NEW YORK — An NBC News delegation that includes Tom Brokaw, Connie Chung, Bryant Gumbel, Jane Pauley and Boyd Matson began assembling in China this week.
They are there to broadcast news, interviews and features about the country on "NBC Nightly News," "Today" and, this Sunday only, "Meet the Press" and the new "Sunday Today" show that Matson co-anchors.
The broadcasts, starting today with a tape-delayed "Today" show and a live "Nightly News," will originate from Beijing until Wednesday. The two programs will then move to Shanghai and stay there until their Oct. 2 finale.
More than 100 staffers are making the trip, which sources say was budgeted at $3 million.
The trip doubtless will be considered by some observers as merely an attention-seeking pilgrimage aimed more at boosting ratings early in the new TV season than providing truth and light.
But "Nightly News" anchorman Brokaw and NBC News President Larry Grossman each insist that it has a sound journalistic basis, although Grossman concedes that this is a good time to go to China, what with the new people-meter ratings system in full operation.
Brokaw, interviewed a week before he left on Tuesday for his fourth China visit since 1975, said that NBC had worked out with Chinese officials what he called "unparalleled access to their country and to a lot of their problems."
He conceded that the access does not include the Vietnam-China border, where fighting sporadically occurs, but he said that he was allowed to visit Tibet this summer for taped reports that will air next week on "Nightly News." And NBC News staffers will be allowed near the Chinese-Soviet border during their visit.
Grossman also contended that the network's China pilgrimage--which includes a scheduled taped interview with Premiere Zhao Ziyang on Brokaw's opening broadcast this evening--is of great journalistic value.
There will be a convening of the National Congress in China next month, one that may chart the future course of the country, he said. "So we thought this would be a pivotal opportunity to get a real insight into what's happening in China and have a major news story as well," Grossman said.
Still, some within NBC News question the wisdom of making the voyage at a time when a major strike--now in its 13th week--has left the news division and the entire network short on manpower.
Since June 29, when NBC was struck by 2,800 technicians and off-camera news staffers in the National Assn. of Broadcast Employees and Technicians, the network has been kept on the air by about 700 management and other personnel, some working two jobs--their usual ones and others normally filled by union members.
Although not all the members of the China expeditionary force are from NBC News offices here, Grossman readily admits that the trip is stretching thin the resources of his division.
"It really is. There's no question," he said Wednesday, adding that "it's a big risk" should a major news story--or stories--erupt elsewhere in the world while Brokaw is anchoring in China.
"We've had a lot of discussions about whether we should cut back or postpone the trip, or diminish it, or maybe keep 'Nightly' here and just send 'Today,' " Grossman said.
However, he said, "I said, 'If we're going to do it, we're going to do it right, and we'll take the risk and go whole hog all the way.' So far, I'm just keeping my fingers crossed."