There are eight days until the opening ceremony at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, the first Eastern Bloc Games since before the fall of the Berlin Wall. Are Australian audiences readying themselves to catch favourites like Nordic combined, curling, bobsleigh, biathlon and the death-defying skeleton?
With the opening ceremony set for 11am Sochi time, 3am AEST, you’ll be able to catch the closing moments around 6am if you’re up that early. Channel Ten, which shelled out $20 million for the Games, will be hoping for high viewership numbers. But with the time difference, will anyone be watching?
The last Winter Olympics to roll around — 2010 in Vancouver — were broadcast on Nine and attracted 580,000 viewers three days after the opening ceremony and 506,000 five days after, according to Crikey TV-man-in-residence Glenn Dyer. The last night of the Games averaged just 297,000 — a whisper of the post-opening ceremony highlights of 910,000. Once Australia stopped winning medals the audience stopped watching.
This was down from the average daily audience of 740,000 at the 2006 Turin Games and even further from the average daily viewership of 980,000 at the 2002 Salt Lake City Games.
The Sochi Games will be further disadvantaged by the time difference — Caucasian Mountain Time is seven hours behind AEST, meaning most events with a morning or afternoon start time will fall squarely in our sleeping hours. Weather is also a factor. In an article on the Vancouver Games, Dyer points out that summer is a low point for TV viewership in Australia; winter sports might be even less appealing in sweltering temperatures.
But if things heat up and Australia gets a shot at gold, particularly if it’s a riveting outside-chance win, then Ten might see a bump upwards in the numbers. Ten executives will be keeping their fingers crossed for the 56 athletes, the largest team Australia has ever sent to the Winter Olympics, says media and communications professor Terry Flew of the Queensland University of Technology. “Australians are more likely to watch when they have a chance of winning,” Flew said.
Freestyle skiing is likely to be popular with Australian audiences, with 21 of the 56 athletes competing, and Australian Olympic boss Ian Chesterman says we are a real chance.
There are also 11 athletes competing in snowboarding, but Australia did not qualify for several other, lesser known sports.
So is broadcasting the Olympics worth Ten’s money? During the 2012 Summer Games, Nine and Foxtel were able to draw almost 2.5 million people through the last weeks of competition but were unable to top Seven’s ratings after its turn at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. But since Nine and Foxtel paid a combined $120 million to broadcast the Vancouver and London Olympics and lost about $60 million between them, can Ten recoup its costs for the much less popular Winter Games?
Dr Jason Bainbridge, associate professor of media studies, journalism and communications at Swinburne University, says probably not — but that’s not the point. “Very rarely do networks make a profit — the reason why these sporting events work for these networks is that it’s a branding and advertising exercise.
“If you get someone who doesn’t normally switch on and you build your advertising around that you’ve effectively picked up a new viewer,” he said.
Ten might break even on the Sochi Winter Olympics because of the much lower outlay than Nine and Foxtel paid for Vancouver and London. But even if it doesn’t, Flew says the move will help the brand. He sees the move by Ten to broadcast the Olympics as part of a broader push by Ten for “more presence in sport”. Bainbridge concurs, saying Sochi is “a good way for Ten to get into the sporting market”.
Interestingly, an American report found women over 55 were the most avid watchers of Winter Olympics.
The Winter Olympics has always been the second cousin to the bigger, meaner Summer Olympics, which takes the lion’s share of funding, viewers and therefore ad money. Bainbridge says the Winter Olympics, like the Paralympics, have always been seen “as very much the junior partner”.
“Not that many people are excited about the Winter Olympics,” he said.