Dan Rather will broadcast this week from the inner sanctum of China's last emperor. Bernard Shaw is ensconced at a high-tech studio in a graceful garden. And "Good Morning, America" will in some measure become "Good Evening, China."
It's Big Event time in television land, and the American networks are primping for Monday's arrival in Beijing of Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev for the first summit with China since 1959. History is in the making, and so is television footage.The charismatic Gorbachev will shake hands with China's crustily telegenic leader, Deng Xiaoping, easing decades of enmity between the major communist powers. The Soviet leader plans made-for-TV opportunities such as a walkabout in the capital's main square.
In a longer-running series, Chinese college students are threatening to continue recent protests for democracy in central Tiananmen Square virtually on the doorstep of the Great Hall of the People, where the summiteering will be going on.
Television's hungry lenses are already deployed to feed the hoopla worldwide. Japanese and Europeans have arrived in small video armies, as has Soviet TV. Then there's Chinese government television, which with 500 million viewers has the world's biggest audience and most invulnerable ratings numbers.
The four U.S. networks are differing in their dispatch of Big Names for the Big Event, but coverage from China will dominate the week's morning and evening news shows.
From Beijing, Rather will anchor the "CBS Evening News" all week from a courtyard in the red-walled Forbidden City, the one-time imperial palace where the film "The Last Emperor," depicting the life of the deposed child emperor Pu Yi, was shot.
CNN's Shaw will anchor the cable network's prime-time newscasts beginning Sunday night from a spanking new outdoor studio amid the stone walks and placid pools of a Chinese garden. It's actually in back of the Great Wall Sheraton Hotel.
NBC's Tom Brokaw and ABC's Peter Jennings will anchor from New York, but spokesmen for both networks say they also plan extensive coverage of communism's new era, both in international friendship offensives and in domestic political and economic reform.
The networks are no strangers to time differences, but Beijing's 13-hour lead on New York means live shots for morning shows such as ABC's "Good Morning America" will be conducted after dark. Rather will say "Good evening" at 7:30 a.m. local time, and Shaw will be up in the wee hours for an afternoon CNN newscast.
And the networks have been fighting bureaucracy and technology obstacles with nail-biting negotiations and a warehouse of imported video wizardry.
"It's been a minor nightmare," sighed one network producer. "You need approvals from a dozen government agencies for everything. But we're used to it."
CBS has mounted the most ambitious effort, with 60 staffers and its own satellite-transmission dish antenna to broadcast its evening news and special segments for its morning show. Technicians had to bring in generators for power in the Forbidden City.
The network has had four news teams roaming China for weeks to illustrate what senior producer Susan Zirinsky calls the "changing face of communism," with segments ranging from life at the Soviet border to China's nouveau riche, a product of economic reform.
It has even signed on as a consultant Bette Bao Lord, the Shanghai-born wife of former U.S. Ambassador to China Winston Lord and the best-selling author of the novel "Spring Moon."
"CBS made a conscious decision to expand its role and give people a choice," said Zirinsky, who declined to discuss the network's budget for the week.
CNN will originate one to two hours a day of programming from Beijing this week and air 18 news and feature reports prepared for the summit, according to network spokeswoman Piper Parry. Shaw will lead CNN's Newswatch, Prime News and Evening News shows.
ABC, meanwhile, also has a "Nightline" crew on hand for shows focusing on the summit and China. Ted Koppel will anchor from Washington with interview guests from Beijing.
NBC decided not to anchor in part so as not to repeat a 10-day blizzard of China coverage in the fall of 1987, when all its major news shows originated in Beijing, said Mike Mosher, the network's news manager for Asia.
"But this will be a major news event," Mosher said, adding NBC has arranged a broadcast site overlooking Tiananmen Square.