Dispute threatens coverage

NBC and other TV networks that will broadcast the Beijing Olympics are squaring off with local organizers over stringent security that threatens coverage of the Games in two months.

Differences encompassing a wide range of issues — from limits on live coverage in Tiananmen Square to allegations that freight shipments of TV broadcasting equipment are being held up in Chinese ports — surfaced in a contentious meeting late last month among Beijing organizers and high-ranking Intl. Olympic Committee officials and TV executives — including those from NBC.

Sun Weijia, head of media operations for the Beijing organizers, asked broadcasters put complaints in writing, but drew protests about mounting paperwork.

“I think what I have heard here are just a number of conditions or requirements that are just not workable,” said IOC official Gilbert Felli, according to minutes of the May 29 meeting obtained by the Associated Press. “There are a number of things that are just not feasible.”

With time running out before the Games open Aug. 8, the minutes hint that procedures broadcasters have used in other Olympics are conflicting with China’s authoritarian government. Some plans are months behind schedule, which could force broadcasters to compromise coverage.

The meeting in Beijing included representatives from nine broadcasters, each of which has paid for rights to broadcast the Olympics. Top IOC officials and Beijing organizers were also on hand in what one TV executive termed an “emergency meeting.”

Non-rights-holding broadcasters — news orgs that have not bought TV rights to cover Olympic action at the venues — did not attend the meeting but also are concerned about delays and security restrictions.

“We are two weeks away from putting equipment on a shipment and we have no clearance to operate, or to enter the country, or a frequency allocation,” said Sandy MacIntyre, director of news for AP Television News. APTN is the television arm of the Associated Press.

Unnerved by protests on international legs of the Olympic torch relay following the outbreak of deadly rioting March 14 in Tibet, China’s communist government seems to be backtracking on some promises to let reporters work as they have in previous Olympics.

“The Chinese are very concerned about something going wrong — and so they are in Olympic gridlock,” said John Barton, director of sports coverage for the Asia-Pacific Broadcasting Union, which reps broadcasters in 57 countries.

Chinese officials say more than 500,000 people will handle security during the Games, equaling the number of foreign visitors expected. Public security officials said a few days ago that protests won’t be allowed — unless protesters get a permit — with arrests or expulsion likely.

Gary Zenkel, the president of NBC Olympics, told the meeting the issues “can be solved” and suggested the prospects are better than Athens or Turin, where he described some unspecified problems as “irresolvable.”

“This is a big day for China and the Olympics and it may be lost if there isn’t any immediate change or movement made by the government, or whoever,” Zenkel said. “It has to happen. We hope the wakeup call is heard.”

Several TV executives were upset there might be no live coverage from Tiananmen Square. This is a change from two months ago when IOC officials in Beijing said China had agreed to allow live coverage. Broadcasters also have been told there’s unlikely to be live coverage from the Forbidden City.

TV executives appear skeptical they will be able to deliver the kind of coverage they have in past Games. Some say Chinese officials are requiring that forms be filled out specifying where satellite trucks will be each day of the Games. The IOC says about 2,000 TV trucks usually go in and out of Olympic venues every day during the Games.

These kind of restrictions could make it very difficult for TV crews to move quickly around the sprawling city to cover breaking news.

Any interference with news coverage will be at odds with promises made seven years ago when Beijing was awarded the Games. At the time, Wang Wei, the executive vice president of the Beijing organizing committee, said the news media would have “complete freedom to report on anything when they come to China.”

Scott Moore, executive director of Canada’s CBC Sports, said, “I’ve been told that to do business in China, you have to have patience. We don’t have time to have patience. The Games have begun for us already.”

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