Tuesday, 28 May 2024

Beijing looking to shine in the Olympics on NBC

Can you identify countries like Nauru, Palau and Tuvalu, much less locate them on a map? The International Olympic Committee lists them among a record 205 member nations recognized for competition at the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympic Games, coming to you soon by way of NBC Universal and its many networks.


I always thought some of these obscure nations had little value beyond creating some nice postage stamps for philatelists to enjoy, but they are sending athletes into competition. Now is the time to brush up on geography.


Speaking by way of satellite to a gathering of the nation’s TV critics recently, Dick Ebersol, chairman of NBC Universal Sports and Olympics, announced that he’s “awed by the enormity of what’s going on” in Beijing, particularly because the NBC family will provide a record 3,600 hours of coverage, at least 2,900 hours of it live.


Considering that NBC paid $894 million for the rights fee for broadcast coverage in the United States, one would hope that Ebersol is enthusiastic about the 17 days and nights of what he calls “unscripted drama.”


You may ask how NBC can provide 3,600 hours of coverage. It’s a fair question in light of the fact that it would take 90 weeks at a regular 9 to 5 job to watch everything. I don’t think I can spare that much time, but it works for NBC Universal, because they will run coverage on NBC, USA, CNBC, MSNBC and Telemundo.


Of course, NBC’s primetime coverage will focus on the prime traditional sports of swimming, diving, gymnastics and beach volleyball, with Bob Costas again acting as the primetime host. I am not kidding about this, but even the Oxygen network will carry nightly programming on gymnastics, plus synchronized swimming and the equestrian category. Only the Sci-Fi Channel is not getting into the act.


Even with more than a half-dozen networks and cable outlets, NBC Universal doesn’t have enough hours in the day to become the most ambitious single media project in history. So this is where NBCOlympics.com comes into the picture, providing additional competition footage but also being the venue for more information about the schedules, listings, news and biographies of the athletes. This Internet destination will take every sport and offer it on-demand, while also offering the best of daily TV coverage as encores.


There is a 12-hour time difference between Beijing and New York. As you know, in the media world, New York is the center of the universe, so the folks at NBC somehow finagled commitments from the International Olympic Committee to secure certain finals at 9 or 10 in the morning in China so that they would go on primetime live in New York. Ebersol told the TV critics that prime coverage would be live on the East Coast and in the Central time zone, leaving the rest of us out here on the left coast to get our Olympics on a time delay.


“Historically, we have always shown the Olympics on tape on the West Coast,” said Ebersol, noting that roughly 81 to 82 percent of all households in the United States are in the Central and Eastern time zones.


California may be the largest state in the union (we have the electoral votes to prove it), but we don’t matter as much to the network bigwigs. Actually, they are taking us for granted, because as Ebersol noted, people on the West Coast “love sports so much, and they know when they want to watch it, and that’s in primetime.” After extensive research, he figured out most of us are employed and can’t get home in time to watch something at 4 o’clock.


The NBC executives obviously have high hopes for the Beijing Olympics. Noting that the Chinese were second to the Americans on the gold medal chart in Athens in 2004, NBC host Bob Costas told the TV critics that “when Yao Ming leads the Chinese (basketball) team against the Americans in their very first game in the second day of competition of the Olympics, this is going to be like a Super Bowl atmosphere.” Sensing that he might be succumbing to hype that often afflicts sports announcers, Costas followed up by saying “that is not an overstatement.”


On the other hand, Ebersol seems to have picked up the hyperbolic fever. He thinks the Chinese curiosity about the Games is not just about sports. “China’s new to the world in terms of any level of openness,” he claims, and then goes on to say that in the seven years NBC has been in business with Chinese he “clearly sees change.”


Ironically, an AP news report claims the Chinese are backtracking on a promise of open press coverage, and that they have placed blocks on Internet sites in the Main Press Center and venues where reporters will work. Hoping or thinking change is afoot in China is one thing, but it’s a hard notion to sell in a repressive society.


Politics aside, let’s hope we can share Bob Costas’ belief and fervent wish that the opening ceremonies, based on what he has been told by people privileged to have seen the early plans, will be “uber-spectacular.” Curiosity will probably take hold of me on Aug. 8.


Tim Riley writes film and television reviews for Lake County News.


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