Complications in Beijing leave Olympics TV networks fuming

By Stephen Wade

BEIJING – Television networks that will broadcast the Beijing Olympics to billions around the world are squaring off with local organizers over stringent security that threatens coverage of the games in two months.

Differences over a wide range of issues – from limits on live coverage in Tiananmen Square to allegations that freight shipments of TV broadcasting equipment are being held up in Chinese ports – surfaced in a contentious meeting late last month between Beijing organizers and high-ranking International Olympic Committee officials and TV executives – including those from NBC.

In response to the complaints from broadcasters, Sun Weijia, head of media operations for the Beijing organizers, asked them to put it in writing, only to draw protests about mounting paperwork.

“I think what I have heard here are just a number of conditions or requirements that are just not workable,” said IOC official Gilbert Felli, according to minutes of the May 29 meeting obtained by The Associated Press. “There are a number of things that are just not feasible.”

Despite the outburst, Sun asked again to have the complaints in writing.

“I just wish to have a kind of document to help me identify the key points,” he said, drawing immediate protest.

“How many times do we have to do that?” asked Manolo Romero, an Olympic broadcasting official.

With time running out before the games open on Aug. 8, the minutes hint that procedures broadcasters have used in other Olympics are conflicting with China’s authoritarian government. Some plans are months behind schedule, which could force broadcasters to compromise coverage plans.

The meeting in Beijing included representatives of nine broadcasters, each of which has paid for the rights to broadcast the Olympics. Top IOC officials and Beijing organizers were also on hand in what one TV executive termed an “emergency meeting.”

Non-rights holding broadcasters – news organizations that have not bought TV rights to cover Olympic action at the venues – did not attend the meeting but also are concerned about delays and security restrictions.

“We are two weeks away from putting equipment on a shipment and we have no clearance to operate, or to enter the country or a frequency allocation,” said Sandy MacIntyre, director of news for AP Television News. APTN is the television arm of The Associated Press.

Unnerved by protests on international legs of the Olympic torch relay following the outbreak of deadly rioting March 14 in Tibet, China’s communist government seems to be backtracking on some promises to let reporters work as they have in previous Olympics.

The government also has tightened visa rules in the last several months. One target has been students. The government fears many would side with activist groups if protests break out.

The minutes of the meeting show behind-the-scenes dialogue that differs markedly from the IOC’s public statements about smooth cooperation with Beijing organizers. In an interview, one broadcaster who attended the meeting summed up the problem.

“The Chinese are very concerned about something going wrong – and so they are in Olympic gridlock,” said John Barton, director of sport for the Asia-Pacific Broadcasting Union, which represents broadcasters in 57 countries.

“This is the greatest moment in their sporting history,” Barton said. “They’ve built a stage on which they want to perform, but they are rather queasy about how it should be shown.”

“They are suffocating the television coverage in the crazy pursuit of security. They can’t secure the event. Nothing can be totally secure, yet they are trying to do that.”

Chinese officials say more than 500,000 people will handle security during the games, equaling the number of foreign visitors expected. Public security officials said a few days ago that protests won’t be allowed – unless protesters get a permit – with arrests or expulsion likely. Some athletes in Beijing also are expected to speak out against Chinese policies on Tibet or Darfur.

The rights-holding broadcasters generally lauded the organizers’ preparations, but worried about being stuck in a quagmire of security requirements. The meeting was held under the auspices of Beijing Olympic Broadcasting – also know as BOB.

BOB is a joint venture between the Beijing Olympic organizers and an IOC subsidiary. BOB coordinates and provides technical services for the television networks with rights to broadcast the Olympics, such as NBC.

Gary Zenkel, the president of NBC Olympics, told the meeting the issues “can be solved” and suggested the prospects are better than Athens or Turin, where he described some unspecified problems as “irresolvable.”

“This can be the world’s greatest Olympics,” Zenkel said, crediting Beijing organizers. But he said certain “obstacles” are hindering the organizers.

“I don’t know who they are or how to get to them collectively, but we must get to them,” Zenkel added. “Because these games will suffer and these problems will be presented to the world and they don’t do justice to these Olympics. … This is a big day for China and the Olympics and it may be lost if there isn’t any immediate change or movement made by the government, or whoever. It has to happen. We hope the wakeup call is heard.”

Several TV executives were upset there might be no live coverage from Tiananmen Square. This is a change from two months ago when IOC officials in Beijing said China had agreed to allow live coverage. Broadcasters also have been told there’s unlikely to be live coverage from the Forbidden City.

Chinese police fear both might be venues for activists’ protests, which would be a public relations disaster if demonstrations – and police crackdowns – are beamed around the world.

“For us to potentially not be able to do live reports from Tiananmen – the most iconic place in China – is a disgrace,” said Scott Moore, executive director of Canada’s CBC Sports. “I’ve been told that to do business in China, you have to have patience. We don’t have time to have patience. The games have begun for us already.”

TV executives appear skeptical they will be able to deliver the kind of coverage they have in past games. Some say Chinese officials are requiring that forms be filled out specifying where satellite trucks will be each day of the games. The IOC says about 2,000 TV trucks usually go in and out of Olympic venues every day during the games.

These kind of restrictions could make it very difficult for TV crews to move quickly around the sprawling city to cover breaking news. Broadcasters also have been denied permits to record aerial views of Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City.

Relaxing the rules and allowing Olympic broadcasters to avoid government censorship was one of the concessions China made to land the games in 2001. Now officials appear to be nervous about it, with TV executives complaining that high-tech TV equipment has been held up in Chinese ports.

Sun Weide, a spokesman for the Beijing organizing committee, denied there were delays in getting equipment into China.

“As far as we know, the importation of broadcast equipment has been going smoothly,” he said.

Any interference with news coverage will be at odds with promises made seven years ago when Beijing was awarded the games. At the time, Wang Wei, the executive vice president of the Beijing organizing committee, said the news media would have “complete freedom to report on anything when they come to China.”

The government enacted a law 18 months ago giving foreign reporters “free access” to report. The law has been helpful, although some areas of the country – such as Tibet – are still off limits. Reporters still complain of harassment, particularly away from Beijing where provincial authorities seem unaware of the new rules.

“In Athens we were pretty much allowed to film whatever we wanted, wherever and whenever,” said Tomoyo Igaya, senior program director for Japan’s NHK Sports and head of the Japan consortium, an Olympic pool that represents NHK and five Japanese commercial broadcasters.

Igaya attended the May 29 meeting and told colleagues she thought the disputes could be resolved. She also raised the specter of more pressure if they are not. She hinted at unspecified “legal-financial” action.

Igaya said China might be forced to loosen up with more than 30,000 accredited and non-accredited journalists expected to cover the games, which Chinese officials hope will polish the country’s image as the rising political and economic power of the 21st century.

“We’ve been talking about this internally for some time,” Igaya said. “Maybe when there are thousands of broadcasters and press in Beijing, maybe they won’t be able to keep an eye on every single person. There will be just so many. But on the other hand, it’s China – you know the population of the country. You could maybe have people keeping an eye on every journalist and broadcaster. Who knows.”

“I’m just keeping my fingers crossed that everything goes well.”