NBC in bind over Olympics

For several years, NBC has meticulously planned all the details for its coverage of the many sports events at the Summer Olympics in China.

But with the Games less than three weeks away, many at the network are concerned about how they will be permitted to cover any unscheduled events, like political protests or government crackdowns – or whether the Chinese government will allow them to cover such things at all.

The stakes are high for both the network, which paid $900 million for broadcast rights for the Olympics, and the reputation of NBC News. If it covers any controversies aggressively, it risks drawing the ire of the Chinese and interfering with coverage of sports events.

But if it shies from coverage of any protests, NBC risks being criticized in the West for kowtowing to China — particularly since its corporate parent, General Electric, is aggressively expanding its investments in China.

One thing is for sure, vows Steve Capus, the president of NBC's news division: “If there's news, we're going to cover it.”

During the past seven years, broadcasters had been assured that they would receive the same freedoms they have had at previous Olympics. But in the past few months, those promises have been contradicted by strict visa rules, lengthy application processes and worries about censorship.

Seeking to defuse growing tension, network executives met face to face two weeks ago with representatives of the International Olympic Committee and Chinese officials.

At the meeting, on July 9, after months of uncertainty, Chinese officials said that all applications for live broadcasting would be approved throughout Beijing and the other cities where Olympic competitions were planned. Furthermore, the committee said that all broadcasters could tape reports from Tiananmen Square.

But the broadcasters say they will not believe it until they see it.

One IOC commissioner, speaking on condition of anonymity to avoid further complicating the situation, said matter-of-factly that Chinese officials had “put a tourniquet” on the Olympics.

“Had the IOC, and those vested with the decision to award the host city contract, known seven years ago that there would be severe restrictions on people being able to enter China simply to watch the Olympics, or that live broadcasting from Tiananmen Square would essentially be banned, or that reporters would be corralled at the whim of local security, then I seriously doubt whether Beijing would have been awarded the Olympics,” the commissioner said.