The ABC has been a member of the Olympic family for 67 years, but this week has gone into self-imposed exile, electing not to broadcast the upcoming Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympic Games.
The announcement shocked the Australian Olympic Committee and led to plenty of calls to local ABC stations around the nation as listeners offered their reaction to the news.
The ABC’s head of radio, Judith Whelan, said it was purely and simply “a money issue”.
The ABC says it would cost $1 million to stage its coverage at a time when the organisation is trying to find savings more than 84 times that amount and budgets are already under pressure with more emergency broadcasting this year.
The million-dollar question is whether the ABC’s decision is justifiable. But there are other questions too: Is the Olympic games still relevant to the ABC’s radio audience? Is the Olympic games still relevant full stop? Does the ABC have a responsibility under its charter to cover the Olympic games?
Rights up for grabs
The $1 million budget includes the rights fee that would be paid to the domestic rights holder, the Seven Network. Tokyo 2020 is the last in a three-games deal for Seven signed in 2014 and worth a reported $200 million.
Channel Seven then has the option to sell rights to partners in pay TV, commercial and non-commercial radio.
It’s understood the fee being negotiated with Seven was not dissimilar to the amount paid for the 2016 Rio Olympic Games, and the fee itself was a minimal part of the ABC’s overall budget.
After six months of negotiating the ABC informed Seven earlier this month that it was not going to proceed.
One of the arguments put forward by ABC management is that the Games product is available elsewhere, such as the Seven Network, pay TV and commercial radio.
So too is cricket, AFL and NRL, and the ABC hasn’t stopped purchasing those radio rights.
What does the Charter say?
The ABC Charter is a little like the Australian Constitution: we all know of it, but how many Australians have read it?
Briefly, it requires the ABC to provide “programs that contribute to a sense of national identity and inform and entertain, and reflect the cultural diversity of the Australian community”.
That could just as easily be a description of the Australian Olympic team: 400-plus athletes from diverse backgrounds, wearing the green and gold, giving their all in sports that range from high profile to barely discussed.
The Charter also says it’s the responsibility of the ABC to “provide a balance between broadcasting programs of wide appeal and specialised broadcasting programs”.
It doesn’t say how much the national broadcaster should be prepared to pay for specialised broadcasts.
What about relevance?
So is the Olympic games still relevant to the ABC’s radio audience?
Despite the last Olympics in Rio occurring in perhaps the most unfriendly of time zones, radio ratings were up 2 per cent compared with the same ratings period a year earlier.
ABC Grandstand’s DAB+ stations achieved the best results of the year during that period. Compared with a year earlier it was down by 10 per cent — a negative result until it is put into perspective: the average annual decline was 16 per cent.
Given those figures, you’d be justified in asking whether people are as interested in consuming sport on radio as they once were.
Is there more competition in the marketplace? Is the coverage not reflecting the changing demographics in a nation where one-third of the population is born overseas — with interests outside of wall-to-wall swimming coverage?
David Rowe is Emeritus Professor of Cultural Research at the Institute for Culture and Society at Western Sydney University. He co-edited a book called Sport, Public Broadcasting, and Cultural Citizenship: Signal Lost?
He says the ABC doing live commentary from the Olympics is a product of the analogue era.
“A segment of the mainly older, largely Anglo-Celtic audience will miss out and feel legitimately irritated,” he says. “But that diminishing audience is getting more digitally savvy in any case. It was notable that the immediate response was nostalgic, with the classic Norman May 1980 ‘Gold, Gold, Gold’ call being compulsively replayed.”
The type of listener who would be disadvantaged also evoked familiar, mainly masculine Aussie mythological figures such as “the farmer and the truckie”, he said.
But ABC radio is also proud of the fact that it has made a commitment to sporting events and competitions played by women.
Olympic history tells us Australian women are twice as likely to win a gold medal and more likely to win a medal of any colour than their male counterparts.
At the last Olympic games in Rio Australia won eight gold medals. Five were won by women: rower Kim Brennan, modern pentathlete Chloe Esposito, shooter Catherine Skinner, the women’s 4×100 metre freestyle swimming team and the women’s rugby sevens team.
Disruption everywhere for sport
Sports broadcasting is an industry full of disrupters.
Sports have taken control of their product as the digital world explodes.
Telcos are buying into the space, Facebook is bidding for sports rights, apps that stream ball-by-ball coverage are a dime a dozen.
Social media, and celebrity users, are changing the landscape almost daily.
Sports stories that set our new social-media-driven world abuzz are less about who wins gold and more about who’s taking bribes, or taking a knee, or failing a drug test, or negotiating equal pay deals, or the future for thoroughbreds after retirement from racing.
Podcasting is seeing exponential growth. For many, podcasting is just another word for what was once radio. It relies on all the same techniques and has that same personable quality that people have always credited radio for.
Radio sport is in a re-building phase. The golden days of traditional radio commentary, sadly, seem to be gone.
Radio needs to add value, not just replicate an increasingly segmented digitally driven market.
What will the future look like?
Given the state of flux at the moment few are willing to predict the future or offer an answer to the future of radio sport, let alone the future of the Olympics itself.
It’s questions like these that are debated inside the newly built International Olympic Committee headquarters in Lausanne.
The cost of construction would have funded the ABC’s coverage of the Olympic Games for the next 200 years. But will the Games still exist then?
The BBC, NBC and locally Channel Seven will probably still be vying for what seems to be an insatiable appetite for televised sport, but the games themselves will look very different.
The IOC now hosts the Youth Olympic Games, hoping to attract younger audiences to their “family”, audiences that are looking elsewhere for their fix.
New sports like rock climbing and surfing have been added to the schedule alongside sports that have been contested for hundreds of years. What’s next is anyone’s guess.
Perhaps they’ll be known as the e-Olympics, where audiences will be the competitors, too, using consoles to butterfly down a virtual pool, or scale a make-believe mountain, or skateboard in a digital bowl.
What is the future? It’s a question both the ABC and the Olympic movement are wrestling with.