Olympian heavy lifting awaits Chinese media

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Whatever you think of mixing international sports with China's politics, the Beijing Olympic Games could prove a 17-day coming out party for the country's media and entertainment industry.

Local production companies are furiously readying to capitalize if a boom materializes.

The Games, which begin 100 days from Wednesday, are expected to draw 5 million visitors -- including 17,600 members of the international media -- and generate more than the $1.5 billion in broadcast revenue earned in 2004 at Athens, official organizers said.

The sheer size of the event creates a need for logistical help. Local companies catering to the media industry are stepping up to provide everything from equipment rental and production services to translation and event management. The competition is stiff and the challenges numerous.

While such biggies as rights holders NBC and China Central Television are poised to grab the most revenue from the Games, smaller outfits are expecting gains in revenue and international exposure.

"It is not the work coming directly from Olympic coverage that will bring in the most benefit, but the huge opportunity that the Olympics presents for bringing in new international firms to the Chinese market," says Peter Yeung, GM of Beijing-based Meridian Media, which provides editing and postproduction support for international accounts including Microsoft, Lenovo and BMW.

Even small companies from as far away as Hong Kong stand to gain. Siu Prods. grew its staff from three to 20 for the production of "Torch Chasers," a reality show commissioned by TVB, Hong Kong's leading broadcaster. The show follows the torch relay along its controversial path from Athens to Beijing. TVB has invested HK$4 million ($510,000) to make 19 episodes.

"The main local stations have their hands full with producing Olympics-related programs, now they have to outsource productions to us," says Siu Kwok-hung, owner and 20-year veteran of TVB. "Torch Chasers" is one of the first programs TVB has ever outsourced. Siu estimates his firm's revenue has risen 15% this year compared with last year.

For most small production houses, garnering Olympic business means fighting for the right to serve such big international news broadcasters as BBC, CNN, Bloomberg TV and CNBC. All are clients of Asia Pacific Vision, a Hong Kong-based broadcasting and video production service company that helps hire crews and facilities.

"There is so much money associated with these events," APV managing director Christopher Slaughter says. Yet "in actual point of fact, there aren't that many pieces of the pie available for independent companies like us."

Hoping to appeal on price, Shanghai-based Bright Shadow Films, which counts Reuters, Tehran's Press TV and France 24 among its clients, regularly employs locals to cover events around China on the cheap. Founder Charlie Moretti says he charges €600-€800 ($950-$1,260) for a broadcast minute -- less if it's part of a big client deal. This is much cheaper than a minute in Moretti's native France, which goes for about €1,200 ($1,900).

But those visiting media players who are on the prowl for local talent say they can afford to be choosy.

"Having spoken with sports colleagues, I can tell you that we'll be using our own crews," says Jeff Keay, spokesman for the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. Keay doesn't doubt the abilities of China-based crews but says, "We simply have enough staffers to cover it ourselves. We'll probably be hiring approximately 50 people to act as drivers, translators or runners."

The Sydney-based Seven Network will be delegate some production work to the Beijing Media Co., a joint venture that it formed three years ago with state-run Beijing Television to provide equipment, production, translation and consulting services.

But for visiting media who don't have a Chinese joint-venture partner, local production companies step in with access and equipment as feathers in their caps.



"It is difficult to get interviews with officials and government figures without accreditation," Bright Shadow filmmaker Matt Clarke says. "There is a general suspicion of international media and people will ask for your accreditation before agreeing to talk."

Beyond access, media firms also must go through an arduous process to obtain the right to import equipment into China. Rental prices in the country are steady at about half those charged in the U.S., with an equipment van and driver costing about $115 per day, a boom mike about $30 and a HTV camera around $85. But Clarke says prices "will at least double during the Games."

Knowing where to source things could prove key. Jeff Stone, managing director of Beijing-based Chinalive Production, a video production company whose clients include Al-Jazeera and the NBA, says he's "very fearful of not being able to get our hands on enough equipment during the Games."

Moretti adds, "Satellite trucks are near impossible to bring in unless you have massive funds or are the BBC."



Of course the biggest local beneficiary of media spending could be the Beijing Organizing Committee for the Games of the XXIX Olympiad (BOCOG), which will take 49% of the Games' broadcasting revenue under a deal it made with the International Olympic Committee.

The BOCOG-IOC deal, signed many moons ago, created the Beijing Olympic Broadcasting Co. (BOB), the sole provider of the Games' signal to global broadcasters and the host of the National Broadcast Center during the Games.

BOB had 240 staffers in April, but that number will swell to 4,000 during the Games, including about 1,000 local English-speaking students who will serve as audio and camera assistants, liaison officers and interpreters. It will utilize about 60 outside broadcast vans and 1,000 cameras to produce about 3,800 hours of live coverage for all broadcasters.

Although BOB is run as a nonprofit, its power is great. An employee who speaks on condition of anonymity says that production by local companies during the Games "also goes through us."

This means that while Olympics jobs might be heating up for some locals, others are facing a cold summer.

Slaughter says there are not enough projects to go around and that APV expects more projects for corporate clients rather than broadcasters. The company also produces Olympics-related corporate event videos and hospitality events.

"We've seen business that we might not otherwise have had, but we're not going to be so busy that we won't have time to actually watch the Olympics," Slaughter says.

APV has done projects for overseas and Chinese broadcast clients in the run-up to the Olympics, but it has not yet closed deals with foreign broadcasters to cover the Games themselves. APV is negotiating with overseas agencies to help cover the Games' equestrian events set for Hong Kong.

Wendy Wong, producer at Hong Kong-based October Pictures, recently finished an eight-day shoot in Beijing for German TV station ZDF for $350,000. Three producers headed a crew of 40 Beijing freelancers shooting footage of athletes that ZDF will use in promotions for its Olympics coverage.

Wong and Slaughter are both preparing for the probability that a lot of decisions about how best to cover the Beijing Olympics will be made at the last minute.

"We expect a trickle down effect from the big broadcasters," Slaughter says. "But it won't be massive because the big companies are taking care of it with their own resources."

Still, he added, "There tends to be a big rush towards the date of the events."

Maria Trombly reported from Shanghai; Karen Chu reported from Hong Kong; and Aric Queen and Caroline Middlecote contributed from Shanghai.
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