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Chinese grant live broadcast rights but uncertainty lingers

The sparing is over. At the last minute, the Chinese government reached an agreement with foreign broadcasters regarding broadcast rights to landmarks for the Olympic Games. Key broadcasters will be allowed live access to various locales in China, including six hours a day from Tiananmen Square. At least, they hope.

The Chinese government’s attempt to control and limit live coverage anywhere but at Olympic venues had turned into a major problem for rights holding broadcasters — especially NBC, who paid $900 million and holds broadcast rights to 3600 hours of coverage. Some locations, including the Great Wall, will still require special permission. Time will tell whether the networks get permission.

And what happens if an athlete holds a protest sign? Or mentions Tibet in an interview? Will the networks be allowed to do news coverage? The answer is still unknown. Broadcasters are now facing the fact they are operating in the most restrictive environment for an Olympics in modern times.

ESPN will be reduced to guerrilla status at the Games, where Olympic organizers — not the Chinese — are zealously protective of rights holders. NBC will have 2900 workers on hand, including 106 announcers and 1000 local hires. ESPN will have only eight staffers in Beijing.

Non-rights holders cannot bring recording devices or cameras, even if they can get into official “mixed zones,” which allow athletes and media members to mingle. The exception is the Games’ main press, but their footage or audio cannot be aired live.

But the Chinese government remains the big unknown. Many news organizations have leapt through hoops just to rent office space, order telco lines, and set up satellite dishes. Stations have had permits to shoot at various locations revoked at the last minute.

China’s state TV network will broadcast live for the first time in its history. Jiang Heping, the controller of China Central Television’s sports channel, said it would not employ the usual the 30-second delay in transmitting images to ensure programs are broadcast “smoothly and safely.”

Xinhua said it would be the first time for CCTV to show programs without a time delay since it was founded 50 years ago. China will take the same live feed as the rest of the world. The country’s state radio and TV networks are tightly controlled by the government, and programs produced by independent producers such as TV dramas are vetted by the Communist Party’s publicity department and state broadcasting watchdogs.

News deemed sensitive by the Chinese government, such as reports on Tibet, are also regularly blacked out in China when broadcast on international networks such as BBC World and CNN. The big question for the Olympics is what happens to coverage of such protests during the Games.

Olympics organizers estimate that about 4 billion people, nearly two-thirds of the world’s population, will watch at least part of the Beijing Olympics. Coverage begins on August 8.