Under executive producer Jim Bell, the NBC show will need to balance human interest stories with weightier issues.
You’d be hard-pressed to find someone with better credentials than Jim Bell’s to helm the “Today” show’s coverage of the Beijing Olympics that kicks off this morning.
Bell was a veteran producer of the Olympics for NBC Sports before joining “Today” as its executive producer in 2005. With six Olympics under his belt, he speaks about the Games with the fluency of a longtime observer.
Reminiscing about his favorite Olympic moments in his Rockefeller Center office last week, Bell rattled off the name of the blind Mongolian runner — — who placed last in the men’s marathon in Barcelona, Spain, in 1992.
“I’m an Olympics geek, what can I tell you?” he said.
But even Bell’s background can’t fully prepare him for China. For NBC, the stakes are high: It paid a record $894 million for the U.S. broadcast rights to this summer’s Games, which begin Friday.
The top-rated morning show serves as one of the network’s main promotional vehicles for the event, a place where athletes — often while still panting from exertion — will either rejoice in victory or mourn their loss with co-anchors Matt Lauer and Meredith Vieira.
As a news program, “Today” will be forced to balance human interest stories with the weightier issues that are likely to shadow the Beijing Olympics. Activists have seized upon the event as an opportunity to pressure China to influence its allies in violence-racked Sudan, whose president was charged with genocide last month in the International Criminal Court. Picketers recently interrupted a live outdoor taping of “Today,” complaining NBC has not done enough to cover that conflict.
Other hot-button topics such as China’s human rights record, media censorship and environmental policies are garnering new attention because of the country’s role as host of the Games.
“I do think there’s an opportunity for us to shine a light on some of those questions,” said Bell, who disputed the notion that NBC has paid too little attention to Darfur, noting that the subject is something of a passion for “Today” news anchor Ann Curry, who has made several reporting trips to Sudan.
“I think you’ll see that we will answer the call,” he added. “When there’s news, we will deal with the issues as they come.”
But it remains to be seen how many tough questions about China “Today” will raise on its own.
“We aren’t going to go there as the guests of the Chinese government and deliberately poke sharp sticks in their eyes,” said Lauer, who begins broadcasting from China today. “We’re not going to go out of our way to do it. But we think there are going to be a lot of opportunities to bring the subject up, based on the events of the day.”
The show did not report last week on Beijing’s ongoing pollution problems, a topic that received substantial coverage in other media outlets. But Bell said that doesn’t mean it’s going to ignore such topics.
“We’re in no rush to cover something that we already know we’re going to cover extensively in the upcoming weeks,” he said.
Chief medical editor Nancy Snyderman is working a story for this week about the air quality in Beijing and how it will affect the athletes, and Andrea Mitchell is doing a piece on U.S.-China relations that will address China’s record on Tibet and human rights. Vieira plans to do a follow-up story about the parents whose children were killed in their classrooms during the massive earthquake this past spring.
“I definitely see this as a news opportunity on every level,” Vieira said.
“We’re going to cover every single aspect of it,” Lauer added. “And I don’t think we’re going to be shy about it. The interesting thing will be what kind, if any, pushback we get.”
In recent months, news executives have complained that the Chinese are imposing restrictions on the press, such as limiting live broadcasts from Tiananmen Square. Last week, foreign journalists were unable to access some websites about politically sensitive topics such as Tibet, despite previous assurances that the press would be able to freely surf the Internet.
Frank Wilson is a retired teacher with over 30 years of combined experience in the education, small business technology, and real estate business. He now blogs as a hobby and spends most days tinkering with old computers. Wilson is passionate about tech, enjoys fishing, and loves drinking beer.