A spectacle in the best way

It was, said Bob Costas as NBC headed into a commercial break on Friday night’s telecast of the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics, “jaw-dropping. Don’t go away, but why would you?”

Indeed, this was the kind of night HD technology was invented for.

From the overwhelming spectacle of 14,000 performers to the bright colors dancing across the screen to the various light shows to the high-tech visuals to the intriguing re-creations of various periods of Chinese history to the skywalkers flitting about like multicolored fireflies to the airborne dancers circling a giant globe as it rose from the stadium floor, it might well have been, as Costas suggested, “an opening ceremony like no other.”

And he said that before what will surely be the most lasting image of the night: former gymnastics medalist Li Ning “flying” around the rim of the Bird’s Nest, torch in hand, to light the caldron.


If the show seemed to lapse on occasion into more of an Industrial Light & Magic show produced by George Lucas than a celebration of Chinese national pride, that’s understandable considering that the massive undertaking was directed by Chinese filmmaker Zhang Yimou, who has directed films such as “House of Flying Daggers” and “Raise the Red Lantern.”

NBC had a tricky course to navigate, balancing the face China was presenting to the world with the unrest and controversy that the country hopes to shove into the background.

The network answered the challenge.

In the opening half-hour of the telecast, Tom Brokaw chronicled the country’s sometimes tortured history and reminded viewers that nearly half of China is mired in poverty, describing it as a country of two walls: the Great Wall and “the wall around the ruling class.”


During the parade of nations, Costas and co-host Matt Lauer detailed the upheaval affecting several countries.

When the Russians passed by, they speculated that those athletes probably didn’t even know that Russian tanks had rolled into a separatist region of Georgia earlier in the day, with heavy fighting reported. When Pakistan came by, they discussed the possible impeachment of President Pervez Musharraf.

And, of course, they discussed the controversy over China’s role in supporting the Sudanese government, which has been accused of slaughtering civilians in Darfur. Costas called the Chinese decision to revoke the visa of former Olympic speedskater Joey Cheek, who is pushing a Darfur truce during the Olympics, “so contrary to the Olympic ideal, it is ridiculous.”

It is estimated that 4 billion people watched the telecast, the largest audience ever.


Too bad the West Coast had to wait 15 hours to become part of that group.

Old story, new urgency

Tape-delayed Olympic broadcasts have been grudgingly accepted by U.S. viewers, especially those on the West Coast, for as long as the Games have been on the tube. But they were easier to swallow when there was nowhere else for the audience to go.

Not today. NBC has trumpeted the various vehicles it has assembled for transmitting the Olympics, from the standard network telecasts to cable outlets, the Internet and even mobile devices.


All that but no way to see the opening ceremony live?

That ceremony began at 5 a.m. PDT Friday but wasn’t shown until 8 p.m. In an age when a Dodgers fan with a computer can find out the count on Manny Ramirez in the middle of an at-bat in San Francisco, viewers, judging by the flood of e-mail, are no longer satisfied with being relegated to replays.

Reader Tom Freil said he figured out a way to hook into KBS, a South Korean channel.

Wrote Freil: “Not HDTV, not English, but at least I feel like I’m participating along with the rest of the world. . . . I wish NBC would grow up. There are people like me who would pay perhaps $10 to see events like the opening ceremonies.”


Why not show the ceremony live and then replay it in the evening? There are people who would get up to watch or would tape it to play upon getting up.

NBC, of course, would prefer to hold out for what it hopes will be big ratings in prime time. What it loses is the anticipation of the moment and the drama of the lighting of the torch, as word leaks out. And not just through viewers like Freil, who find their own ways to circumvent NBC. The network’s own website had a photo of Ning in midflight a full three hours before he soared on the West Coast telecast.