Issue #1559 8 August 2012
No medals for the private sector
It used to be government policy that major sporting events would be available to viewers on free-to-air television. But not any more if the present Olympic coverage is anything to go by. The present Channel 9 monopoly over free-to-air coverage is scandalous. The criticisms of narrow focus on a few sports, the focus on Australians, the failure to show whole or even substantial parts of matches and constant interruptions with advertisements are well founded. So too are the complaints about endless repetition of swimming events and the analysis of them. The Olympics is an unparalleled opportunity to watch the top athletes in a wide range of sports. But not in the hands of Channel 9. Instead we have been fed a constant stream of drivel and hype.
The media pressure placed on athletes was appalling. At times you could be forgiven for thinking that only Australia, despite its relatively small population, went into the Games with any medal chances. There were the political attacks on the young Chinese swimmer with wild accusations about drugging, that her performances were impossible. At the same time miracle performances by an American swimmer were heralded as the greatest sporting achievement ever.
Nine and Foxtel Pay TV have a monopoly of coverage. It was quite different to the 2008 Olympics when a commercial channel did the sensational short grabs in a few select sports and endless medal ceremonies, and the free-to-air public broadcaster SBS ran a full schedule of matches and events covering a range of sports. It was possible to turn on and watch a badmington or table tennis match in its entirety, to see all the competitors in javelin throwing, or watch the wrestling if that was your interest. Viewers were exposed to a range of sports that they were not necessarily familiar with and possibly even motivated to take up a sport.
The SBS coverage was not, “Aussies, repeats of Aussies, interviews of Aussies, analysis of Aussies, back stories of Aussies”, to quote one response to the Courier Mail’s request for feedback on Nine’s coverage. “It’s a World Game, not the Aussie Games.’’ The Olympics are “about the world coming together to celebrate sports and the Olympics spirit. The media has completely insulted the Games with their obsession with Aussies and gold medals.’’ There was no free-to-air SBS with its excellent coverage this time. Anyone who wanted to see the sports being played, rather than watch sobbing competitors and gold medal counts needed to sign up with Foxtel – not just for the basic package but for additional sports channels. Nine and Foxtel paid about $120 million to the International Olympic Committee for their TV monopoly over the 2010 winter Olympics and the London Games.
Even in cold, economic terms, Nine’s attempts to foster Australian nationalism have misfired. It is missing out on a huge potential audience. Australia is a multicultural country with ethnic communities who might like to have seen the football or basketball team from their homeland compete. While Nine has drawn large audiences, there are millions more who turned off after a couple of evenings frustrated at not seeing sports events. Some in desperation took out a subscription to Foxtel, which after all was one of the aims of the exercise.
The coverage has generated its own backlash. It has kindled negative assessments of the Australian Olympic squad in spite of numerous outstanding performances. There appears to be an attitude that if the media monopolies are going to provide multi-million dollar coverage, the athletes had better deliver gold or else.
Nine made a big thing that it was bringing live coverage, but had a knack of cutting off live events at critical moments to run ads or repeat an interview or summary of events for the third of fourth time. Even Aussie tennis hero Lleyton Hewitt got cut off. People want to see a sport being played to its full, not a couple of players walking off a court or table at the end of a match.
The more technologically astute viewers have found online streams to watch for free but not everyone has the knowhow or is in a position to do this, nor should they need to.
Channel 9 and Foxtel’s monopoly of TV coverage are the antithesis of the “Olympic Spirit” and the much touted claim of being “the people’s games”. The Olympic Games is the largest private, corporate event in the world and the corporate monopoly over the coverage of these Games in Australia is just one facet of that profit-driven event in which athletes become commodities. It is time to begin the campaign for our public broadcasters to be given the right to cover the next Olympics and other major sporting events.
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