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TCA: NBC’s Ebersol Gears Up for Olympics

Beverly Hills -- Beleaguered American viewers can take heart: The Olympic Games are coming.

The Games, which kick off Aug. 8, will provide a respite from the drumbeat of bad news, said Dick Ebersol, chairman of NBC Universal Sports and Olympics.

“It isn’t exactly a joyful time in America right now: $4 gas; people who can’t afford vacations; wild food prices. [Americans] are really looking for something to cheer for,”’ said Ebersol, appearing via satellite from Beijing at the Television Critics Association press tour here Monday morning.

NBC will program more hours than ever -- 3,600 -- with an unprecedented amount of live events in primetime including marquee events in swimming, gymnastics and track and field.

Ebersol said there was no arm-twisting necessary in convincing the International Olympic Committee to stage events in the morning in Beijing so that those events could be seen live in primetime in America.

“The IOC did this in hopes that it would help in marketing the most important event in the world,” he said, adding that he learned lessons from coverage missteps in Atlanta, where too many events were shown on tape-delay, and Sydney, Australia, where the prepackaged features were an object of critical derision.

The separation of church and state between NBC Sports and NBC News will be organic, Ebersol said. NBC News will have a heavy presence in Beijing with anchors including NBC Nightly News’ Brian Williams and Today’s Matt Lauer and Meredith Vieira anchoring their respective shows live from various locales including Tiananmen Square. Chief foreign correspondent Richard Engel will also be in-country for reports about the political situation. And Dr. Nancy Snyderman will contribute health reports, including a piece on the effects of the heavy pollution in China.

“If this becomes a news story or a series of news stories other than Olympic events, we are certainly there to cover them,” Ebersol said. “But we’re not going to cavalierly blow off sporting events to show news.”

That said, the Olympics, he added, are not “just about sports. It’s about China. China is new to the world. [Any] level of openness is really a whole new thing for them. It’s clearly a learning experience for them. I think they’re capable of incredible openness. I think they’ve even surprised themselves in that regard.”

The Chinese government will allow limited live coverage for Olympic rights holders from politically charged locations around the country including Tiananmen Square and the Great Wall.

“It’s a starting point,” Ebersol said. “Would we like more? Of course we would. Change is afoot here. Trust is being developed. I’m not naïve. But it’s a starting point and I don’t believe it would have happened without the Olympics.”

For the latest news and video from the TCA press tour, click here.