Channel Nine have copped an absolute battering for their coverage of the Olympics. In a sense, London 2012 has been the iGames, the first ever Olympics gripped by social media’s ubiquitous presence. Australia’s under-performing athletes aren’t the only ones feeling the heat, as a glance at Channel Nine’s official Facebook page illustrates.
Over the last couple of days, the keyboard backlash has seeped into the mainstream media, including an opinion piece in yesterday’s Herald. But I think that Channel Nine have done a terrific job of broadcasting the Games.
The chief criticism has been a bias towards the swimming. The aquatic events have featured prominently, sure, bit its the headline event of the first week of any Games before making way for athletics. Furthermore, six of our 14 Beijing gold medals were won in the pool – considerably more than our two in sailing or rowing, the next best hauls – so it makes sense that the Australian broadcaster emphasises its most successful sport.
Swimming’s ability to be neatly presented also suits Nine’s buffet-style format. The Missile’s on the blocks at 5.55am, pops out of the pool a minute later, has a yarn with Giaan Rooney poolside, and Nine tallies the ratings. Sailing – where Australia won two gold medals in 2008 in the men’s and women’s 470 class – is not so lucky. Mathew Belcher and Michael Page, as well as women’s duo Elise Rechichi and Belinda Stowell, have to compete in ten hour-long races before the double-points medal round: a protracted, confusing format that does not lend itself to an audience keen to see tangible, immediate wins and losses. Brenda from Bankstown cooking dinner at 6.30 doesn’t want to concentrate on an 11-leg event that is impossible to be tidily packaged for TV.
Also bear in mind that swimmers are our biggest stars. Try naming five Aussie Olympians off the top of your head. I’d wager that James Magnussen, Stephanie Rice, Leisel Jones and Emily Seebohm would be on your list. Maybe Steve Hooker or Sally Pearson, perhaps Lauren Jackson, Cadel Evans or our tennis players. The viewing audience want to see the household names, and Channel Nine will broadcast the events that draw a crowd. With all due respect to our fencers and taekwondo-ers, if those sports were shown in place of the swimming, Australians would collectively reach for their remotes.
The second knock on Nine has been the volume and repetitiveness of their advertisements. I get it, no one likes ads. Especially from Swisse, the multi-vitamin purveyor with a mortgage on both sportsmen awkwardly acting and irony, after Cadel Evans withdrew from the time trial with fatigue. But that’s the price of free-to-air television. Nine has to pay the bills.
It’s worth remembering that Nine forked out more than $100 million for the rights to broadcast London 2012, plus many millions more on the coverage itself. They are entitled to make a buck out of it. They are allowed to play ads, and select the sports they think will attract the most viewers. And equally, if you don’t like it, you are entitled to watch Foxtel’s eight dedicated channels, which offer live and uninterrupted streams of every medal event. Sports coverage is part of the free-market economy, and if you don’t like the product Nine is selling, then don’t buy it.
Personally, I have been extremely happy to consume the magazine-style offering that Nine’s dished up. Foxtel has also played an important function by showing every event in full, complemented beautifully by an app that allows you to view all eight screens on your tablet and co-ordinate your IQ box accordingly. But Channel Nine have deftly balanced a number of events in a veritable smorgasbord of sport, a degustation that allows you to sample the best bits of the Games. And crucially, everything is live – an unbelievably difficult undertaking that ensures Australia sees medals being won in real time, before the results filter through via Twitter, a la Commonwealth Games 2010.
Nine’s use of recognisable network faces to present relatively obscure sports has been criticised by many, but in my eyes, it has often made relatively obscure sports more accessible to the layman. Michael Slater at the diving, the uber-blokey combination between rowing commentators James Brayshaw and James Tomkins, Ray ‘Rabbits’ Warren returning to the poolside, Eddie McGuire calling the distance events and Dwayne Russell hosting the equestrian have all been highlights. The decision to have Nine stablemates Karl Stefanovic, Ken Sutcliffe, Leila McKinnon and Cam Williams performing the in-studio hosting has been a clever one, adding both a slickness and familiarity to their coverage of some fairly anonymous events.
What’s more, Nine’s ability to drag the big name is peerless – look no further than Wills and Harry’s royal appearance the other morning. It was only this evening that Michael Johnson, Linford Christie and Daley Thompson joined Stefanovic on an all-star panel that tempered genial banter with a level of analysis that rubbished the Herald’s suggestion of a lack of technical discussion.
Scott McGrory – a decorated Olympian himself – should also be commended for his lucid explanation of often-complex cycling strategies alongside, in my opinion, the greatest sporting commentator I’ve ever heard, silver-tongued Scouser Phil Liggett. Ex-equestrian Lucinda Green, the excitable Andrew Gaze, and the surprisingly polished pair of Giaan Rooney and Grant Hackett have all been good, too.
The online community is entitled to chip in their two bobs worth on the pop-up soap box of social media. But I think Channel Nine is doing an excellent job of providing the kind of coverage that satisfies the huge majority of Australians, who want to see familiar faces commentating the household names in the big-ticket items. If you’re desperate for the badminton, subscribe to Foxtel. Otherwise, accept the fact that Nine is doing the best they can to capture a large audience and make a dollar from an event to which they’ve committed a power of resources.