Normalization of relations between the People's Republic of Ching and the American television networks languished in a snag yesterday as the networks began their coverage of Chinese Vice Premier Teng Hsiao-ping's week long visit here.
When great bureaucracies sit down to dinner together, it's often a long time between appetizer and dessert.
"The Chinese clearly do not understand our ways and means of doing things," grumped one network news executive.
"They like things carefully planned out ahead of time," said ABC's Barbara Walters. "They're not used to our ways."
And so, while Teng smiled cheerfully into the TV cameras and while the president tried to get his guest's title straight, negotiations continued backstairs at the networks to bring about a planned group interview with Teng set, tentatively, for 3 p.m. tomorrow at Blair House.
Walter Cronkite of CBS, David Brinkley of NBC and Frank Reynolds of ABC, plus Jim Lehrer of the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) would do the intervewing, but only if the ground rules can be worked out. So far, it's still no dice as far as the Chinese are concerned.
"These things are not in the public area and I wouldn't comment to anyone about these negotiations," growled a feisty Ed Fouhy of CBS News. But other sources said the big snafu is over the Chinese insistence that all of Teng's answers be broadcast in full with no editing by the networks. They have also demanded sequential instead of simultaneous translations because they say Chinese is a subtle language and open to misinterpretation if rushed.
"They made it clear there was a way they wanted to do it, and that's how it would be done," said ABC News Vice President Jeff Gralnick. "It all gets very Byzantine."
When the Teng visit was announced in December, the network news departments immediately began vying for interviews. ABC News wanted to send Frank Reynolds to Peking before Teng left and get a big scoop, but CBS News was simultaneously proposing that Walter Cronkite do the same thing.
When the Chinese finally made a tentative agreement to do the group interview, they specified the names of the network anchors -- Brinkley, Cronkite and Reynolds -- as the interviewers. That left none other than Barbara Walters out in the cold.
Standing up Barbara Walters for an interview is simply not protocol. But Walters said yesterday she won't chastize the Chinese for this gaffe.
"It was not something that broke my heart," said Walters. "I haven't been tearing my hair. I have enough assignments, and there's no competition between Frank and me. I'm sorry, but so be it."
Now Walters is pushing for a second group interview, this one to be taped Sunday at the end of Teng's visit, and she is willing to go to Seattle, Teng's last stop, if necessary.
Walters said an exclusive interview with Teng appears "not at all possible." It has become custom for the networks to play leapfrog in the quest for exclusives with newsworthy potentates. But Cronkite said yesterday he is aware of no race to snare Teng and is glad there hasn't been one. He was critical last year of the competition between networks for interviews with Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat during the six-day peace following Camp David.
"I'm not participating in any effort to get Teng and I don't know that the other networks are," said Cronkite. "I'd like to think it's because my own discontent over this unseemly scramble has maybe filtered down to others at the network.
"I'm all for exclusive interviews if you can get them," Cronkite said. "I just dislike the scramble for them. It gets to be a matter of lining up -- 'You. A, you go in at 2 o'clock and you, B, you go in at 2:30 and you, C, at 3. That's a little bit ridiculous."
Cronkite will host a 20-minute wrapup of Teng's activities so far at 8:40 tonight on CBS. ABC scheduled an eight-minute recap for the halftime of last night's Pro Bowl game and plans another report at 11:30 p.m. tomorrow. NBC planned a half-hour special to air at 11:30 last night.
Meanwhile there are other sources of friction between the netwouks over the Teng coverage -- for one, how to spell his name. CBS and ABC have stuck with the traditional Teng Hsiaoping, but NBC has opted for the newly revised Chinese version, Deng Xiaoping.
"That's the spelling today," said an NBC News spokesman.
"They're wrong," said a CBS News spokesman.
Whether or not the networks get tomorrow's show on the road, the Zhao Zhong Xiang show goes on. Zhao Zhong Xiang is not the sound made by the NBC chimes; it's the name of the Chinese reporter who each night hosts a half-hour report on Teng's visit that is prepared here and sent by satellite back to Peking for transmission in China.
NBC has provided a producer, Ray Lockhart, camera crews and equipment for the telecasts, and the other networks will handle the satellite "feed" from Teng's other stops -- Atlanta, Houston and Seattle. Network news spokesmen say this gesture of generous goodwill has nothing to do with planting seeds of friendship for future relations with the Chinese.
Still, it can't hurt to water the sprouts a little.
The Chinese program is beamed up to the satellite at midnight each night. The show began Saturday with views of life in the U.S.A. narrated by Zhao and will now continue with scenes of Teng's visit. "The Chinese made their own animation to open the show," said one NBC News source. "It's a little satellite going across the world."
If tomorrow's interview comes off, PBS will probably be the only network to carry it live. The others are more likely to use excerpts on their evening news show, sources said.
Public television also picked up a network reject last night and televised, live from the Kennedy Center, a gala thrown for Teng and produced by George Stevens Jr. Stevens approached the commercial networks with the idea for the show but they all said nix -- they had sports and specials already scheduled.
So Stevens went to public TV -- but first to a source of money. The Atlantic Richfield Co. coughed up $500,000 for the telecast and gave it to Washington public station Channel 26 (WETA), which originated the show.
"We just thought it was a good thing to do," said an ARCO spokesman in Los Angeles yesterday. "We were making it possible for millions of Americans to see the show."
He was asked if there was any fear of involvement with a controversial issue -- since temperatures are still high in various pockets of the country over the back turned on Taiwan.
"No, I don't think so," said the spokesman. "This is an official state visit. If the United States extends the invitation, we certainly go along with it. The fact that Carter is going all out and even invited Nixon back suggests it isn't going to be a great problem for us."