Bob Costas: Interviews, Not Commentary, on Russia Law
Bob Costas would love to ask Russian President Vladimir Putin about the country's so-called "gay propaganda" law.
He's less interested in offering up a commentary on the issue.
NBC will broadcast the Sochi Olympics starting Feb. 6, and so far one of the biggest stories surrounding these Winter Games is that recently enacted law.
The network announced Wednesday that Costas would add late-night hosting duties to his prime-time responsibilities. He considers that slot perfect for in-depth interviews and discussions on any controversies that may arise, and his well-established fondness for addressing broader issues would seem to predict a plunge into Russian legal policy.
Costas and NBC Sports Group Chairman Mark Lazarus said in interviews with The Associated Press this week that the network would report on the subject in its Olympic coverage. That likely won't include Costas reciting an opinion piece.
"You can say, 'Russia has these laws, tsk, tsk,'" he said. "But 90 percent of Americans, I'm guessing - regardless of their political affiliation when it comes to other issues - disagree with the law anyway. So the best service is not to just wag a finger. The best service is to ask the right questions if you can get responsible people to sit down to be interviewed."
During the broadcast of the opening ceremony for the 2012 London Games, Costas suggested that the International Olympic Committee should have used the stage to honor the Israeli athletes killed in Munich 40 years earlier.
He said this week that a commentary was the only option then because of the immediacy of the scene of the country's representatives marching in, when the IOC could have held a moment of silence.
"Sometimes commentaries are useful - at least I hope so; otherwise, I'm in big trouble," Costas said. "But other times what you'd prefer is to be a reporter and an interviewer rather than a commentator."
The desired subjects of those interviews (which would also cover many other topics) in Sochi? IOC President Thomas Bach and Russian officials. The ultimate get: Putin.
NBC has set precedent for those sorts of segments, including Costas' sit-down with President George W. Bush during the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Costas contends that viewers are interested in the broader issues - and the intrigue of the Sochi Games may even be heightened because of it.
"At this point, more than two months out, probably more Americans are aware of those issues than they are of any Olympic athletes other than Lindsey Vonn, Shaun White, Shani Davis," he said.
Costas knows many sports fans perceive that he regularly offers commentaries on off-the-field issues during his host duties for "Sunday Night Football."
That stems from just two prominent examples the past couple of seasons: one in 2012 about the gun culture in American sports after the murder-suicide of the Kansas City Chiefs' Jovan Belcher, and one last month about the Redskins nickname with Washington playing in the prime-time game amid renewed debate over its appropriateness.
Both Costas and Lazarus wish he had been more nuanced in the remarks about guns by making clear he was not challenging the right to bear arms. But they are emphatic in dismissing criticism that the essay was not related to football.
"I don't look at any of these as political commentaries," Lazarus said. "I understand there are people that do."
And so he believes the new Russian law is related to the Olympics. While specific plans are not yet in place, Lazarus said NBC will report on the issue at the start of its coverage.
That will include outlining the details of the law, which prohibits "propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations among minors," and explaining how it's unclear how it might affect the games. Putin has promised that fans and athletes will not be discriminated against in Sochi.
Human rights and gay rights groups have accused the IOC of not doing enough to pressure Russia to repeal the law. The IOC says it has no authority to influence policy in a sovereign nation.
Lazarus said NBC would emphasize that "as distasteful as we may find the law, we're not in position to change another country's laws."
"We will frame these issues: This is the lay of the land here," Costas said. "This is what's going on. This is what to be aware of. It's not going to be necessary, unless issues arise, to repeat that every single night."
NBC News is sending crews to Sochi and will report on this and other issues if they become larger than the games. Jim Bell, who oversees the network's Olympic coverage, is the former executive producer of "Today," and Lazarus feels he's well-prepared to juggle news and entertainment.
Costas will be hosting the prime-time broadcasts for the 10th time. He also handled both the prime-time and late-night duties in 2000 in Sydney.
Mary Carillo, who hosted the late-night coverage the past three Olympics, will again offer features on the host country.
As various issues arise during the games, Costas may very well voice some opinions.
"There's probably some portion of the audience that looks to me to do it and wants me to do it, and some portion of the audience who hopes I never do it again," he said. "To a certain extent, each side will be disappointed. I won't do it often enough for Group A, and I'll do it too much for Group B."