A day before athletes begin filing in to Sochi's Fisht Stadium for Friday's opening ceremony, NBC is already being tested on how it will cover the two biggest non-sports issues of the Winter Olympics.
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security has warned that terrorists flying in to Russia may try to smuggle explosives inside toothpaste tubes, spotlighting the ongoing security fears. And a prominent gay and lesbian rights organization said it would be watching NBC and its cable partners — every hour of every day — to see how much they talk about a widely criticized Russian law restricting gay-rights activities.
The terrorism warning was the lead story on the "CBS Evening News" on Wednesday and the second biggest story after the winter weather on NBC's "Nightly News."
The "Today" show on Thursday illustrated the balance NBC is seeking between news and pumping up interest in an event that parent company Comcast Corp. paid $775 million for the rights to broadcast. The onscreen headline on the story anchor Matt Lauer introduced from Sochi read, "Let the Games Begin!" The smaller sub-headline read, "Competition starts amid new terror warning."
"It's now time for the athlete to start worrying about winning," said reporter Keir Simmons.
Primarily because of the security concerns, more Americans said it was a bad decision to hold the games in Russia rather than a good one, by a 44 percent to 32 percent margin, according to a poll released Thursday by the Pew Research Center. That opinion increased with age: 55 percent of Americans aged 50 and over say Russia was a lousy choice. Pew surveyed 1,003 adults by telephone between Jan. 30 and Feb. 2, with a 3.6 percent margin of error.
The Washington-based Human Rights Campaign, a civil rights organization for lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgenders, said it will track NBC's coverage of Russia's law prohibiting gay "propaganda" to minors and the general issue of how gays are treated in the Olympic host country.
"It's reasonable to expect that they should be inclusive of the shadow that clouds these Olympic games," said Fred Sainz, an HRC spokesman.
Sainz said he hopes that NBC would devote at least one lengthy report on the issue of how gays are treated in Russia and that it should be mentioned at least once every night during more than two weeks of prime-time coverage.
He acknowledged that's a lot of time for programs primarily focused on athletic competition, but said, "they have a lot of time to fill."
NBC hasn't specified how much such issues will be covered, but that's not an unusual stance given they are fluid news situations. But the network said it did expect the issues would be addressed during Thursday night's coverage of the first day of competition and Friday's opening ceremonies.
WAIT FOR IT: NBC will be offering live coverage of virtually every Sochi event, either online or via its cable partners. Prime-time live coverage on the NBC network is essentially impossible, given the nine-hour time difference. The one exception — and it's a big one — is Friday's opening ceremony.
Through its experience with the London summer games, NBC found that live online competition coverage did not diminish interest in prime-time segments on the same events presented via tape delay. In fact, there was evidence the online coverage enhanced viewership. But executives note the opening ceremony is an entertainment event, not a sports event.
The opening ceremony is likely too important for experimentation. It's a gateway for interest in the Olympics in general, and NBC wants as many people as possible watching.
During the Vancouver games in 2010, the 32.7 million people who watched opening night represented the largest audience of any night, according to the Nielsen company. NBC's prime-time coverage for the Vancouver games as a whole averaged 24.4 million viewers.