Beijing sees Olympics as shot at gold


Editor's note: This is the first in a series of monthly articles looking at producing for the Olympics.

BEIJING -- Will it rain on Beijing's parade? That's the big question as Chinese authorities gird themselves for the nation's most ambitious extravaganza on the world stage.

With 12,000 TV professionals expected to descend on China's capital a year from now to deliver the coverage to an anticipated 4 billion viewers worldwide, a lot more is at stake than a few medals.

For China, the games could prove that a decade of double-digit economic growth has brought with it progress greater than the sum of the country's booming commercial parts.

Or, if sullied by political faux pas, a doping scandal, rank pollution or just plain old bad weather, the country could end up with egg on its face.

The Olympics will give China's 2008 ad market a 30% boost over the 185 billion yuan ($24 billion) forecast this year by the country's largest media buyer, Group M. Nielsen Co. is set to double to 20,000 the number of people meters gathering data on the viewing habits of an additional 870 million rural Chinese -- data that could spur multinational companies to place ever larger bets on the country's 1.3 billion consumers.

Visiting broadcasters also will be banking not only on the worldwide popularity of the sports coverage but on their ability to delve more deeply into the culture of the country -- and occasionally to be critical. Beijing pledged in 2001 to the International Olympic Committee that the games would be open to all media. One worrying sign: Recent reports suggest China is falling short already, having jailed 29 domestic journalists on suspect charges (HR 8/8), including two who worked for the New York Times and the Straits Times of Singapore. Though rules limiting foreign reporters' access to stories outside China's biggest cities were relaxed in January, they will be reversed at the end of the games.

Now, organizers appear to be leaving little to chance at the start of the one-year countdown to the opening ceremony, set for Aug. 8 at 8:08 p.m.
"During the games we cannot allow any problems to happen," said Ma Guoli, COO of Beijing Olympic Broadcasting Co. Ltd.

Known as BOB, this Sino-foreign joint venture acts as the go-between for backer IOC with world broadcasters and China Central TV, the host broadcaster and the most far-reaching medium of the Chinese Communist Party. CCTV reaches nearly all of China's 340 million households.

Consider this move: In keeping with Olympics tradition, BOB has distributed gratis six 11-minute documentary features about China. The difference to recent games? The films were co-produced by state-run CCTV and at least three of the topics would likely be controversial if handled by reporters outside these official auspices: the Yangtze River (the site of the controversial Three Gorges Dam project); Tibet (a territory whose spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, was exiled when the Communists rose to power); and highlights of Chinese history (including the Tiananmen Square uprising in 1989).

BOB executives said their mission is to provide individual service to broadcasters seeking tailored coverage to suit their audiences back home.

NBC is still working on the details of its coverage, but one executive said that the Chinese authorities seem to be more open in recent months, and the network is expecting to do the same types of feature and news stories surrounding the Olympics that have become standard for NBC at past games, whether they were in Turin, Athens or Atlanta.

As for coverage of human rights issues and pollution, most of those stories will be handled by NBC News.

"We're there to cover the Olympics like we always have. We're there to cover the sports, and to cover the games," NBC Sports spokesman Mike McCarley said.

German pubcasters ARD and ZDF said they will explore Beijing through an investigative lens. Raising the number of its reporters in the region, ZDF will report on everything from "economics to the environment, from political unrest to cultural repression," ZDF spokesman Walter Kehr said. "We expect Asian fever to break out on German television next year in the lead-up to the games."

But atop the watch-list for German broadcasters in Beijing will be potential doping. This approach follows on the heels of a huge doping scandal at the Tour de France, which saw pubcasters ARD and ZDF stop live coverage after cyclists were accused of using performance-enhancing drugs.

Nikolaus Brender, head of news and sport coverage at ZDF, said the German channels have the option to stop broadcasting if there is "systematic" doping in any particular Olympic discipline. China has said it will step up testing of its own team and not tolerate doping.

Still, Ma admitted no Olympics is immune to power outages and schedule changes due to bad weather.

He takes it as a sign of "good luck" that Beijing experienced 10 straight days of blue skies over its traffic-clogged streets at festivities last week to mark the official start of the countdown -- luck that muted the cries about Beijing's heavy air pollution. Ma dismissed reports that each night the city, as a part of its $40 billion beautification campaign, seeded its clouds with silver nitrate to force them to rain away the next day's sooty gray.

Whether natural or artificially contrived, the rain each evening and the cloudless morning skies that followed seemed to echo what China has said all along: We are ready.

Led by CEO Manolo Romero, a veteran of every Olympic broadcast since Mexico City in 1968, BOB aims to provide international rights-holders with an uninterrupted signal for all 28 sports, cooperating with overseas broadcasters to co-produce events in which they have particular expertise.

One hundred employees of Australia's Seven Network, for example, will produce the swimming events; Brazilians will handle beach volleyball; and CCTV will cover basketball.

Though there will no doubt be competition to come up with controversial stories outside the sports arenas as well as inside them, some broadcasters seem mostly bent on providing their viewers with nonstop sports coverage.

Australian viewers, who have a voracious appetite for live sports, are more attuned to just loading up on Olympics coverage, as rights-holder Seven plans to broadcast up to 22 hours of live coverage each day.

"Beijing's primetime is Australia's primetime," Andy Kay, Seven executive producer for sport, said.

Indeed, Olympics viewing Down Under is expected to be so strong that Seven has partnered with pubcaster SBS, which plans to screen longform events. Between them, the two free-to-air networks will show live as much of the 150 hours of daily competition as they can.

Seven will carry the most popular sports in which Australians are expected to win medals, including beach volleyball, sailing and swimming. Seven plans to send a crew of 240 to Beijing to cover the games, close to its largest contingent ever, and plans to broadcast its regular nightly news and current-affairs program live from Beijing.

India's statecaster Doordarshan will telecast the games on DD National and the DD Sports channels, the latter rededicated as a 24- hour Olympics channel during the 17 days of the games. As one of the world's largest broadcasters, DD's terrestrial and cable systems reach 90 million TV households.

Apart from its focus on sports popular in India -- including archery, shooting, billiards and track and field -- DD also plans to do stories related to the Indian diaspora in China.

DD Sports director E.S. Isaac said the Beijing Olympics could teach India something about how to host the 2010 Commonwealth Games in New Delhi.

"Beijing will be a showcase of Chinese might in all areas, from stadium construction to event management and administration," Isaac said.

Paul Gough in New York, Scott Roxborough in Cologne, German, Pip Bulbeck in Sydney and Nyay Bhushan in New Delhi contributed to this report.