I Want to Go to Rio: Reviewing Channel Seven’s Olympic Coverage

Channel Seven’s coverage of the Rio Games this year was a significant upscaling of the Olympic viewing experience for Australian viewers, or at least it purported to be.

Promising viewers live, uninterrupted coverage of every single event for the relatively paltry fee of $21 (or free for Telstra Mobile customers), it was the first time that an Australian Free to Air TV provider had charged for a broadcasting service.

On Seven’s Free to Air services, including Seven, SevenTwo and Seven Mate, also promised 900 hours of coverage in their own right.

The move came in response to the success of the BBC and Foxtel’s Olympic coverage in 2012, with many Australians using VPN servers to access the around-the-clock coverage of BBC in protest at the paltry Free to Air service being offered by Channel Nine.

Despite the poor critical response to Seven’s 2008 Beijing coverage, Seven’s move for Rio was a promising one and there was cautious optimism toward the level of coverage that Seven was offering.

So how did they fare?

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Phil Liggett, Channel Seven’s Olympic Cycling Commentator. Photo by Paul Coster, 2009. Sourced under Creative Commons license.

Positives

– Seven’s coverage allowed for Australian viewers not interested in watching Australians to peruse watch any number of sports. Not interested in Mack Horton? You could have been watching Weightlifting or Fencing instead. Didn’t want to watch the Australian Archery Team? There was plenty of Rowing for you instead. The variety offered by Seven’s Olympic App was staggering and made up for the typically Australian focused TV coverage.

– The Olympic Broadcast Service (OBS) offered commentary free settings on the App’s Live Streams that Seven were licensing. This meant that if you were sick of Bruce McAvaney’s drama or not particularly illuminating buoyancy of Basil Zempilas there was another option: The noise and atmosphere of the Olympics. Perfect if you didn’t want to wake up some of the painfully bad calling that people associate with the Olympics.

In Rio Today,  Seven’s highlights programme for Primetime, whilst not the most exciting format on paper, particularly due to the presence of Hamish McLachlan, was a surprising highlight. If you missed any overnight action due to the massive timezone differences between Rio and Australia, the highlights package of In Rio Today managed to cover most significant events despite the inevitable dominance of Australian athletes. This was in no due part because of its’ 150 minute running time, an unintended benefit again of the time differences between Rio and Australia.

Negatives

– How many glitches did the app have? Without a doubt, the most concerning thing about Seven’s App that it was powered by Telstra, also responsible for the lacklustre streaming options for AFL and NRL. Telstra delivered and then some. The App failed repeatedly during the Opening Ceremony and failed for me several times during the back end of the games, an annoying problem to deal with when the marquee Athletic events were being shown.

– Too many Australians (on the traditional broadcast). One of the problems with being a sports-mad nation is that broadcasters too frequently assume we want to watch the best of our country compete for medals and while that applies to our elite Swimmers too often blue ribbon events were missed. Sometimes Seven had wall-to-wall Australian coverage, even in events we struggle in such as Badminton or Table Tennis, meaning the only way you could watch non-Australian sport was by purchasing the App.

– Seven’s commentators were too easily out classed by the OBS commentators. Seven is blessed by some elite commentary talent, the incomparable Cycling doyen Phil Liggett amongst others. However, when compared to the OBS live streams that were available, sometimes Seven’s talent was overshadowed. Basil Zempilas couldn’t compete against the former Olympic swimmer and longtime Australian pool commentator Nicole Livingstone in the pool, while journeyman Peter Donegan was impeccable compared to the similarly experienced Bruce McAvaney when calling track and field.

Conclusion
As always, Free to Air Olympic coverage in Australia remains a mixed bag. Seven’s technological promises were exciting, but their failure to execute it when it mattered (at the very beginning) cast an unfortunate shadow over the rest of the games.

When Seven’s App worked though, it was very effective. The option of watching whatever you wanted meant venturing through dark of the night for early hours sport was often a fun and unpredictable journey. Added to the mix a nifty Commentary disable function and app has a lot of promise for future Games, if it can work properly.

What of Seven’s broadcast coverage? Too often Seven’s coverage was typical of Australian sporting outlets who get access to large-scale international sporting events: Focus on Australians and ignore the rest. The only positive you could really note is that the highlights packages were improved and that’s something that mightn’t be as important with Tokyo being in a more favourable time zone in four years time.

Seven have a fantastic media product here in the Olympics and the app is the first step someone has taken to fully utilising it. Whether or not they can improve the broadcast standards along with it is another question, and maybe we’ll see how relevant or irrelevant that is at the next Winter Games in Pyeongchang.

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