Today Show

Today Show (Robert Caplin / For The Times)

YOU'D BE hard-pressed to find someone with better credentials than Jim Bell's to helm the "Today" show's coverage of the Beijing Olympics that kicks off this morning.

Bell was a veteran producer of the Olympics for NBC Sports before joining "Today" as its executive producer in 2005. With six Olympics under his belt, he speaks about the Games with the fluency of a longtime observer.

Reminiscing about his favorite Olympic moments in his Rockefeller Center office last week, Bell rattled off the name of the blind Mongolian runner -- Pyambuugiin Tuul -- who placed last in the men's marathon in Barcelona, Spain, in 1992.

"I'm an Olympics geek, what can I tell you?" he said.

But even Bell's background can't fully prepare him for China. For NBC, the stakes are high: It paid a record $894 million for the U.S. broadcast rights to this summer's Games, which begin Friday.

The top-rated morning show serves as one of the network's main promotional vehicles for the event, a place where athletes -- often while still panting from exertion -- will either rejoice in victory or mourn their loss with co-anchors Matt Lauer and Meredith Vieira.

As a news program, "Today" will be forced to balance human interest stories with the weightier issues that are likely to shadow the Beijing Olympics. Activists have seized upon the event as an opportunity to pressure China to influence its allies in violence-racked Sudan, whose president was charged with genocide last month in the International Criminal Court. Picketers recently interrupted a live outdoor taping of "Today," complaining NBC has not done enough to cover that conflict.

Other hot-button topics such as China's human rights record, media censorship and environmental policies are garnering new attention because of the country's role as host of the Games.

"I do think there's an opportunity for us to shine a light on some of those questions," said Bell, who disputed the notion that NBC has paid too little attention to Darfur, noting that the subject is something of a passion for "Today" news anchor Ann Curry, who has made several reporting trips to Sudan.

"I think you'll see that we will answer the call," he added. "When there's news, we will deal with the issues as they come."

But it remains to be seen how many tough questions about China "Today" will raise on its own.

"We aren't going to go there as the guests of the Chinese government and deliberately poke sharp sticks in their eyes," said Lauer, who begins broadcasting from China today. "We're not going to go out of our way to do it. But we think there are going to be a lot of opportunities to bring the subject up, based on the events of the day."

The show did not report last week on Beijing's ongoing pollution problems, a topic that received substantial coverage in other media outlets. But Bell said that doesn't mean it's going to ignore such topics.

"We're in no rush to cover something that we already know we're going to cover extensively in the upcoming weeks," he said.

Chief medical editor Nancy Snyderman is working a story for this week about the air quality in Beijing and how it will affect the athletes, and Andrea Mitchell is doing a piece on U.S.-China relations that will address China's record on Tibet and human rights. Vieira plans to do a follow-up story about the parents whose children were killed in their classrooms during the massive earthquake this past spring.

"I definitely see this as a news opportunity on every level," Vieira said.

"We're going to cover every single aspect of it," Lauer added. "And I don't think we're going to be shy about it. The interesting thing will be what kind, if any, pushback we get."

In recent months, news executives have complained that the Chinese are imposing restrictions on the press, such as limiting live broadcasts from Tiananmen Square. Last week, foreign journalists were unable to access some websites about politically sensitive topics such as Tibet, despite previous assurances that the press would be able to freely surf the Internet.

'Encouraged' by pledges

Steve Capus, president of NBC News, said the Chinese have made "some really unique and unprecedented pledges of cooperation and openness."

"We have been encouraged by those pledges, and we hope that they follow through on those offers and that we, as journalists, are allowed to do our jobs while we're there," he said. "Is there concern? Of course, you're always going to have concerns when covering a global event like this. And if we feel like our ability to do our jobs is being compromised in any way, we will take every step necessary to assure that we can cover the news."

Bell said he was confident that "Today's" coverage would not be hampered.

"I'm not that worried," he said. "I think we're going to be able to broadcast what we want, from where we want."

Such calm assuredness is typical of the 41-year-old producer, who colleagues say is undaunted by the frenetic pace of morning television.

On one recent morning, Vieira said, the show's entire lineup changed "and I freaked out. And I saw Jim walking by in the hallway going, 'This is great!' He thrives in a live environment."

It was the 1992 Summer Games that gave Bell his entree to NBC. After moving to Barcelona to coach in a semipro football league, the Harvard graduate got hired by the network to push the wheelchair of Randy Falco -- an NBC Sports executive with a torn Achilles' tendon -- as he shuttled to Olympic planning meetings.

Because Barcelona was largely inaccessible to wheelchairs, Bell, a former defensive tackle in college, ended up carrying the executive over his shoulder much of the time.

"At the end of the two weeks -- and I attribute it largely to him being medicated through this injury -- they offered me a job," he said.

He started as a production assistant in the Olympics profile unit and quickly moved up, eventually logging 15 years producing the NBA Finals, Wimbledon and the Olympics, among other events.

After three years at "Today," Bell is now the longest-serving executive producer of the show since Jeff Zucker, now chief executive of NBC Universal, who held the post for nearly eight years in the 1990s. And he's on track to match Zucker's tenure: NBC recently renewed his contract through 2011.

The morning show is markedly more stable since Bell first arrived, when rival "Good Morning America" was threatening to overtake "Today's" lead in the ratings and longtime co-host Katie Couric began hinting that she would leave to anchor the "CBS Evening News."

Vieira succeeded Couric nearly two years ago, and "Today" averaged nearly 1 million more viewers than "GMA" this season.

Lauer, Vieira, Curry and weatherman Al Roker will be in Beijing, the first time the show has sent four anchors to cover an international Olympics.

"The significance of China as the backdrop for these Olympics says a lot about why we felt we had to send all four," Bell said.

"I'm really pumped up about it. I think the fact that it's China is going to make it interesting, whether we want it to be or not. And we want it to be."

matea.gold@latimes.com