NEW YORK –- Bob Costas, the face of NBC’s primetime Sochi Olympics coverage, recently made headlines by telling the Associated Press that he was more interested in interviewing President Vladimir Putin about Russia’s controversial anti-gay laws than in offering his own commentary.
That comment, Costas said Tuesday, was misinterpreted by some to suggest that he would avoid discussion of the widely condemned law banning gay "propaganda."
“If Putin doesn’t drag his butt into the studio, then we’ll talk about it without him,” Costas said during an Olympics press preview. “But if he shows up, we’d rather talk to him. Wouldn’t you rather hear it from the horse’s mouth? I would. That’s what I was trying to say.”
At the press event in Studio 8H of "Saturday Night Live" fame, NBC executives expressed how significant the world sports spectacle is for the entertainment and media conglomerate. NBCUniversal chief Steve Burke went as far as to say, “The soul of this company is the Olympics.”
NBC lost $223 million on the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver, Canada, but the company has said it expects to turn a profit this time around based on strong advertising sales for the 18 days of competition beginning Feb. 7. Ad sales aside, the network has traditionally viewed the Olympics as a platform to showcase other programming. This time, NBC will promote Jimmy Fallon’s Feb. 17 start as host of “The Tonight Show” and the revamping of the "Today” show. (In 2012, Huffington magazine examined the importance of the London Summer Games to the company following the Comcast-NBCUniversal merger.)
In addition to covering the Opening Ceremony and every sporting event, Costas and network executives on Tuesday stressed that NBC News plans to address political and social issues relevant to the games.
The network has also considered the possibility of more horrifying events. Recent bombings in Russia have increased safety concerns as the games approach. Costas said that if a tragedy were to take place, on the scale of the terrorist attack at the 1972 Olympics, he wouldn’t be the primary voice for viewers as the late ABC sportscaster Jim McKay had been four decades ago.
“The world was so different. There was no CNN. There was no ESPN,” Costas said. “There was no social media nor Internet. In fact, the full force of ABC News wasn’t even there.”
Costas praised McKay and his team, but stressed that NBC could now turn to “Nightly News” anchor Brian Williams, “Today” show host Matt Lauer, chief foreign correspondent Richard Engel and Olympics commentators such as New Yorker editor and Russia expert David Remnick.
"We go to these Olympics understanding that oftentimes the Olympics create news not only in the world of athletics, but outside that world," Lauer said Tuesday. "The news does not stop because the Olympics starts."
Lauer recalled working the 1996 Summer Games in Atlanta, his first for the network: He had to leave the host city to cover a plane crash and then hustled back just days before the Olympic Park bombing.
"I think we all know, as we head to Sochi, that we're in for an interesting ride," Lauer said. "These are Olympic Games that are being hosted by a country that has a long and very complicated history with the United States." In addition, he said, the games are occurring in a place "where there are a lot of groups that would like to take the opportunity of the Olympics to make a point, whether a positive point or a negative point."
Costas said that while everyone is keeping fingers crossed that nothing happens, the threat of a terrorist attack -- coupled with the controversy over Russian’s anti-gay laws -– have likely “increased awareness and interest in these games.”
“They don’t take the place of the competition, but I think people will be curious about that,” Costas said. “And at the beginning, we’ll discharge our responsibility in a straightforward way because framing those issues is part of the backdrop. It’s like describing what the weather is at a ball game or what the crowd is like. You have to frame the circumstances under which these events are about to take place, and then you return to those issues if and when they impact the games.”