NBC to air 3,600 hours of coverage

The year’s biggest spectacle is scheduled to open beneath a veil of secrecy, shroud of controversy and tight blanket of security on Friday as the Summer Olympics kick off in Beijing.

With protests anticipated and the Chinese government viewing the 17-day showcase as no less than a global coming-out party, NBC — carrying its 11th Olympics — will face a delicate balancing act. The network must cover the event both from a sports and news perspective while seeking to avoid charges of soft-peddling potential bad news given that the Games represent such a major, companywide initiative.

NBC has said it will air a staggering 3,600 hours of coverage spread across eight networks, exceeding the programming volume devoted to all previous Summer Olympics combined.

China’s desire that the Games proceed without a hitch is likely to be tested by protesters eager to confront the Beijing government regarding such matters as Tibet, Darfur and its policies pertaining to other human-rights issues.

Organizers, meanwhile, announced Wednesday that singers Sarah Brightman and Liu Huan will duet on the Olympic Games’ main theme song as part of the Opening Ceremonies. Beyond that, they have endeavored to keep details regarding Friday’s gala under wraps as much as possible. Although some information leaked last week on Korean TV, even the song that the pair will sing isn’t being disclosed.

Liu, 45, played at Carnegie Hall in 1994 and topped China’s charts for 10 weeks with his single “Asking Myself a Thousand Times for That,” which he did for the ratings-topping TV skein “Beijing People in New York.”

The ceremony is also expected to include Jackie Chan, the Hong Kong-born multihyphenate, and a performance by China’s 26-year-old classical pianist phenom Lang Lang.

Produced by Chinese director Zhang Yimou, the opening ceremony will “focus on the long history and beautiful culture of the Chinese people, and the new development after reform in China,” Zhang Heping, a director of the Beijing Organizing Committee for the Games’ working group, told a news conference in Beijing. “We are ready, and we are excited. We are going to give the audience some great performances.”

The glimpses that aired on South Korean TV showed stunning video of floating whales, kung fu fighters and trapeze gymnasts. In one segment, thousands of white cubes were moved by people to form waves suggesting the explosive growth of high-rise cities in China.

The six-hour performance starts at 5:45 p.m. Beijing time, with the formal ceremony beginning at 7 p.m. The actual opening of the Games will take place at 8 p.m. to capitalize on the maximum number of “eights,” a number that’s considered very auspicious in China. Hence the opening at 8 p.m. on the eighth day of the eighth month of the eighth year of the new millennium.

The secrecy surrounding the Opening Ceremony has been so intense that design and production teams and the thousands of cast members have been required to sign confidentiality agreements. Breaches are said to be punishable by up to seven years in prison.

Because of the time difference, many primetime events will be televised on a delayed basis in the U.S. China is 12 hours ahead of the East Coast and 15 ahead of the West Coast. NBC plans to air the opening at 7:30 p.m. on Friday.

In addition to NBC’s primetime coverage, the Olympics will be airing somewhere every hour of the day — including a midnight to 4:30 a.m. block on business-news net CNBC, a 2-6 a.m. window on Spanish-language broadcaster Telemundo and an early-evening block on NBC’s recently acquired Oxygen net, which programs to women.

As usual, NBC is hoping enormous audience traffic for the Games will provide a promotional springboard for the network as it heads into the fall, though the vast amounts of coverage on the cable nets indicate that the conglom’s efforts go far beyond the flagship broadcaster.

The Opening Ceremony and the Games are both sold out, but some tickets are being sold on the black market for 10 times their face value.

Nearly 100,000 people will attend the ceremony in the Bird’s Nest Olympic stadium. Teams from the 205 countries will enter the stadium according to their “bihua,” which means according to their names in Chinese characters, not in Western alphabetical order.

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