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China Central Television 5 will be centerpiece of Olympics

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Sixth in a monthly series of 12 articles dealing with the international media's preparations for the Beijing Olympics and the cultural and practical challenges facing thousands of producers headed to China's capital in 2008.

BEIJING -- Less than two weeks after a heckler commandeered the podium at the ceremony renaming China Central Television 5 as "the Olympics Channel," its GM Jiang Heping says he and his staff are ready for the world.

Jiang leads the sports channel founded in 1995 for the largest TV audience in the world, rising to his current job in May 2005 from his post as controller of English-language international channel CCTV9 and quickly taking CCTV5 to a 24-hour format.

In 2007, CCTV5 enjoyed a 2% market share of China's 340 million TV households, a viewership served by more than 1,000 channels.

"We are very well prepared," Jiang told The Hollywood Reporter in near-perfect English. "We will enjoy great growth this year."

But as the opening ceremony of the Summer Olympics -- which starts at 8:08 p.m. Aug. 8 -- could be the first sporting event to attract a live audience of 1 billion people worldwide, Jiang knows his staff of 800 will need all the help it can get to put China's best foot forward as the channel takes the first step toward offering an unprecedented 3,800 hours of Olympics broadcast feed.

"This is a very important step," Jiang says.

While CCTV5 has the exclusive rights to package, feed and broadcast the coverage of eight sports close to the hearts of the Chinese people, it will share the burden and glory of the Games with state flagship channel CCTV1, the market leader; the business channel, CCTV2; two pay channels and one high-definition channel; and with CCTV7, the agricultural channel, Jiang says.

"One, 2 and 5 will do most of the live coverage, but not everybody in China has time to watch live sports, so much of the rebroadcast will go to CCTV7," says Jiang, who grew up in largely poor and rural Anhui Province southeast of the capital and inland from Shanghai. "The agricultural channel has a broader footprint than our own, reaching China's 800 million farmers in the countryside."

These will be the first Olympics to be offered in an all-high-def signal, but Jiang says China is not able to fully take advantage of the sharper broadcast picture.

"CCTV's high-def channel now has only a few viewers," Jiang says. Asked whether he thought that the availability of an HD signal would drive an industrywide switch, Jiang says it depended on the TV makers' ability to lower prices.

"For the time being, China is not so well balanced," Jiang says. "Newly rich will buy, but nobody else."

To prepare mentally and physically for the unprecedented attention his channel will get for 17 days in August, Jiang says he practices one of the eight sports his journalists and commentators will package. Since 1985, Jiang has tried to break for an hour at lunch each day to play -- what else? -- table tennis.

"I'm a practitioner, not just a fan," says Jiang, adding that as CCTV5 director he "must know all the sports and show no prejudice against any one."

It is too early in the carefully planned Olympic year to reveal who the lead Chinese on-air commentators and journalists will be, but Jiang says that they are sure to include stars from past Olympics. "It's a very sensitive selection process since there are so many great athletes in this country," he says.

One person unlikely to make the cut is popular soccer commentator Huang Jianqian, who was forced to apologize and step down from CCTV after causing a stir during a 2006 World Cup match by shouting live on air "Long live Italy" and "Go home Australia" when the European side knocked out the Aussies on a last-minute penalty kick to reach the quarterfinals.

The other sports CCTV5 will package from their exclusive camera positions at some of the capital's gleaming new venues are badminton, basketball, diving, gymnastics, swimming, track and field and volleyball -- all strong sports for the host nation.

Click on CCTV5 nowadays and the channel flashes with the expectant faces and ripped bodies of basketball giant Yao Ming, the Houston Rockets center and NBA favorite; women's table tennis world champion Wang Nan; and men's 2004 Olympic gold medal hurdler Liu Xiang, whose legs, incidentally, were insured in December for $13.3 million.

These are the heroes of China, and CCTV5 is their channel -- but even Jiang, a dedicated TV man, sees the limitations of the medium.

"When you're at the venue, you cannot help shouting, showing your passion. It's very touching," Jiang says. "But I don't think that TV is the best conveyor of that excitement."

Joy Li, a former gymnast from Guizhou Province now working in Beijing, agrees. However, since she so far has failed to secure tickets to the events, she plans to watch women's gymnastics medal hopefuls Cheng Fei, Zhang Nan and Pang Panpan on the tube.

"I am hoping that Chinese athletes will win more medals this year," Li says. "I know how much time the athletes, their coaches and families have spent to get this far. There's enormous pressure."

Li says she wishes the athlete profiles aired on CCTV5 would shy away from over-dramatization.

"I watched a story about a woman weightlifter and her troubled childhood, and I found it inspiring, but then I found that these stories on TV were all the same," Li says. "They are champions, but they are distinct people, too."

Li also says she is concerned that the big stars like hurdler Liu endorse too many products. In Beijing these days, you can't walk far without seeing his face. Since China still is developing its consumer protection laws, Li says she feels it's "really bad to give people the wrong idea that just because these athletes are on TV they should buy something."

Still, Li says she and her American boyfriend are sure to be among the 1 billion live TV viewers predicted in a recent report from London-based media strategists Initiative Sports Futures. If that audience is reached, the Beijing Olympics would easily outshine the 2007 Super Bowl, which reached 97 million viewers, and dwarf even the 2006 World Cup in Germany, whose live audience topped out at 260 million TV viewers.

With China in the spotlight, CCTV and the government minders who closely monitor what airs have their work cut out for them. Jiang says CCTV5 would focus strictly on sports, straying from the competitions and the ceremonies only for the regular profiles of all 600 of China's Olympic athletes shown on "My Olympics," a soft-news show begun a year ago to raise interest in the Games.

"The flagship channel will handle the other news," Jiang says.

At least some of that news -- especially in reports by the 17,000 visiting journalists expected to attend the Games -- will focus the eyes of the world on problems stemming from China's centrally controlled politics and out-of-control pollution.

Indeed, the opportunity that the Games and their broadcast on CCTV will present to those with a bone to pick with the Beijing establishment is great.

Jiang knows this well. The heckler who took the stage at the unveiling of "the Olympics Channel" on Dec. 28 was the estranged wife of CCTV5's top announcer and the head of its sports news department. A video of the awkward marital standoff -- in which the wife says her husband's infidelity brought shame on China and the Olympics -- spread quickly across the Internet (HR 12/30).

"We will take more precautions in the future," Jiang says. "It was a bitter lesson for us to learn."