(Bloomberg) -- When NBC airs the Winter Olympics next month, it will face a mix of epidemiological, geopolitical and logistical challenges unlike anything before.

The pandemic has limited crowds for the winter games in Beijing, which begin Feb. 4, just as it did during the summer games in Tokyo, forcing NBC to rely on other ways to create drama without stadiums filled with cheering fans. The media company is also facing pressure to address China’s human rights record during the broadcast. And in the middle of it all, NBC will show the biggest TV event in America: the Super Bowl in Los Angeles.

“This is an extraordinarily challenging few years for NBC Sports,” Bob Costas, who was the network’s prime-time Olympics host for 24 years, said in an interview. “My hat is off to every one of them. This is damn hard.”

NBC, which pays about $1.3 billion on average for each Olympics, will air the winter games on its broadcast channel and on cable channels like USA and CNBC. For the first time, NBC will carry every event live online, via its streaming service, Peacock.

Executives at the media company say they’ve learned lessons from Tokyo, where viewers complained it was hard to find which platform carried which event.

“Peacock simply has it all,” Molly Solomon, executive producer of NBC’s Olympics production, said Wednesday in a video presentation with reporters. “We’ve eliminated the confusion.”

It remains to be seen whether that yields more viewers. The audience for the summer games in Tokyo slumped to its lowest viewership mark in over 30 years.

Striking a Balance

The broadcaster will have to strike a balance when addressing the controversy surrounding the host country. In a letter last month to NBCUniversal Chief Executive Officer Jeff Shell, Senator Jeff Merkley and Representative James McGovern, both Democrats, called on NBC to address “the impact of China’s human rights abuses” and press Chinese authorities to publicly affirm media and religious freedom. U.S. government officials plan to boycott the games.

NBC, part of cable giant Comcast Corp., will likely face criticism if it ignores the issue. But covering it too aggressively could upset Chinese authorities and jeopardize the company’s investment in theme parks and access to a key market for its movies.

“It’s damned if you do, damned if you don’t,” said Andrew Billings, a professor at the University of Alabama and co-author of the book “Olympic Television: Broadcasting the Biggest Show on Earth.”

The Beijing government has shown that it will retaliate against U.S. businesses that criticize its policies. In 2019, Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey tweeted his support for anti-government protesters in Hong Kong. In response, Chinese broadcasters stopped airing the team’s games and Chinese businesses cut ties with the Rockets.

The region continues to be delicate for the league. This week, the Golden State Warriors were drawn into controversy when partial owner Chamath Palihapitiya said “nobody cares” about the Uyghurs, an ethnic minority that the U.S. government says have been subject to human rights abuses.

In the past, NBC’s approach has been to address criticism about the host country at the start of the games, then focus on the competition.

NBC’s Solomon said that the network understands “that there are some difficult issues regarding the host nation.”

The company’s programming will provide perspective on China’s place in the world and the geopolitical context in which these games are being held. “But the athletes do remain the centerpiece of our coverage,” she said.

Two Big Events

Meanwhile, NBC is preparing to broadcast the Olympics and the Super Bowl in the same month. Having two big events around the same time provides benefits to NBC’s ad sales, NBC Sports Chairman Pete Bevacqua told reporters. NBC has almost 100 advertisers so far for the Winter Olympics, including 40 new ones.

“When you can go out there to the ad sales community and talk about the power of the Winter Olympics and the power of the Super Bowl, that’s a great story,” Bevacqua said.

But broadcasting both events presents logistical challenges, including a lot of travel. NBC’s prime-time Olympics host, Mike Tirico, plans to arrive in Beijing for the start of the the games then fly to Los Angeles for the Super Bowl.

NBC will also need to overcome potential viewer fatigue. The winter and summer games are typically held two years apart but the pandemic delayed the Tokyo event by a year.

“Did people get their Olympics fill six months ago or are they still ready for more?” Billings said.

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