This week, all eyes turn to the Korean peninsula. Not for the regular reason—that nuclear apocalypse seems likely to begin somewhere near the DMZ. No, it's the Winter Olympic Games in Pyeongchang that are providing us this thaw in geopolitical tension. And all over the world, television executives are hoping Pyeongchang can restore some traditional primacy to the old media in a new media universe.
The management at NBC, America's Olympic network, very much wants American television viewers to forget all the recent warmongering, Presidential tweeting, and Matt Lauer for a few weeks. "I do think the Olympics is unique in that it transcends politics," NBC Olympics host Katie Couric told the press last month. "I feel that this is one instance when domestic politics are really going take a back seat. This is going to be a really wonderful opportunity for the country to unify, and stand together, support the athletes and really help celebrate their stories."
Clearly some Olympic stories are worth celebrating, and others aren't. NBC is probably in no mood to discuss Olympic gymnastics anytime soon, with endemic corruption within the governing body of the sport recently exposed in the Larry Nassar trial. News about the sexual abuse of athletes, and doping, and IOC malfeasance doesn't really help sell ads.
But the larger issue Couric alludes to—that the Olympics offer an opportunity to ignore our fractious national politics—represents a hope that's been continually dashed since global Olympic broadcasting began in 1936. That was the year Germany's Nazi administration assembled the world's most technologically-sophisticated broadcasting operation in order to delight a global radio audience estimated at 300 million listeners. The Nazis understood the Olympic Games offered a unique propaganda opportunity, and they seized it. Ever since, every dictator and totalitarian government dreams of impressing the world through the supposedly apolitical lens of sports broadcasting.
But sports, and sport broadcasting, can never be apolitical. To argue that sports can transcend politics is to miss the obvious fact that politics often structure our shared experience of sports. The greatest moments in American sports history—like the 1980 Miracle on Ice hockey victory over the Soviet Union in the Cold War, Joe Louis knocking out Nazi Germany's Max Schmeling in 1938, and Jesse Owens winning four gold medals at the 1936 Olympic Games run by Nazi racists—were all intensified by the political context in which they took place.
Ironically, it was Nazi broadcasting advances that created the global superstardom enjoyed by Owens. But his legend wouldn't be the same had he won his gold medals in, say, Ecuador. Context matters. He won in front of Hitler, just as the 1980 Miracle on Ice hockey team won when the Soviet Union seemed ascendant and the Carter administration weak and vacillating. The Olympics have always been embedded in politics, and that's what makes them worth watching. Well, that and curling.
Both NBC and CBS struggled with how to present the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Even before those Games began, NBC downplayed advance programming and promotional opportunities because a domestic boycott movement proved enormously popular. "Keep as far away from any controversy as possible," NBC's programming chief, John F. Royal, warned his staff when preparing them for Olympics coverage. Talk of official Nazi antisemitism, or totalitarian restrictions, would ultimately be severely constricted on the American airwaves.
Instead, American listeners heard all about how great the "new" Germany had become. "Everywhere anyone goes in Berlin there is a great sense of joyful freedom," CBS's Bill Henry told a nationwide audience just before the games began. "Everybody seems to think that this is a wonderful holiday for all those who are in Berlin." The master propaganda plan developed by Josef Goebbels succeeded, and it provides the model for Olympic broadcasting as we know it today. That's why having beautiful video images beamed to our living rooms from Beijing and Sochi doesn't seem quite so discordant with the regimes that rule such locales.
Despite the praise for the Germans heard over the American radio networks in 1936, political rivalry structured the average American's radio experience that year. Listeners did not need to be told that Jesse Owens represented American athletic superiority in the face of European, and particularly German, chauvinism. Every American victory—in the swimming pool, on the track, or the basketball court—boosted patriotism and allowed Americans to overlook such obvious domestic political unpleasantries as racist segregation laws and rising political extremism.
Just as in 1936, misdirecting our national attention remains at the heart of NBC's Olympic mission. The network's programmers know we might not be able to name a single skier at this year's games, but they're undoubtedly confident that we feel American skiers should be the best in the world. In this sense, it's never really about the sports—it's all about the narrative. Those Jamaican bobsledders had no chance at a medal, thereby making their story amusing and colorful. But had ISIS assembled a bobsled team and packed them off to Pyeongchang, a new and compelling narrative of global rivalry could be packaged. And no doubt the ratings for such a contest would be boffo.
NBC needs high ratings because the 2016 Rio Olympic Games were a huge disappointment, with a 18 percent decline in viewership from the 2012 London Games. The network has paid $7.75 billion in rights fees to lock up the Olympics through 2032, making the investment in Olympic Games programming the most expensive global broadcasting rights ever purchased by a U.S. broadcaster. NBC needs all the promotional power they can muster to make these Games a success. That's why I'd advise them not to run from our fractious current political climate. Rather, NBC should embrace controversy and exploit the opportunities it creates.
And we all know just the guy on Twitter who can help.
Michael J. Socolow, author of Six Minutes in Berlin: Broadcast Spectacle and Rowing Gold at the Nazi Olympics, teaches journalism at the University of Maine