NBC to dominate Olympics coverage

By David Bauder

Other networks will be less of a presence but still trying to find stories.

NEW YORK — NBC News could rent a small plane just for the top news personalities going to Beijing to cover the Olympics: Brian Williams, Tom Brokaw, Matt Lauer, Meredith Vieira, Ann Curry, Lester Holt, Richard Engel and Kevin Tibbles among them.

CBS considered sending Harry Smith, but decided against it and is sending Barry Peterson. Weekend anchor David Muir is ABC’s biggest name heading to Asia. Dana Lewis is Fox News Channel’s lone representative. CNN is largely handling the story through its Beijing bureau, keeping frequent-flier Anderson Cooper at home.

Guess which network’s sports division paid nearly $900 million for the rights to televise the Olympics?

The rapid change occuring in China means there’s likely to be more news beyond sports in Beijing than most Olympics. Television news organizations face many challenges, including the decision of how much money and personnel they should devote to an event where NBC has the insider’s edge.

“It makes our lives difficult,” said Paul Friedman, senior vice president of CBS News. “But what we’ll do is what everyone in this situation does. You go and look for the stories around the Olympics that you can get access to and this time around they may be as interesting as the Olympics themselves.”

First, they must get to the stories. News organizations have complained for months about the difficulty in dealing with Chinese authorities unused to the concept of a free press. Several weeks ago a reporter from a German television station that had rights to the games had police stop a live interview on the Great Wall of China.

Broadcasters were given the commitment that they will be able to operate freely and without severe restrictions. Whether that will happen remains a mystery, said John Barton, director of sport for the Asia-Pacific Broadcasting Union.

As has often been the case in Chinese history, Tiananmen Square is a symbol. The Chinese first closed it to the press, then said it will only be open for certain hours. Helicopters are banned from flying over the landmark to film the marathon.

NBC would like to see more openness, but is continuing discussions with Chinese authorities, said Dick Ebersol, chairman of NBC Universal Sports.

“China’s new to the world in terms of any level of openness,” Ebersol said. “It’s really a whole new thing for them. In the seven years that we’ve been in business with them, I clearly see change. I think it’s a whole kind of learning experience for them.”

NBC is ready to cover stories as they come up, but “we’re not going to cavalierly ... blow out sporting events to show news,” Ebersol said.

NBC’s biggest news presence will be on the “Today” show, which will bring its full team of Lauer, Vieira, Curry and Al Roker. The morning show will broadcast from the Olympic Green, which gives easy access to athletes, said Steve Capus, NBC News president, who will also be there.

“If you’re a journalist in 2008, you want to be in Beijing to watch how China handles hosting the these Olympic games,” Capus said. “I think it’s a fascinating story.”

Hours ahead of the eastern U.S. time zone, Williams will do “Nightly” at dawn while “Today” is operating at sundown.

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