China, Olympics, human rights and NBC: It’ll be a rocky square

[2 April 2008]

By Rick Kushman

McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

The Summer Olympics are still four months away, but we’re already getting a look at the kind of messy scene the world could see in China when the Games begin in August.

We’re also getting a good look at the kind of mess NBC Sports has gotten itself into, and at how the underlying operating principles of television, big-time sports and politics all intersect at the dollar sign.

In recent weeks, China’s hopes of using the Games, and the TV coverage, to paint itself as a modern country embracing the world have taken hits by its own hard-line put-down of protests in Tibet, and by a series of media-oriented moves. Those included China’s announcement that there will be no live TV from Tiananmen Square during the Olympics, that it would not reveal the full route of the Olympic torch relay to avoid televised protests, and even that it’s essentially closing Mount Everest for the first 10 days in May - almost the entire climbing window for summit attempts - so images of pro-Tibet protests won’t get mixed in with China’s own climb up Everest with the torch.

In reaction, protests have grown louder around the world, European leaders have talked about boycotting the opening ceremonies, and human rights groups are pressuring companies like Coca-Cola to drop sponsorship of the torch relay.

So much for the Olympic spirit of peace and cooperation. Or more to the point, welcome to the complex world of geopolitics, capitalism and, of course, television.

When the International Olympic Committee in 2001 awarded these Summer Olympics to Beijing, IOC leaders said their biggest reason was to take the world inside China, to go through the walls and, they hoped, to force the globe’s most populous country to face up to its human rights obligations.

Really, the biggest reason was commerce. China is the world’s largest market, too, and the Olympics are as much a commercial enterprise as a sports event. They’re sponsored by some of the biggest companies on the planet, and those companies wanted in. If the IOC had said no to China, China could have said no to all those sponsors.

Still, Olympic leaders were not dishonest to say they hoped world media attention would push China into less repression and more openness (which, a cynic might say, would also be good for business).

And we’re seeing there is at least something to the point about attention. Because of the Olympics, the protests in Tibet and the Chinese police action got loads more attention in the United States and around the world than similar protests have in the past. The reactions of world leaders and American presidential candidates have been louder and more forceful about China than we’ve heard maybe in decades.

But “forceful” is not how you’d describe NBC’s reaction, though it’s unclear whether NBC should speak out right now, and that brings us to the mess the network has on its hands.

The problem for NBC is that it’s in business with China and the IOC in a big way. NBC plans 3,600 hours of TV and online coverage, and it bid nearly $900 million for the Summer Olympics. NBC and its parent, General Electric, expect to make a profit, which is only fair. No doubt, GE also hopes to make better inroads into the China market.

NBC’s bid money is a majority of the IOC’s operating budget. China wants the TV coverage for its own political and PR reasons. NBC is counting on the Olympics for ratings and hundreds of millions in revenue. They all need each other.

Undoubtedly, NBC and the IOC will try to persuade China, at a minimum, to ease restrictions on the media, but also undoubtedly, they’ll talk quietly and behind closed doors to not embarrass their hosts. Maybe that’s the way to get results, and that’s why it’s a little early to criticize NBC.

Publicly, so far, NBC’s reactions have been carefully worded. When asked about the restrictions on coverage, an NBC spokesman said in an e-mail, “In dozens of trips in and out of China, everyone involved with our Olympic preparation has been treated with nothing but courtesy and hospitality, and we have no reason to believe that won’t continue throughout the Games.”

Which means NBC employees will be safe and warm. It doesn’t mean NBC will get to show what it wants to show.

As for the strife surrounding Tibet, or China’s problems with human rights, NBC has been even more guarded. The only real comment came last week when Dick Ebersol, chairman of NBC Universal Sports, talked to the New York Times. Ebersol said he believed “the IOC gave the Games to Beijing because it was really important for them to take place for the first time in the largest nation in the world. As it relates to the mysteries of China, including human rights, I believe giving the Games to China shines a light on a part of the world that wouldn’t otherwise exist.”

But, he said, the sports coverage won’t include word of the protests or politics. Those will be left to NBC News unless “it interferes with the competition or hinders athletes from getting to the competition.”

This is where the biggest potential conflicts exist. No one argues that every Olympic event should be prefaced by a reminder of China’s behavior. But if Ebersol and the IOC expect real light to shine on China, it is NBC Sports that holds the biggest flashlight.

NBC is in a tough spot and its choices are nuanced. It’s made promises to the IOC and China, just as it has a permanent implied promise to viewers of full, honest journalism. At some point, with the whole world watching - and paying for the privilege - NBC officials might have to decide whether to shine that light on those human rights abuses or to look away.

More simply, it could be a choice between business interests or moral ones. Not to give up on NBC just yet, but when millions of dollars are at stake, how often does morality win out?

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