BEIJING, SEPT. 25 -- Willard Scott picked up an intestinal bug on the Yangtze River. Tom Brokaw angered officials in Tibet. Bryant Gumbel was mobbed at the Beijing zoo -- by American tourists. So goes life in China for NBC as the network embarks on the most ambitious television coverage ever attempted of this still exotic land.
In a series of reports and live broadcasts that started today and will continue until Oct. 2, the network is attempting a comprehensive portrait of a "Changing China." Whether it will move much beyond pretty pictures literally remains to be seen.
But there can be no arguing with the scope of the effort. NBC television has flown in more than a hundred of its top people from around the world, tons of equipment and all the latest telephone and satellite technology, to leapfrog many of the communications problems that usually bedevil foreign reporters here.
The 10 hours of live programming alone will comprise a technological wonder.
But there is no way to leapfrog the Chinese bureaucracy, the Chinese "barbarian handlers" who deal with reporters, or the unforeseen snafus that can sandbag any venture in a foreign land.
Gumbel, for example, didn't expect a problem with camera-snapping American tourists while reporting on the pandas at the Beijing zoo. He completed his mission after technicians isolated him behind a barrier of audio and video cables.
Scott has yet to arrive in Beijing to confirm reports of his illness. But no one doubts that on Monday he will deliver his weather report from the Great Wall of China.
Brokaw encountered more serious trouble. The "NBC Nightly News" anchor, like any tourist trying to break the ice in Tibet, handed out pictures of the Dalai Lama in a Tibetan marketplace. Chinese officials protested the distribution of pictures of the revered Tibetan leader whose land they control. They threatened to withdraw government assistance from the TV venture if NBC showed Brokaw with the pictures.
"It was way out of proportion," said Brokaw. "In their kind of rhetorical way, they were saying, 'If this can't be resolved, we don't know if the project can go forward.' "
Brokaw decided not to use the disputed Tibetan footage but will comment on the incident in his Tibet piece, which promises to be one of the harder-hitting stories in the series.
While Chinese officials are experts at smilingly insuring that unpleasant news remains hidden, NBC producers promise there will be coverage of the dark side of Chinese life as well, including a visit to a prison and a look at how ubiquitous neighborhood committees keep an eye on people.
Having made several trips to China since 1975, Brokaw says he is aware of the dangers of romanticizing China. His reports, together with three pieces by correspondent Garrick Utley on youth, the rural economy and the cultural revolution, all showing on the "NBC Nightly News," may help this major effort look like more than a travelogue.
NBC will bring viewers entertainment galore, including a profile of the monastery where kung fu was born and a Chinese rock band playing against the gorgeous backdrop of the ancient Forbidden City.
Thoughtful "Today" pieces will include Gumbel's look at the many problems facing Chinese agriculture and a five-part series on the lives of ordinary Chinese. The series will describe the problems of sex, courtship, marriage and divorce as well as providing a profile of one of the country's many pampered children.
NBC gives Richard Nixon, Secretary of State George Shultz and Winston Lord, the U.S. ambassador to China, a chance to talk about the American relationship with China, but for the most part, the Chinese are allowed to speak for themselves.
Like everyone else connected with the "Changing China" program, Brokaw said the biggest problem has been getting approvals from all levels of the Chinese bureaucracy.
"Everybody's got his own autonomy," he said.
To do a story on a train trip to Shanghai, for example, "You get everything worked out with the Chinese central TV people and the Shanghai people, but the train people won't let you on the train.
"And we're doing things people haven't done before," he said, including "live television from the Forbidden City at night ... when they never have allowed anybody in there."
Brokaw said almost everything the network has asked for, it has been able to do. But it has not received access to China's leader, Deng Xiaoping, and it has also failed to interview the Chinese intellectuals under Communist Party pressure at the moment. Fang Lizhi, the most outspoken dissident, has made it clear that he does not want to appear on television.
Deng is said to be still angry over cuts which the CBS "60 Minutes" program made in its interview with him last year. Now 83, he also apparently wants to withdraw more to the sidelines, letting other leaders be the spokesmen.
So Brokaw interviewed the acting Communist Party chief, Premier Zhao Ziyang.
But he thinks it's a positive sign that Zhao Ziyang talked with him without setting any conditions beforehand. He also sees a positive message in NBC's getting as much access as it has in a year when there has been so much turmoil in China's top leadership.
NBC executives are reluctant to say how much the big China show is costing, but persistent questioning produces estimates "in the 5- to 6 million dollar range."
A look at the big vans and trucks, the 4.3-meter satellite dish and all the engineers wandering around a large corner of the Forbidden City explains why this kind of thing is expensive. NBC technicians are on strike in New York, so the network brought in engineers from Australia.
NBC also brought in its own telephone network. Lines run from the network's Beijing headquarters at the Great Wall Hotel out to the Forbidden City. Then the satellite dish takes over, beaming calls up and out to New York and 30 Rockefeller Plaza.
"We've got four lines giving us instant communication with our studios in New York," said Bobby Lee Lawrence, general manager for NBC News engineering. "We've got autonomous power ... You pick up a phone here, dial nine, and you can get any office phone at 30 Rock."
Some of the microprocessor technology is so new that NBC had to get Defense Department permission to bring it over here, Lawrence said.
"We took a lot of risks," he said. "Satellite transmission from a Third World country is always difficult."
But he added that every time NBC does a week on the road from a foreign country, its ratings go up.
"And there's always a strong interest in any country that's been hidden away from the West, like Russia or China," he said.
Gordon Manning, former vice president of editorial projects at NBC News, took the "Today" show to the Soviet Union in September 1984 for a full week of unprecedented live broadcasting every morning from Red Square. The China project, however, goes one step further. It is an across-the-board effort, with "Today" being joined by "NBC Nightly News," "Sunday Today" and "Meet the Press."
Why China? And why now?
One reason, says Manning, now a staff consultant for NBC News and one of the brains behind the China project, is that China is facing a major Communist Party congress in October, with leadership changes underway.
Another reason is that the new satellite technology makes the whole operation feasible, if not cheap.
But one of the biggest reasons for the project, probably, is that China wanted it. In August 1985, Manning received a call from Ma Yuzhen, director of the information department in the ministry of foreign affairs. He was traveling through the United States with China's President Li Xiannian.
Ma wanted to know when Manning was coming back to China to work on one of the journalistic projects that he and Manning had discussed in the past. That, according to Manning, was the initial spark for the "Changing China" project.
Then began what Manning describes as difficult negotiations over access -- access to people and places in China and access to leaders. Manning's job has been overseeing, advising and persuading on behalf of the project.
"It hasn't been easy," he said. "Access was delayed. And we've had to deal with suffocating ministries."
But hopefully what will emerge will be historic television: something, as Manning says, that will "go beyond a scenic, National Geographic view of China.