NBC, prepared for the worst at Sochi

A torch-bearer for the Sochi games. (AP Photo/Olympictorch2014.com/ Nikolay Tangerekov)
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Alex Weprin

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The 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, will be one of the biggest news stories of the coming months. There will of course be the games themselves, but in the minds of many of those attending and covering it at NBC, the uncertain security situation in the region holds a prominent spot.

“I think we all know as we head to Sochi that we are in for an interesting ride,” said NBC “Today” co-anchor Matt Lauer, speaking to press inside Studio 8H at 30 Rockefeller Plaza Tuesday afternoon.

Lauer recalled the 1996 games, where the crash of TWA Flight 800 caused him and his crew to leave Atlanta to cover the breaking news, only to have the Olympic Park bombing strike when they returned to the games.

“There are a lot of groups that would like to take advantage of the Olympics to make a point, whether it is a positive point or a negative point, so we go there with our eyes wide open,” he added.

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In a perverse way, the uncertainty surrounding the games makes for something amounting to “Must See TV,” as viewers may tune in to see if anything unexpected happens.

“Although obviously we have our fingers crossed that nothing happens, if anything the prospect of a terrorist event, the controversy of the anti-gay laws, those things in an odd way have increased awareness and interest in those games,” NBC’s chief Olympics anchor Bob Costas told reporters Tuesday.

For the Sochi games, security concerns are significantly higher than previous Olympics. While every Olympic Games are considered possible targets for violence, Sochi is a unique case.

For starters, one of the largest terrorist groups operating in Russia, the Caucasus Emirate, has promised to attack the games. While previous Olympics were widely believed to be targets, there hasn’t been a declaration of attack as there is with Sochi. Last month, two suicide bombers struck in Volgograd, Russia, killing 30 people. Those attacks heightened fears of possible attacks in Sochi, just over 600 miles away.

The last Olympics which saw any sort of major violent attack was the 1996 Atlanta games where a pipe bomb was detonated inside Olympic Park, killing two people. There was also the infamous massacre at the 1972 Munich Olympics, where the Black September group kidnapped and killed 11 Israeli athletes.

What happened in 1972 is still fresh in the minds of many of those covering Sochi.

“Sadly, at every Olympics since ’72, that has been on people’s minds as you are going in,” Jim Bell, the executive producer of NBC’s Olympics coverage, told Capital New York. “You’re thinking, ‘Well, shit, what if something really bad happens?’ because it still has that potential.”

To that end, NBC, which paid nearly $1 billion for the exclusive TV rights to the Sochi Olympics, has put together a game plan for coverage, in the event that it needs to use it.

NBC News senior V.P. Alex Wallace tells Capital that they already have foreign correspondent Jim Maceda in Sochi, covering the aftermath of the Volgograd bombings. In addition, chief foreign correspondent Richard Engel is in the region “to kind of become steeped in all the issues of the Caucasus,” Bell says. "These games are taking place in something close to a volatile region," he added.

NBC News will have “Today” and “NBC Nightly News” originating from Sochi, along with the weekend editions of both programs. Talent from those programs, along with top NBC News executives, will be in Russia during the games. Anchors Lauer, Savannah Guthrie, Brian Williams and Lester Holt will anchor from the region, while new NBC News president Deborah Turness will be on-site as well.

Regardless of what happens, NBC expects the security situation to be addressed during its news and sports programming.

“I think that is a really big story, and I can’t see us not covering it while we are there, because it just feels like the story that everyone is talking about,” Wallace says. “Even if nothing happens, I think that in itself could be a story, ‘look what they did to keep anything from happening.’”

Costas says he expects to discuss the situation during his programs as well.

“At the beginning, we will discharge our responsibility in a straightforward way, because framing those issues is part of the backdrop, it is like describing the weather at a ballgame, or what the crowd is like, you have to frame the circumstances under which these events are about to take place,” Costas said. “Then you return to those issues if they impact the games.”

NBC also finds itself in the position of having to not just cover any potential news, but to help its 2,700 or so staff and guests if something happens as well.

“The security of our employees, our freelancers and our guests is our highest priority, and we take it very seriously,” said Mark Lazarus, the chairman of NBC Sports. “We have a full team of people there dedicated to making sure our guests and we are all safe.”

“This is Vladimir Putin’s Olympics and Russia’s moment to shine, they are confident that they are secure,” Wallace added. “I would not say we are taking any extra precautions, we take precautions wherever we go, based on the level of concern obviously, but I’m not worried about our staff.”

NBC is sending fewer staff to the Sochi games than it did for the last two games in London and Vancouver. Security may be one factor, but logistics is another. Vancouver and London are easy to get to, and locals there speak English. Sochi, isolated from major cities in southern Russia, is extremely difficult to get to, and few people there speak English. Translators, equipment and even cars have to be brought in from abroad for the games.

The complexity of the coverage is enormous, but the firepower is as well. If all goes to plan, it will be unleashed during coverage of the athletic events, but if something does go wrong, no one at the company will be caught off-guard.

Costas recalled the effort put in by ABC Sports anchor Jim McKay during the 1972 Munich Games. McKay’s coverage of that event became a defining moment in his career.

“When the tragedy happened in 1972, in Munich, and Jim distinguished himself in such an exemplary way, the world was so different,” Costas said. “There was no CNN, there was no ESPN, there was no social media, no internet, and in fact the full force of ABC News wasn’t even there. Jim McKay and a couple of colleagues were all the world had, and he rose to that occasion.

“If a circumstance remotely like that—and we pray that nothing like that happens—but if something like that should occur, I would be a part of that coverage, but I would not be the only one, as Jim was,” Costas added. “I would be able to rely on Brian Williams, I would be able to rely on Matt Lauer, I would be able to rely on Richard Engel, or David Remnick and Vladimir Pozner. We would have a full group of people there to cover the story. No one will ever find themselves in the position that Jim found himself in in 1972.”