February 16, 2014

Editorial: Olympics skews news judgment

Viewers of nightly network news telecasts can hardly avoid noticing the overwhelming percentage of coverage NBC devotes to the Olympic Games going on in Sochi, Russia.

It has to compel anyone to wonder whether the news is being used simply to boost ratings for the rest of the day and night.

It’s not that “NBC Nightly News” with Brian Williams has forsaken big stories in the sole interest of building an audience for its very costly and undeniably popular broadcast of the Olympics. (NBC spent $775 million for exclusive broadcast rights, plus another $225 million to pay for the coverage, so $1 billion is at stake.)

But, on Tuesday night, for example, roughly half the 30-minute news broadcast was devoted to what was going on in the Olympics. Two of the segments were about specific athletes and their travails as they prepared for the competition. Another was a feature on Russian President Putin and his commitment to the Games.

Meanwhile, “CBS Evening News” with Scott Pelley spent less than 30 seconds reporting on the Olympics, mentioning only that U.S. Olympic icon Shaun White failed in his bid to win a third gold medal in a row in the halfpipe event.

Obviously, CBS has no stake in the Olympics — in fact, just the opposite: That network is competing for viewers against NBC’s non-stop coverage.

But, when assessing news value, those two broadcasts represent extremes of Olympic coverage, meaning that the most useful share for viewers would probably fall somewhere in between.

There were other big stories going on that day, though no real blockbusters. NBC did cover an expected weather disaster in Atlanta and up the East Coast, a visit to the White House by the French president, an arrest of a key al-Qaida operative, a change in the manufacture of Kraft Singles cheese product, potentially embarrassing revelations in papers kept by a late friend of Hillary Clinton, the death of child actress and adult diplomat Shirley Temple Black and the fact that retired NBC news anchor Tom Brokaw has cancer.

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