As couch potatos and armchair heroes across Australia mourn the end of the Beijing Olympics, they should also be lamenting the lack of comprehensive and live coverage on their screens over the past fortnight, thanks in part to the government failing to accelerate the take up of Digital TV. Olympics devotees were deprived of a far more comprehensive and live coverage of many Olympic events by the Seven network broadcast.

The Seven network delivered only two Olympic channels, the main FTA channel from Beijing and a second channel from the Seven studios in Melbourne broadcast on SBS.

The 2006 Melbourne Commonwealth Games were broadcast by Nine on their FTA main channel and another eight channels on Foxtel provided more in depth coverage of individual sports. Seven refused to do a deal with Foxtel for Beijing presumably because of the enmity that Kerry Stokes feels towards not being included in Foxtel and the hostility of the C7 court case.

In many cases, Seven showed delayed broadcasts of the major Australian competitors and occasionally other medal winners. It didn’t provide live comprehensive coverage of many events. Some sports run day and night for nearly the full length of the Olympics such as the weightlifting, basketball, boxing, football, hockey and volley ball — all sports that work well on television.

The most popular sports such as gymnastics, track cycling and athletics run for a week each and could support full live coverage. The worst example would probably be the equestrian events in which Australia has a proud history and a big following (it’s one of the most searched sports on Yahoo7). Yet it received little and sporadic coverage from Hong Kong with the weakest commentary of the Olympics.

Nine has already done a deal with Foxtel, in which it is a 25% shareholder and 50% shareholder in Premier Media which provides the sporting programming to Foxtel, for a multichannel coverage of the next winter Olympics and the London Summer Olympics in 2012.

Seven had an alternative, it already broadcasts a simulcast digital channel, an HD channel and further three digital channels that are just simulcasting the main analog channel. Technically these four channels could have all provided separate Olympic programming let alone using spare unused digital channels on the other networks.

This week Media Watch reported that Seven argued they were prevented by legislation from providing the Olympics on the extra digital channels. This is true as the commercial networks are prohibited from televising sport on the anti-siphoning list on any new digital channel unless the sporting event has already been shown, or is simultaneously shown, on the main service.

However, the minister has already indicated on several occasions, including at the Pay TV ASTRA conference earlier this year, he may allow listed sports to be shown in the future on FTA digital channels without simulcasting or prior screening.

Kerry Stokes has been a great advocate for FTA digital multichannelling for many years but now that he has the channels he has failed to deliver programming leadership. It was an opportunity for Stokes to ask the Government to change the legislation to provide greater services for the period of the Olympics.

And it was a unique opportunity for the Minister to show leadership in driving our low take up of digital TV and to give a far more comprehensive coverage of Olympic sports for the Australian public who, after all, are providing the huge funding for our Olympic endeavours.

Peter Fray

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