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Airdate:7:30 p.m.-midnight, Friday, Aug. 8 (NBC)
Sure, money talks, but it can also buy quite a bit of silence, or so it seemed during NBC’s Friday night telecast of the Opening Ceremony of the Summer Olympics from Beijing. Having shelled out $894 million for the U.S. rights, the Peacock was not about to squawk about many of the controversies that surround these Games.
You could tell where this was going when, at the outset, legendary news anchor Tom Brokaw, referring to the current Chinese regime in a taped piece, said protest “is not welcomed.”
Not welcomed? Hiccups are not welcomed. Protests and protesters are crushed, beaten, jailed, charged with treason and carted off to serve as examples of the futility of fighting repression. Not welcomed indeed.
Yes, the focus of the telecast was supposed to be on the Opening Ceremony and not an in-depth news documentary on life in China (which, by the way, you could have seen on Discovery with Ted Koppel as host last month). But this is the broadcast that sets the stage for everything that is to follow.
For that reason, broadcasting the Opening Ceremony requires more than just pretty pictures of colorful dancers, children in costumes, goose-stepping soldiers, video artistry and eye-popping fireworks. NBC, as it has in the past, manages that part flawlessly with incredible shots from every conceivable angle, as well as the more mundane Parade of Nations.
Like it or not, though, this also is where NBC needs to introduce viewers to the context in which the Games are held, both culturally and politically. That means fully reporting on significant issues — particularly when they threaten both the Games and the integrity of how they are reported, as is the case here.
Given China’s abysmal record on human rights, which received almost no mention, and its disgraceful record in Darfur, which didn’t come up until Sudanese athletes entered the National Stadium, there’s room for debate over whether China’s selection as host was not, in retrospect, a mistake.
While you might not necessarily expect NBC to entertain that discussion, it is remiss in not pointing out how China has taken measures to prevent journalists from even fleeting contact with dissidents and how the nation broke its promise to permit full Internet access for visiting journalists. Or how it has developed an enormous city of informants and electronic Internet eavesdropping in every hotel room.
Instead, we get Joshua Cooper Ramo, NBC’s China analyst, telling us how the Chinese are “reaching their hands out to the world in an unprecedented way.”
“This is an Olympics unlike any other,” said co-host Bob Costas. True, but for many reasons virtually unmentioned in the opening broadcast. Like the air, for example. It’s so bad in Beijing that athletes from around the globe are worried it will cause them permanent damage.
American track and field athletes trained in the eastern port city of Dalian while coaches warned runners to wear dust masks in Beijing. Australia’s track and field team skipped the Opening Ceremony to avoid breathing the air.
Neither Costas nor co-host Matt Lauer had much to say about Beijing’s air, though there was time enough for Lauer to tell viewers that Malawi was the country from which Madonna adopted a child.
It’s a worrisome start, but it could get worse, particularly if demonstrators somehow manage to penetrate, even briefly, the tight net of Chinese security. Will NBC break in during gymnastics or risk embarrassing its Chinese hosts? The opening broadcast offers not much hope of that.
Executive producers: Dick Ebersol, David Neal; Director: Bucky Gunts; Hosts: Bob Costas, Matt Lauer.
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