In Depth

NBC Olympics: Beijing Olympics Opening Ceremony

On Aug. 8, 2008, an estimated 2 billion people worldwide watched the televised spectacle of the Opening Ceremony for the Beijing Summer Olympics at the Chinese stadium known as the Bird’s Nest. The kickoff of the Summer Games of the XXIX Olympiad was designed by creative director Zhang Yimou, an acclaimed filmmaker. Bucky Gunts directed the event for TV, anchored by NBC Sports and Olympics host Bob Costas and “Today” co-host Matt Lauer.

The critically acclaimed event, which featured a cast of 15,000 celebrating the rich history of centuries of Chinese culture, has added a Peabody Award to its many accolades. It incorporated a theatrical synchronized drum piece and other stunning performances, fireworks, lights, colors, music and the Parade of Nations, and climaxed with the dramatic lighting of the Olympic cauldron.

“Unquestionably, the Beijing Opening Ceremony was on so many levels the most incredible—the richest in terms of texture, color and imagination that really resonated on American television,” said executive producer Dick Ebersol. His vast experience includes having worked on the 1968 and 1972 Games while at ABC Sports, and executive producing every Olympics since Barcelona in 1992 in for NBC Sports.

“Zhang Yimou decided more than a year before to let the principals of TV inside the tent, and met with Bucky Gunts and producer David Neal 16 months before,” Mr. Ebersol said. “They had models, and did walk-throughs. He was very open about it and did the same for several international broadcasters. But that night when it was over, he saw the [television] production mounted in China, and he was heartsick. The feed in Europe he saw many hours later, and that was equally disappointing.

“But on Sunday morning he saw ours and wrote us a beautiful note saying how great it had been to watch and see his vision so totally captured,” Mr. Ebersol added. “Word got out on the street in China that everyone wanted to see the American version. It’s great to know our vision was what they wanted.”

NBC attracted a record audience for the Opening Ceremony. In the nearly 50 years of televised Olympics, the network’s coverage in Beijing was the most viewed ever for a non-U.S. Summer Olympics, with nearly 70 million total viewers.