Beijing broadcaster's COO addresses legacy

Independent sports venture a long way off, Ma Guoli says

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BEIJING -- With just four days until the closing ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the Chinese half of the duo masterminding its broadcast thinks that, for all the promise of change brought by the Games, Chinese television will remain much the same when they end.

"Nobody can compete in sports with CCTV," Beijing Olympic Broadcasting Co. COO Ma Guoli said Wednesday. "The TV system here in China has little to do with sports. It's not a business yet, it's a media controlled by the government." (Contrast that with Tuesday's news that ESPN will fight NBC for the next Olympics broadcast rights, whether Washington likes it or not.)

The organization better known as BOB's formula for success, first developed at the Barcelona Olympics in 1992, plays to each country's strength. China Central Television covers table tennis, the BBC shoots rowing, the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. captures horse jumping, and so on.

That division of labor and inter-broadcaster cooperation was something relatively new to a man who came up through the monolithic state-run flagship broadcaster CCTV, where he started his TV career in 1982.

In 1984, when China fielded its first Olympic team in Los Angeles, Ma was posted to West Germany. But by 1989, he was running CCTV's burgeoning sports operation.

In 1995, when the dedicated sports channel CCTV-5 was founded, Ma was there, too, and he remembers now how tough it was to train his first staff of 40 to learn the tricks other international broadcasters had mastered.

"We were naive," Ma said. "It was not easy. The most important thing to sports is owning the exclusive rights. Back then, those were held by ESPN and Star Sports, and we didn't understand how to get them. We learned a lot from the Americans and Europeans."

Admirers of Ma remember that as CCTV-5 grew, it appeared to have struck benevolent arrangements with China's biggest provincial channels, allowing sports to flourish on the small screen nationwide, building proto-niche markets. CCTV would bid for Italian soccer, for instance, while provincial channels bid for Britain's Premier League.

But after Ma left CCTV in 2005 to join BOB, with the seven-year run-up to the Olympics well under way, CCTV quickly became the dominant player in sports, leaving little room for competition. While Ma tries to focus on the positive, he remains, steadfastly, a realist.

"We've become more and more international. It's no longer just about table tennis. It's natural that NBC is American and CCTV is very Chinese," Ma said, pinpointing a key difference between the giants broadcasting Beijing 2008.

BOB's achievements -- shared by Manolo Romero, the Madrid-based organization's longtime CEO -- and Ma's relationships with the international broadcast executives now camped in Beijing, would seem a natural combination for him to parlay into a new independent venture after the Olympic torch is passed to London.

After all, just prior to the Games, CCTV and New York-based sports marketing giant IMG Worldwide announced a 20-year exclusive deal to develop sports broadcasting in China by bringing international athletes together with rising Chinese talent.

Was this not evidence that TV sports could be a viable business in China?

"To Chinese TV, the most important thing is not money," Ma said. "It will take quite a long time for an independent sports TV venture here. It is not allowed, not yet. Not in my generation."
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