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Australian media and the Olympics: prepare for further disappointment

It’s time for Australian broadcasters to get smart about how they show live sport. If they don’t, we’ll go elsewhere. Tim McFarlane

The Olympic Games are a fascinating yardstick for how much things have changed in the preceding four years. As Beijing’s fake fireworks beamed across our TV screens, Kevin Rudd was still Prime Minister, the Global Financial Crisis was still mainly a US problem, and Facebook had only just begun its march towards world domination.

And Channel Seven could get away with a thoroughly dysfunctional, utterly jingoistic approach to covering the Games, in marked contrast to SBS’s knowledgeable, live coverage of the “niche” sports.

Seven, for those of you who’ve chosen to forget this epic fail in Australian sports broadcasting, elected to broadcast AFL over Olympic sports. It time-shifted its coverage of major events in order to better target prime-time audiences, and privileged talking heads in the studio over live crosses, as long as those heads spoke with an Australian accent.

SBS, operating on a fraction of Seven’s budget, bypassed presenters’ egos, and went straight to what mattered - even if the volleyball final didn’t feature an Australian team.

Australian commercial TV has built up an impressive track record of treating its viewers with contempt as it chases the advertising dollar and sticks to routine broadcast schedules even during major sporting events. Seven’s similarly fumbled coverage of the 2010 Australian Open, which cut away from key live matches so audiences could get their Today Tonight/ Home and Away fix, was noted as far away as the UK. The Guardian described the broadcaster as: “the most perverse television station in the world”.

Things have hardly improved since then. Thanks to the southern states’ obsession with saving daylight, for example, Queensland viewers continue to get the Open on a one-hour delay. By that time, even those tennis fans who don’t use social media will have seen the latest results somewhere.

Sadly, moving the Olympics from Seven to Nine is little reason to hope for improvement. Nine’s coverage of the 2010 Winter Olympics based itself on the Footy Show model. It aimed squarely at that demographic of white middle-aged males who’d swear that some of their best friends are gay (or foreign), and it seemed more interested in stroking host Eddie McGuire’s ego than investing in any informed coverage.

Audience responses were duly damning. Disgruntled viewers set up a Facebook page to share just how much they disliked McGuire’s cringeworthy attempts at humour.

There are plenty of other ways we can keep up with the Olympics. Erin Nekervis

And there’s the problem. You can treat your viewers with disdain as long as they have no alternative to your service (or if the only other option is taking out a pay TV subscription). But that approach begins to fail when those viewers:

a) can gather on social networking platforms to express and make visible just how much they hate your guts, and

b) can use those same channels to share instructions on how to bypass you altogether and watch the coverage of a more enlightened overseas broadcaster instead.

Even respected tech news sites such as ReadWriteWeb now openly publish guides to watching major sports events like Euro 2012 though improvised streaming media channels which are at best semi-legit. Dinosaurs such as Seven or Nine don’t stand a chance unless they massively pick up their game.

Which is something they urgently need to do, anyway. PVRs, iTunes and BitTorrent have begun to eat into their ratings for prerecorded content. As all other viewing gradually moves to more convenient time-shifted and on-demand modes of access, live (and faux-live reality TV) broadcasts are terrestrial TV’s last remaining strength.

Using social media, such as Twitter, as a backchannel to the live television experience can further heighten the sense of national - or even global - communion around the event in a way that few other mass media experiences are able to deliver. When it comes to live broadcasts, terrestrial TV and online social media are friends, not enemies: they complement one another, enhancing the viewing experience and increasing audience loyalty.

But if you delay your telecast by just a few minutes, you disconnect your viewers from that shared experience. Or perhaps more likely, you disconnect yourself from your viewers, who move on to seek that live experience elsewhere.

People prefer sharing the experience of sporting events - even if they’re sharing via Twitter with people in another country. Xiaozhuli/Flickr

The same goes, incidentally, for pushing people to use your in-house, ad-enabled backchannel technology rather than standard social media platforms. My friends and followers, who share my interests and get my jokes, are on Twitter. So why would I go to the trouble to download your Fango app just to make it easier for you to harvest my comments and extract my advertising profile?

There is a way to do it right. From the global social media chatter surrounding the event, your viewers already know what’s happening - so make sure you show them that footage, live. Engage with them where they are (on Twitter and Facebook), rather than where you might want them to be (in your proprietary spaces).

Focus on the live sport, rather than on cross-promoting your struggling celebrity yawnfests. Do all this and they’ll repay you by staying with you even as they have to sit through the ads.

It’s still much more convenient to watch the Olympics in glorious free-to-air HD on Channel Nine than to follow a grainy illicit livestream with Chinese commentary from CCTV-5 - but only if the TV broadcast actually covers what’s happening at the Games. Based on past performance, sadly, I don’t hold out much hope this will be the case as Channel Nine covers London 2012.

Prove me wrong, Eddie. Please.

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