Channel 7 Olympics promo

In 10 days, more than 13,000 athletes will compete in 28 sports, carrying the hopes of their countries on their shoulders. Their battles are high profile, eagerly watched by billions across the globe. But beneath the surface, there are other jousts. The Olympics are in truth a media event, and squeezing value out of the broadcast rights — or managing to garner viewer and advertiser interest without them — is the major occupation of the thousands of journalists in Rio.

Two years ago, Seven secured the broadcast rights in Australia. Its Rio2016 team is 450 strong, with around 50 dedicated Olympic hosts and reporters (Seven has signed up a host of former Olympians to commentate on individual sports alongside all its regular sports reporters). It needs the manpower, because on its various channels, the network will be broadcasting Olympics content 23 hours a day.

Sky News executive editor Rob Raschke was involved in the coverage of three Olympics while at Seven. Covering the Games, he says, was a career highlight.

“You work insane hours, you get terrific access — ’cause you paid all that money — and the pressure not to miss a single shot is really really high.

“You don’t want to see an athlete turn up on another channel. So you send your absolute best people, who work extraordinarily long hours. When you do miss something, the pressure is immediate and forceful.”

“They’re a wonderful thing to have covered. When you’re there, they’re a blur. And there’s always a result you never see coming, that catches you by surprise. That’s fun, and frightening.”

And pretty hard to plan for. To make sure it doesn’t miss anything, Seven will have “more than 1000 cameras” filming in Rio, according to its promotional material. Brazil is 13 hours behind Australia, making their day our night. That means Seven’s Olympic schedule is full during the morning and then again at night. It will use its three digital TV channels to air as much as it can. Seven’s licence is for the subscription broadcast rights as well — lacking a subscription channel, it’s launching a digital one. The Seven Olympics mobile app will have a paid “premium” version with extra coverage.

This is very much Seven’s Games. Through partnering with the Olympics (it paid about $200 million two years ago for the broadcast rights to the next two summer Olympics and the next winter Olympics in Korea), Seven has secured extraordinary access not available to anyone else. Only the broadcast licence holder, for example, can take broadcast equipment into Olympic venues. Athletes give interviews on the field, and Seven’s cameras will be the only Australian ones allowed to chase them down (at least, until the athletes step outside). If Seven fails to broadcast something, no one else who ever wants a media pass to the Olympics can show footage of it until the end of the following day. You can read a detailed description of all of the onerous restrictions here.

For everyone apart from Seven, these media rules pose the real challenge of the Olympics. Other broadcasters typically pool together — sharing video, photography and recording to level the playing field. And those who have paid for access rights carefully guard their footage.

The Athens Games brought some of the most bitter rivalries for footage. Channel Nine sneaked a crew into the swimming venue. They never got a chance to air the footage — rights-holder Seven lodged an official complaint with the Olympics. Over the years, broadcasters have developed all sorts of techniques to get around the most powerful Olympic rule, the 3×3 (which only allows non-licence holders to air three minutes of Olympics coverage three times a day in news programs only). Still photography can be artfully used in packages. Footage can be sped up or slowed down (the rules do not explicitly address this). In the past, outlets have been able to turn to file footage, which audiences might not realise is from previous Olympics. But this year, such archival footage still comes out of the the total time allowed other broadcasters, and Seven staffers will certainly have their stopwatches out.

For print outlets, the restrictions are not as obtrusive. But as outlets go online, they’ve begun to chaff.

In New Zealand this year, some of the media competitors have left the field in frustration at the restrictions. Fairfax New Zealand and NZME, owner of the New Zealand Herald, will have no reporters on the ground in Rio because getting media accreditation requires them to agree to the rules of Kiwi Olympics broadcaster Sky TV. It’s unlikely many foreign outlets will pay much attention to New Zealand’s competitors, so this’ll pose a challenge for Kiwi outlets keen to cover local athletes. “They’ll have their notebooks out watching Sky,” quipped Sky TV chief executive John Fellet. The fact that the Kiwi print outlets haven’t tried for accreditation means they’ll be able to rely on the country’s fair use laws in reporting. Seeking accreditation would have meant agreeing to conditions that restrict coverage beyond this, but would have also allowed the outlets on the ground to report what they see.

In Australia, perhaps the most famous Olympic rule protest has been through the use of Lego. ABC News Breakfast depicted Sally Pearson’s 2012 gold medal win using Lego bricks — a tactic pioneered by The Guardian in the UK to get around broadcast restrictions and embraced by the team here. For digital sports outlets, any video uploaded of Olympic footage must expire within 24 hours. One sports reporter told Crikey this is why his team didn’t bother with it much. “It’s so resource intensive to find, edit, cut and upload digital content [videos] only for it to be taken down that we wouldn’t see the value.”

And is the public interest there? Raschke fears it is declining.

“London was an ordinary Olympics from Australia’s perspective. We didn’t do that well, and the care factor was dramatically lower. Was it just because of those games, or a trend? I don’t know.”

Nine reportedly lost $25 million on covering on the 2012 London Games and the 2010 Vancouver Winter Games — it paid $122 million for the two. Seven got three Olympics (two summer and one winter), for “under” $200 million, according to coverage in 2014. In an age of ballooning sports rights deals (sport is one of the few things viewers still have to watch live), the value of the Olympics broadcast has declined slightly.

The Australian reports that Seven is targeting $100 million in ad revenue for the Games. It’s an ambitious target. Broadcasters have lost money on the Games recently. If Seven hits it, it’ll have covered half the cost of the broadcast licence, and will have another two Olympics to make a profit.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey