The scene: Just before 9pm Monday. Tony Squires is in Seven’s Olympic hosting studio, interviewing Ian Thorpe. Squires asks a question. Thorpe apologises and says he missed that because he didn’t have “any audio”.

Squires repeats the question. What does this show?

Firstly, that Ian Thorpe is an experience media performer and knows the right TV phrases. Second, he and Squires were not in the same studio because the audio problem would not have been there. And third, Melbourne isn’t Athens, but don’t tell the Seven Network that.

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Sensitivities are rising in Seven about the coverage and the way opportunities have been allowed to slip to exploit the fact that it is the host broadcaster. People working at Seven see Nine News and A Current Affair doing nice packages and follow up stories that they know they are capable of doing.

For them the fact is Seven News (until Sunday evening nationally) has been doing much better than Nine, topping the most popular program lists or running second to the prime time coverage. But not running Today Tonight, even in a shortened form, especially in the first week when Australia was doing well in swimming has meant Nine’s A Current Affair has had it easy, with feature after feature on some of the Australians, culminating in the nice little group get together Monday night with the women gold medal winners from swimming. Seven was nowhere.

Likewise, with Ian Ross hosting the Sydney News and anchors in other states, it seems curious that Seven hasn’t switched every night straight to Athens to get an update from whoever was the senior reporter there. Like Nine has been doing with veteran Olympics reporter, Michael Usher. Nine News has been getting reasonable numbers and hasn’t been crushed by the boost Seven News has got from the Olympics. This is noticeable in Sydney when Nine News and ACA have really underperformed since April. Although on Sunday night Nine News in Sydney didn’t do as well as it did nationally.

But there have been some humorous asides. At 6.01pm, one night last week, Michael Usher was saying good evening to Jim Waley in Sydney and Peter Hitchener in Melbourne, while he was late with the report on the two Greek sprinters dropping out of the Games. Seven led with it. So where are the stories that prove Seven News is really in Athens and that what’s there isn’t just a gang of token reporters covering events?

Colour stories, long a staple of all games coverage might be boring, but they are effective in proving to viewers that they are watching reporters and others “on the spot’. Seven will dispute much of this and claim it is Nine feeding a line. Packer spin. And some of these lines have been heard and read from Nine spinners. Nine will claim that Seven is not being upfront about certain things.

Seven says more people are watching Seven in afternoons than watching Nine or Ten in primetime. Athens (across 6:00am-midnight) is up on Atlanta, which was up on Barcelona, which was up on Seoul (in our time zone, by the way) and Los Angeles. Seven’s primetime is up on Barcelona and Atlanta. Barcelona was live coverage in a similar time zone to Athens. Atlanta was complete tape delay.

So there’s no doubting that Seven has got big audiences for its coverage so far. But it is also not disputed that at certain times on Thursday and Sunday nights, non-Olympic viewing on the Nine and Ten network beat Seven’s Olympic coverage.

For example this was from the Ten network’s Sunday night report, issued on Monday, “Both Australian Idol and Law & Order: Criminal Intent out-rated the Olympics in 16 to 39 and 25 to 54 last night, while Criminal Intent swept its timeslot in total people as well.”

Now Seven would say we are interested in total audiences. Well, a repeat of Law & Order: Criminal Intent, beat the coverage in total people.

In fact Ten is selling itself a bit short. The preliminary figures from Oztam show that 1.661 million people watched Australian Idol, while Law & Order was watched by 1.594 million people. Seven’s Olympic prime time coverage was watched by 1.585 million.

And National Nine News was the most watched program nationally, just ahead of Seven news with 1.878 million people to 1.837 million. The coverage from Seven has seemed flat in the news and flat from the broadcast centre, in Melbourne.

As I said earlier Melbourne isn’t Athens. And although Seven hasn’t disguised the fact that it’s hosting from Docklands, it looks flat, all beige and pastels, when Greece and Athens is in the midst of a hot summer. Dry, burnt, looking, sweaty and alive, even with attendances down.

And if you were a Seven “personality”, how would you describe Athens and the Seven broadcast facility? You can’t. It’s in Melbourne in a big concrete stadium and looking like an AFL football field. At least it has a roof!

No sense of urgency or the wave of success or disappointment from the hosts stuck in their beige cocoons. They could be, well, in Melbourne. And not all sports are being called live from Athens. Gordon Bray had to remain in Melbourne to call the Australia South Africa Rugby union game last Saturday night. I’ve heard him calling hockey on at least one occasion. So that call had to come off a monitor from Melbourne.

So much for being “there” and being “part” of the action. The swimming call has had more drama and more colour (even though some people have bagged Bruce and Don for being “flat”). At least they were there and the crowd noise was coming straight into their mikes! That was because Seven was the host broadcaster for the swimming and aquatic events. And did a good job.

Bruce is now calling the Athletics and doing a good job because of his knowledge. But why haven’t viewers seen him doing pieces to camera for the news and other broadcasts. Doing something for Sunrise, chatting to swimmers and others after the event. Packaged up and sent to Melbourne to be used whenever.

As usual Roy Slaven and HG Nelson have been outstanding and show the difference between being in a studio somewhere, and getting out and about and having the athletes (from other countries as well as Australia) come in to take part in the anarchy. Good, clever television.

When rumours that Nine was planning a forum of athletes after the games, Seven dispatched a Today Tonight person to Athens last week to try and make sure Seven had one. ACA popped up with a nice spoiler tonight with the women swimmers.

Seven News had an exclusive interview with Sally Robbins, the rower who stopped rowing in the eights. ACA had an interview with a former rower who revealed that the woman in Athens had stopped rowing in a world title race a couple of years ago in a quad boat (four crew). Seven had no presence or way of exploiting the story in Australia.

Seven’s audience and share figures have been easing (as they do every games) as it drags on and people get tired. It could very well be that later this week Seven and Ten could be neck and neck, say Thursday night.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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