Williams's overlong sign off, a Nightly News broadcast usually contains somewhere between 18½ and 19½ minutes of news (the word "news" is really a misnomer, since a Nightly News broadcast often includes many minutes of non-news stories. But for these purposes, we can generously consider all Nightly News stories to be actual news). Occasionally (though rarely), a broadcast will run a few seconds over 20 minutes. So even assuming a 20-minute run time for a broadcast, the 225 minutes that Nightly News spent promoting the Olympics is equivalent to more than 11 entire Nightly News broadcasts. That raises a disturbing question: What stories didn't Nightly News cover in order to spend 225 minutes promoting the Olympics over the course of an entire year? In 2013 and early 2014, there were elections in Kenya, Cambodia, Mali, Pakistan. Zimbabwe, Australia, Norway, Germany, Austria, Chile, Bangladesh and Thailand. Nightly News did not report a single story on any of these elections. But we sure learned an awful lot about Lindsey Vonn's knee.
So how did the 3 hours 45 minutes Nightly News devoted to promoting the 2014 Olympics stack up against past Olympics? Before and during the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, Nightly News spent a meager 2 hours 40 minutes on Olympic promotional stories. And Nightly News aired 3 hours 9 minutes of promotional stories for the 2012 Summer Games in London. But the 3 hours 45 minutes Nightly News spent promoting the Sochi Olympics represents a new Olympic record. Well done! Brian Williams, his producers and everyone at NBC Nightly News deserve a gold medal for their efforts. (Although sadly, despite the combined efforts of everyone at NBC, ratings for the Sochi Games were down an estimated 12% from the 2010 Vancouver Winter Games.) And I think it's a safe bet that for the 2016 Rio Games, Nightly News's promotional story total will easily eclipse the 4-hour mark. Now there's something to look forward to. Starting, no doubt, in the summer of 2015.