It could be a premise for a Netflix thriller: An American company is trying to run a media business inside a dictatorship that is imprisoning minorities and threatening its neighbors. The U.S. executives have to walk a fine line, placating the regime while showing the world the ugly things that are happening on the ground.
That is essentially the script for Philadelphia-based Comcast Corp., whose NBC network broadcast the opening ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics Games early Friday. Comcast is facing challenges on every front, with advocates for the Uyghurs, Tibetans, Hong Kong, and Taiwan residents demanding attention for legitimate concerns, while the government exacts obedience with its invasive surveillance system.
Topping it off, Comcast must also contend with homebound concerns: a traditional television audience that’s declining, and the fact that the Games will play out at inconvenient times for American and European viewers.
“Comcast is in a tough spot here,” said Craig Moffett, a veteran media analyst at the research firm MoffettNathanson. “It wasn’t their choice to host the Games in Beijing. … Now Comcast has to deal with the fallout.”
Supporters of Tibetan independence from China, joined by those angry with its crackdown in Hong Kong and its growing threats against Taiwan, last year called for the Games to be canceled and NBC to drop its coverage. Failing that, they have lately called on NBC to raise human rights issues.
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“In 2008, when the Olympics were also held in China, they promised the human rights would be improved, but it just got worse,” said Tsering Jurme, a Philadelphia contractor, speaking as fellow members of the Tibetan Association of Philadelphia headed north Thursday for a protest at China’s consulate in New York.
Emigrants and advocates for the Uyghur people in China’s far west, with their allies in the U.S. Congress, have also called on the network to use the Games to raise basic human rights concerns in a country they accuse of suppressing criticism and imprisoning and killing Muslims.
”Media outlets covering the Beijing Genocide Games are helping to promote the Chinese government — Chinese Communist Party propaganda as it carries out genocide in East Turkistan,” said Salih Hudayar, head of a Washington, D.C.-based “Government in Exile” for that Muslim region, which China calls Xinjiang. “It’s wrong to participate in any capacity, even as spectators.” The Chinese government denies that it violates human rights and says it is the target of competitors in the West who don’t want to see the country advance.
The Biden administration disputes that and is keeping U.S. diplomats home from the Games as a sign of concern. So are the governments of the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, and other U.S. allies. The Obama-Biden administration launched a similar diplomatic boycott at the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, Russia.
NBC Olympics host Mike Tirico addressed the diplomatic boycott at the beginning of the network’s prime-time broadcast Thursday night and narrated a segment on human rights violations in China, including direct references to Uyghurs and further use of the word genocide.
“Juxtaposing political controversy alongside an athletic competition that promises drama of its own, with the backdrop of a global pandemic, little about this event will be simple to reconcile over the next 2½ weeks,” Tirico said.
Jurme said there was more to do. “China is so powerful that we cannot stop the big companies like NBC from bowing down because of economic reasons,” Jurme said. “But I want Comcast and NBC to be fair. They should show what China is not showing: the human rights violations, the privacy issues, the way [athletes] cannot take a phone call without an app that monitors them. Look at the lady athlete [tennis player Peng Shuai] who disappeared. I want NBC to fairly broadcast those truths, not just the Games.”
Comcast’s commitment to China is not as extensive as that of companies like Apple, which depends on China-based suppliers, or Wilmington-based DuPont, which has built chemical factories around the country.
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Comcast also knows the cost of Beijing’s disfavor: In 2016, Comcast acquired a leading stake in an ambitious Shanghai animation and digital movie studio project when it bought DreamWorks in a $3.8 billion deal. According to China-based media, that deal provoked criticism from China’s antitrust regulator, and Comcast sold its interest for an undisclosed sum.
But the company has gone on to develop its new Universal Studios Beijing theme park and resort. China is also a movie and entertainment market more than four times as populous as the United States, which analysts say Comcast can’t ignore.
For its part, NBC has reported in the past on human rights abuses in China, including extensive 2019 video reporting on the labor and prison camps where more than one million Muslims are reported to have been sent.
The Games began Friday with opening ceremonies at 6:30 a.m. Eastern time on NBC, the USA Network, and the Olympic Channel, all owned by Comcast, and on NBCOlympics.com, which is streaming programming to Comcast subscribers.
In 2014, Comcast bought the rights to broadcast the Olympics for $7.75 billion from 2014 to 2032.
Winter Olympics ad revenues fell to $770 million at the Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea, four years ago, from $1.1 billion at the Winter Games in Sochi in 2014. But revenues at the delayed Summer Games in Tokyo last year rose to $1.76 billion, from $1.63 billion at the previous Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro, despite a more than 40% drop in TV viewership, as more advertisers eager to reach homebound consumers paid for streaming video in social media.
More than a dozen large U.S. and multinational companies with long records of advertising products with the Olympics — such as Coca-Cola, Procter & Gamble, and Intel — have placed few ads in advance of the Games. Exceptions included Delta Air Lines and the tire maker Bridgestone, Reuters reported last month. The German insurer Allianz is preparing a promotional winter-Olympians video for social media.
Meanwhile, NBC has cut its Winter Olympics audience guarantee to advertisers, as if to brace for a smaller audience this year, Hollywood Reporter told readers Feb. 1, citing an unnamed ad buyer.
Still, companywide, Comcast revenues and profits rebounded to record levels last year after a dip during the pandemic. The company’s stock, lately trading around $50 a share, is down from last summer’s all-time high of just over $60.
The company hopes the Games will drive more people to sample its Peacock video-streaming services and become paying customers.
Subscribers to Peacock Premium ($4.99/month, with ads) and Premium Plus ($9.99/month, no ads) can watch full replays of all competition right after they end. The $4.99-a-month tier is free to Comcast Xfinity cable subscribers with an X1 box.
Reps. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R., Wash.) and Robert E. Latta (R., Ohio) last month sent a letter to Comcast executives demanding to know “how you will use your investment in the Games to shed light on China’s history of human rights abuses.”
The Republicans said it’s NBC’s job as an American company to stand up for democracy and capitalism.
They accused China of breaking its promises to move away from state-run, Chinese Communist Party-dominated enterprises and stop “questionable” labor practices when it joined the World Trade Organization in 2000 and became a major supplier to the U.S. telecom business, among others.
And they demanded NBC answer a string of questions about conditions it may have accepted from the IOC and China for covering the Games in Beijing. They asked if NBC agreed to avoid coverage of “human rights abuses” or post criticism of the government?
A Comcast spokesperson on Thursday said the company was still assembling a response. Molly Solomon, who heads Comcast’s Olympics business, told reporters last month that Yale professor Jing Tsu and Bloomberg editor Andy Browne will join the coverage to provide broader context for the network’s reporting.
The GOP letter asks “great questions, as a starting point,” said Christopher Balding, a former professor of economics in China and a caustic critic of the regime, who is now a fellow at the Henry Jackson Society.
He said that in pre-Olympics coverage, television media have been “working very hard to avoid all those [controversial] topics. What NBC is doing over there [so far] does not look like journalism.”
Balding said honest Western journalists have been “squeezed out” of China, their credentials canceled. Only a few China-based business news outlets, such as Caixin and the South China Morning Post, and investment bankers in carefully worded reports, are still able to write critical pieces.
He adds that China’s crackdown on political and economic freedoms has accompanied an economic slowdown that will put the regime under tremendous pressure. China President Xi Jinping has also pushed hard to bring tech and media under state control.
The pressure Comcast endures is similar to what other leading U.S. digital-media companies have had to face, said Ellen Goodman, vice dean and professor of media law at Rutgers Law School in New Jersey.
Google, she noted, “pulled out of China because they wouldn’t tolerate censorship. They said they are an American company guided by free-speech principles.” By contrast, “Facebook said, ‘We will stay and do our best. We can’t just neglect this market. So we have to comply with the local laws.’”
Goodman says U.S. media companies should be held to a higher standard than manufacturers such as DuPont. “One would expect American companies that deal with information to carry the flag and stand up for civil liberties.”
She sees the repression of the Uyghurs as a grave accusation against China. “My understanding is they [NBC reporters] have made a decision, not to raise it, but will cover it if it comes up. If athletes bring it up, they shouldn’t shy away from covering it.” (”We have a record of not shying away from these topics,” NBC’s Solomon told reporters. “If something happens, we’ll have our own cameras” to tell the story.)
In past Olympics, athletes felt political pressure directly. When the U.S. boycotted the Moscow Games in 1980, “athletes were expected to suck it up as American citizens.” But in 2022 “there seems to be more sensitivity or deference to the interest of the athletes.”
In part, Goodman credits “today’s fractured media environment. They can’t assume they will get an audience anymore.” Which could lead to more muted coverage — or to more aggressive stories “if they decide hot stories make better coverage.”
She noted that as recently as Jan. 22, former NBC Sports commentator Bob Costas, publicly ripped the IOC for placing the Winter Games in China after it failed to honor human rights commitments from its last Olympics.
Goodman said Costas’ former bosses have been reticent. “Their view has been, ‘Shut up and dribble, we don’t want to talk politics.’ It will be interesting to see how the reporters act if the athletes show their feelings. The athletes are caught in the middle. They’ve been training for this. And there’s this fear that if they say anything, they can get punished.”
Analyst Moffett also worries Comcast will have a depleted audience this year, even without boycotts. In its U.S. and British markets, “Comcast is also once again up against a very awkward time zone, where viewers will have already seen results via social media before the events are ever televised.”
China’s “Draconian anti-COVID measures in the Olympic village will sap the live events of their excitement,” he added, while making it tougher for reporters to get close to them.
There’s even the risk of “Olympics fatigue among viewers with the Winter Games coming so quickly after the delayed Summer Games last summer.”
“I think it is fair to say that these Winter Games are likely the least anticipated of our lifetimes,” he concluded.
Staff writer Jeff Gammage contributed to this article.