Smog and other issues need to be sorted out

BEIJING — With just a few weeks to go until the Summer Games roll into the Chinese capital, chief Intl. Olympic Committee (IOC) inspector Hein Verbruggen says Beijing “looked ready” — even though some broadcasting and smog issues still need to be sorted out.

NBC and broadcasters from around the world got the greenlight last week to transmit live by satellite from places other than China’s sports stadiums during the Games, which begin Aug. 8. This includes limited access to Beijing’s politically sensitive Tiananmen Square, where troops crushed democracy protests in 1989.

Move follows meetings between the event’s organizing committee and rights holders like NBC and the European Broadcasting Union. As part of its bid to win the Games, Beijing had promised complete media freedom for the event, but then began to tighten the screws following anti-Chinese protests in western China in March.

China lifted restrictions on travel for foreign correspondents last year, but there are sporadic incidents of police interference in reporting, and this correspondent has faced problems reporting from the Sichuan earthquake zone, for example.

Last week a camera crew from Germany’s ZDF network was harassed while trying to film at the Great Wall, even though they had permission to shoot there.

Press freedom groups have slammed the Chinese government for not delivering on its Olympic promises of media freedom.

The authorities cite vague security concerns as a reason for tightening visa regulations, as well as closer scrutiny of the foreign and domestic media and a citywide crackdown on dissidents and rights activists.

All these restrictions have spooked U.S. advertisers, who are not buying time as aggressively across NBC and six of its owned cable networks as they have during previous Summer Olympics.

As a result NBC may not meet its goal of selling a $1 billion worth of ad time in the Olympics.

NBC, which paid $894 million in license fees for exclusive U.S. rights, may have to lower the numbers on its rate card to sell out the approximately 15% of time it has left less than a month before the Games.

Supply and demand are also playing a role in the sluggish sales: NBC and its myriad outlets will carry a record 3,600 hours of Olympics coverage, which the network says is 1,000 hours more than the combined coverage for every televised Summer Olympics in U.S. history, from Rome in 1960 through Athens in 2004.

In addition to NBC, the networks that will divvy up the coverage are USA, MSNBC, CNBC, Oxygen, Telemundo and Universal HD.

Despite the 12-hour time difference between Beijing and New York, website NBCOlympics.com will stream upward of 2,200 hours of live broadband-video coverage; in the past, online Olympic coverage was always on tape delay.

“For the first time,” says Dick Ebersol, chairman of NBC Universal Sports & Olympics, “the average American will be able to create their own unique Olympic experience whether at home, at the office or on the go.”

In another first, NBC will broadcast the entire Olympics in high-definition.

NBC’s primetime schedule over the 17 days of the Beijing Games will feature most of the marquee events, including all 32 gold-medal finals in swimming, four nights of gymnastics, beach volleyball and marathons.

The USA Network plans to focus on the basketball and soccer teams. It will also carry some tennis, volleyball and water polo.

The Olympic organizing committee, Bocog, said webs would be given licenses and frequencies to enable live coverage from around Beijing and the other five Olympic co-host cities.

Live coverage from Tiananmen Square will be restricted to rights holders and only be allowed from 6-10 a.m. and 9-11 p.m. TV companies will be able to pre-record programs and interviews there.

Sites classified as cultural relics, such as the Great Wall and the Forbidden City, would still require permission.Giselle Davis, communications director for the Intl. Olympic Committee, says: “Whilst we understand there may be frustrations on the part of some broadcasters that they cannot transmit live around the clock from Tiananmen Square, we recognize that this iconic location is much in demand … and that consequently, some time constraints for live access were needed to be given by the Chinese hosts.”

Meanwhile, air quality in smoggy Beijing — and its effects on athletes and visitors — is still a concern.

The IOC wants to see whether temporary measures in the city will have an impact.

Sulfur dioxide emissions, which belch out of factory chimneys and cause acid rain, fell by 4.7% last year, while chemical oxygen demand dropped by 3.2%, the environmental watchdog’s publication reported, hailing the news as a sign the struggle with pollution is being won ahead of the games.

However, anecdotal and unofficial evidence suggests otherwise — the air in Beijing was appalling last week and one rare sunny day July 6 was the first that anyone could remember for weeks. The sight of a massive, stinking algae bloom in sailing venue Qingdao has highlighted China’s environmental concerns as the Games near.

The BBC used a hand-held detector to test for airborne particles and found that Beijing’s air quality failed to meet the World Health Organization’s guidelines on six days out of seven, a cheeky maneuver that is sure to anger the Beijing organizers, who tightly control pollution monitoring.

John Dempsey in New York and Steve Clarke in London contributed to this report.

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