NBC hits the Great Wall

Protests stymie network's Olympic plans

For NBC, the headlong plunge into the Olympics in Beijing poses a higher-than-usual degree of difficulty.

Protests directed at China’s human-rights record — yielding chaotic images as the Olympic torch toured Europe, before its lone U.S. stop in San Francisco — threaten to turn the marathon leading toward the Aug. 8 opening ceremonies into a gantlet. And they may portend more tension during the Games themselves, with China admitting April 10 that it had cracked down on a ring intending to kidnap athletes, journalists and tourists.

The network, which paid nearly $900 million for rights to the ’08 Games, faces a formidable challenge: It aims to broadcast the Olympics as a sporting event and provide a window into Chinese culture. Tough-minded coverage, however, risks alienating its host, while any shortcomings could expose the networkto accusations of whitewashing Beijing’s reported human-rights abuses.

Past Olympics have been a major moneymaker for the General Electric-owned network. All told, NBC has invested $5.5 billion in rights fees for seven Games from 2000 through 2012.

Televising the Olympics has also become a corporatewide endeavor and, this year, a more enormous undertaking than ever before.

NBC’s collective telecasts will balloon to a staggering 3,600 hours — 1,000 more than all previous summer Olympics combined — spread across NBC, Spanish-language broadcaster Telemundo and a half-dozen cable networks. The planned 212 hours of daily coverage will cram the equivalent of eight days of television into each 24-hour period.

So far, NBC is downplaying concerns that opposition to Chinese policies could mar the event. NBC Universal prexy Jeff Zucker told Reuters that three-quarters of the network’s ad inventory is sold out at “incredibly strong” levels and despite the torch protests, “We’ve seen no evidence of any discomfort” among sponsors.

The stakes go beyond profit-and-loss statements on the Games alone. In their recent scheduling presentation, NBC Entertainment officials pointed to the Olympics as a launchpad for primetime fare, coming off what has been a forgettable strike-disrupted season for the broadcast networks.

For NBC — currently fourth in overall viewing — 17 high-rated days in August would theoretically provide a welcome running jump into the fall.

While the protests hardly came as a surprise, their vehemence in recent days — four months ahead of the Games — appeared to catch NBC off guard. Other than Zucker’s comments, the network was unwilling or unable to make executives available to address the controversy.

In a statement, the news division said, “NBC News, as it has with prior Olympics, will use independent editorial judgment in covering the Games. NBC Sports will cover the competition, and we’ll cover the news.”

An NBC Sports spokesman said, “There is no change to how NBC Sports will cover the Games. NBC Sports, as it always has, will cover events if they affect the competition. NBC News will have a substantial presence in China covering events as warranted.”

Perhaps seeking to signal the news division’s independence, “Today’s” Ann Curry scored an exclusive interview last week with the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader.

An NBC spokeswoman also notes that the network’s top-rated morning program led with last week’s torch protest, and that “Today” will broadcast from China throughout the Games, as it has during past Olympics.

Politics, however, are frequently a complicating factor in the Olympics, and more so this year than most.

For Beijing, the showcase represents an intricately orchestrated coming-out party to the world. But there has been a growing chorus of disapproval for China’s support of the Sudanese government — responsible for atrocities in Darfur — which led to Steven Spielberg’s withdrawal as artistic advisor for the event.

And protesters in Paris, London and San Francisco staged events to lament Beijing’s relationship to Tibet, including the recent violent crackdown there.

Few have called for a complete U.S. boycott of the Summer Games, as occurred under then-President Jimmy Carter in 1980, when the U.S. stayed away from Moscow to protest Soviet aggression. But some European leaders have stated their intent to skip the opening, while Democratic presidential contender Hillary Clinton, among others, urged President Bush to do the same “absent major changes by the Chinese government.”

Highly conscious of its image, the Chinese government responded to the protests by saying, “The Olympic flame belongs to the people of the whole world.”

With the Democratic and Republican conventions following the Games, detailed plans for “NBC Nightly News” have yet to be firmed up. Still, Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, said the integrity of NBC’s coverage would ultimately hinge on the vigilance of its top anchor — in this case, “Nightly’s” Brian Williams — insuring that the network’s reporting is not influenced by outside considerations.

“Historically, the bulwark against being manipulated is the singular reputation of the anchor,” Rosenstiel says. “It’s their face. It’s their credibility. I have sat in meetings long ago where Peter Jennings exerted that influence. It can be very subtle.”

Admittedly, the Olympics’ value as a marketing tool hasn’t necessarily panned out in the past. In 2004, NBC sought to capitalize on that platform but saw series such as “Father of the Pride,” “Hawaii” and “LAX” fail to achieve liftoff.

Some human-rights advocates, meanwhile, see the Olympics as an opportunity — creating a pressure point to shame the Chinese government into altering its behavior. Indeed, the opportunity to prod Beijing away from such abuses was cited as a motivation when hosting rights were awarded in 2001.

At the time, former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger called the decision “a very important step in China’s relation with the world … giving them a high incentive for moderate conduct both internationally and domestically in the years ahead.”

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