Don’t Take NBC Beijing Olympics Coverage for Granted

(originally posted August 11, 2008)

Late last week (August 6th to be exact), our company received a call from a client to produce a live satellite broadcast from Beijing for the following week with an Olympic Gold Medal winner. In almost any other situation, we can spin on a dime for a newsworthy topic and make that happen — as long as we’re not dealing with a communist country where every satellite transmission is strictly monitored and controlled by the government.

If you missed the opening ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics then you missed part of history. Don’t continue to miss history in the making and make sure you tune into to NBC (from the Today Show to nightly coverage of the events). I say this as a television producer who’s been in the biz for over twenty years, who’s experienced at broadcasting via satellite from remote locations around the world and who visited China earlier this year. I’ve produced in over twenty-five countries on four different continents during my broadcast career that’s included producing an internationally syndicated travel show and daily network television but nothing is more amazing than the coverage we’re seeing right now out of China if you have any idea how unusual it is to have the kind of reports we’re seeing on the air direct from Beijing. In the U.S., we’re long accustomed to freedom of the press but this is unheard of in China — true journalistic freedom. Seeing Tom Brokaw being interviewed by Matt Lauer in Beijing with Brokaw’s candid criticism’s of aspects of the Chinese government is simply history in the making — let’s talk journalism in China, shall we?

First, China’s sensitivity to journalists is so strong that less than a month before the games began, at least 30 journalists and 50 internet users were being detained in China and any writer, producer, journalist or media professional is discretely advised by certain visa procuring websites to list his or her occupation as a “computer operator” on the China visa application or they could be denied a tourist visa. Since most people in media use computers, this isn’t inaccurate.

Second, all of the estimated 25,000 reporters covering the Olympics had to go through an extensive vetting process to get a J-1 or J-2 Journalism visa. Once approved, the Beijing Organizing Committee for the Games of the XXIX Olympiad (BOCOG) supplied reporters with a 171-page media guidebook, A Service Guide for Foreign Media Coverage of the Beijing Olympic Games, but perhaps journalists would be better equipped for their Beijing assignments by visiting the Reporter’s Guide to Covering the Beijing Olympics at Human Rights Watch.

Third, what’s it like behind the scenes for journalists covering the Olympics? Well, China’s internet police are out in full force despite promises by the Chinese Government to take down the Great “Firewall” of China. More than an estimated 30,000 internet police are employed to censor internet websites and restrict access to “objectionable” sites and it’s been very problematic for reporters currently in Beijing. What’s objectionable? Anything with personal opinions (like blogs) and any media that may criticize the Chinese government and the biggest taboo word? You guessed it… “T-I-B-E-T.” As a matter of fact, our company website is blocked in China because it contains the word “media” so my American friend who lives in Beijing cannot view our website. The day I arrived in Beijing in early May was actually one of the first days the censors unblocked certain websites and allowed access to BBCNews.com and other “controversial” internet news sites. However, according to some recent reports, access has been unpredictable to the BBC website and others – especially those having a non-complimentary story on China.

Finally, here’s the thing – in the U.S., we’re accustomed to seeing live broadcasts from around the world and it looks so easy. We take it for granted. But just as the Olympic athletes that make swimming, diving, bike racing, and gymnastics look so easy (though it took YEARS of practice for these amazing feats), the transmissions you’re seeing out of China look easy, but NBC spent years of planning with the Chinese government for you to see history in the making. Enjoy it!

One very personal note: While I was in China, the Chinese people were so excited and proud to be hosting the Olympics. The public in general loves Westerners and I was often stopped at various locations and asked to be in a photo with them so they could have a photo with a Westerner. I was enchanted with this country and it’s people. Americans are often identified overseas with what our government does and so are, most unfortunately, the Chinese. Don’t make this mistake.

Photo (above): Russia Today interviewing a man in front of the Water Cube, Beijing, China (Photo credit Sara Pfau.)

Posted by

Marianne Schwab, Executive Producer, CMP Media Cafe

Copyright (c) 2008. CMP Media Cafe. All Rights Reserved.

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