Off-ice issues jumping to forefront

By DAVID BAUDER AP Television Writer Published:

A day before athletes begin filing in to Sochi's Fisht Stadium for today'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," reporter Keir Simmons said.

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 Olympics host Bob Costas mentioned both issues in the first night's introduction, saying the games promise pageantry "but also take place against a backdrop of questions about policy differences, security, cost overruns and human rights issues, including Russia's anti-gay propaganda law."

Within the first hour, Costas had a discussion with Russian commentator Vladimir Pozner and New Yorker editor David Remnick, where he asked about the propaganda law. Pozner described Russia as a "homophobic country" and said Russian gays are "in a very difficult situation." He predicted, however, that Russian authorities would work to make sure there were no incidents while the country is on the international stage.

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.

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