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NBC’s top man at the Beijing Olympics is excited about athletes breaking records, but he’s prepared for any breaking news.
“We’re ready to move from sports and Olympics to news the moment something really serious happens here,” Dick Ebersol told The Reporter on Thursday. “I always personally hope that it’s basically an Olympics about sports. But if it isn’t going to be sports, we’ll be ready for news.”
Speaking from the network’s site at the Beijing International Convention Center, the NBC Sports & Olympics chairman talked about preparations and NBC’s ongoing back-and-forth with the organizing committee.
“The reason why I have not talked about these things until now is because I’m the person who had to continually deal with (Chinese officials) at the highest levels about being open about stuff,” Ebersol said. “I always felt I’d be much more effective as a dealer or a negotiator for things like that if I was doing it quietly.”
It hasn’t been easy. Between the closed-door negotiations and intense scrutiny of every aspect of the Games, Ebersol said it has worked out better than he ever expected. In July 2001, the night before the International Olympic Committee announced that Beijing had won the right to host the Games, he met Beijing Mayor Liu Qi, who went on to become head of the organizing committee. Ebersol wanted Liu to know what China was in for.
“You really are going to be the center of attention of the world in a way that you’ve never been before,” he told Liu. Ebersol explained that NBC Sports would be there to cover the Olympics but that it is part of a larger company that includes a news division that wouldn’t shirk from tough reporting and tough questions. The more open you are, he told Liu, the easier it will be for everyone.
And Ebersol stressed Thursday that if something other than sports happens at an Olympic venue where NBC has cameras, the network will cover it. A protest away from the venues will draw coverage from the news side.
Although China’s leadership has kept most media in check, Ebersol takes a philosophical view.
“This is definitely, definitely a much more open relationship than I ever thought it could be seven years ago,” Ebersol said. “They have been incredibly open with us about their security plans.”
Since Beijing was announced as host of the XXIX Olympiad seven years ago, the world has known that these Games would be anything but routine. The Chinese government, Olympic organizers and the IOC have weathered numerous storms that aren’t likely to dissipate until well after the 17 days are over, even if they pass without major incident.
And broadcasting the event presents unique challenges. For example, one part of the Chinese government always has supported Western broadcasters’ access to Tiananmen Square. Another part wanted to bar access. It could have gone either way, Ebersol acknowledged. But NBC and the other rights-holders are able to broadcast six hours a day from there if they want, which they’ll use one night as a location for Bob Costas and probably “Nightly News.”
“It was important because it’s an iconic place in this country and the central place you think of the government in Beijing,” Ebersol said.
But he’s a realist.
“I’m not saying that everything here is going to end up in the final analysis being perfect,” he noted. “It’s just that I have seen serious men and women try with some success for the last seven years to make things more open.”
Meanwhile, Ebersol has been immersed in details big and small since he arrived in China two weeks ago, the culmination of his team’s years of work preparing for 8-8-08. The pressure will get only more intense leading up to Friday’s opening ceremony.
“There’s something going on all the time. We actually will average 212 hours a day of coverage,” Ebersol said. “So there’s kind of a good reason for me to be up all the time making decisions and choices.”
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