17 August 2012

You must be disappointed

Channel 9 copped a lot of criticism for the way it covered the London Olympics, much of it deserved. To be fair, it covered the Olympics using the same bag of tricks it has always used:
  • Insistence on gold from Australian athletes, especially in the pool;
  • Deployment of network stars on the coverage;
  • Referral to female athletes as 'girls'; and
  • Aussie-Aussie-Aussie ├╝ber alles.
It didn't work. There were no new tricks being tried, let alone succeeding or replacing tried-and-failed ways of covering multiple sports with compelling claims to viewer attention. If Channel 7 had "won the rights", they would substitute Bruce McAvaney for Karl Stefanovic, and if the ABC had won it they would have anchored it with that Vesuvius of Sporting Cliches, Gerard Whateley; but otherwise little would have been different.

It didn't work because coverage always starts off assuming that if an Aussie ain't competing, we ain't interested; and every single time viewers show this isn't the case. The first Olympics I remember was Montreal 1976, where Australians performed below expectations but Nadia Comaneci made it transcend nation and even traditional sport-following habits. That sort of thing has happened at every single Olympics, every one; and every single time the media have been caught out, gobsmacked that their Aussie-centric assumptions about the audience failed yet again.

It didn't work because:
  • Cutting away from a sport just before a juicy bit will enrage more people than will be pleased at the cut from one event to another;
  • Nobody wants to hear footy commentators jabber on about a sport they don't understand;
  • We all have access to Wikipedia and expect more from Voice Of Authority commentary than recitations from that;
  • Referring to female athletes as "girls" was designed to turn off female viewers, wasn't it? Why else would you do that unless it was to shun their involvement and interest?
  • Commentators who do know what they're talking about, and can describe what's in front of them, aren't part of the lead-up to the Games and play no part in the lead-up to the next one (or an event like it).
Even after a tactical maneuver in pole-vaulting was explained to Karl Stefanovic in clear English, he claimed not to understand it - no further proof is required that the man is a dunce. The Stefanovic brothers are proof that if you suck up to people in television then the opportunities will open up to you; whether you show/tell people any more than that when your doughy head takes up the screen is another matter.

That said, I was impressed with his humility in interviewing Linford Christie, Michael Johnson and Daley Thompson. I was sure he'd insert himself into proceedings more than he did, and like the best interviewers he drew out each of these great and interesting men and made the interview about them. How long can this last? When will YouTube feature his reddened face through the window of a restaurant/nightclub/other venue shouting "Don't you know who I am?".

The best coverage and commentary came in the hockey. The commentators were former players and professional broadcasters, providing the right mix of nitty-gritty description and context. Lucinda Green in the equestrian events, with the right blend of sport knowledge and broadcasting skill, was also very good. The next best commentators were a long way short of those high standards.

Greg Jericho reckons that pay TV coverage is better and I'll defer to him because we at the Politically Homeless Institute don't have an account. I'd watch marginally more TV if I had pay TV but I'd resent the rest of the bundled dreck with which I'd be lumped. Eight Olympic channels might be better than one (certainly more than one) but it still relies on a 'director' to decide what the viewer does (not) see and hear.

Jericho had sympathy for this person but he should consider whether or not the very job is doomed. There is also a question as to whether the owners of Channel Nine, who have increasingly common interests with those of the owners of Foxtel, are not running down the less profitable free-to-air offering in favour of the more lucrative pay TV.

One media commentator who should have been sacked and sent home was Ray Hadley, for his petulant refusal to learn long foreign names. If you're being paid to commentate then you have to learn how to pronounce players' names. If you can't be bothered then stay at home. You don't prove you're an Aussie by ducking the challenge; there are plenty of Australians with non-Anglo names. If you can wrap your gob around names like Civ-on-i-ce-va, Peter-o Petro oh-can-I-call-you-Pete, then you can extend the same courtesy to other no less gifted athletes: and to the audience that wants to hear about them.

Another who deserves no sympathy is the oaf Phil Lutton. On a day when his paper trumpeted disaster for Australia and failure on the part of individuals, Lutton had the temerity to blame people for rising to the bait set by his colleagues and managers - and to blame everyone else but them:
Twitter came out swinging and web stories started groaning under the deluge of comments.
Twitter is just another media platform, a bit like being in a pub. When something happens you might get some marvellous responses, or you might get some stupid ones; if you arc up at the stupid comments, does that make you any better than those who made those comments in the first place? Stupid commenters disappear from my Twitter feed, and Phil Lutton doesn't even make it into mine. It's hard to make generalisations about Twitter users, but not hard or unfair to assume that the wit and wisdom of Twitter users would beat those of any pack of journos hands down, every time.

See his weaselly reference to Giaan Rooney, channel 9 commentator and former champion swimmer:
That's not to say Rooney, a former top-level swimmer herself, has been at fault here. She seems to be a bright and happy type and obviously knows her stuff.
Nobody gets a job in media by being "a bright and happy type". They get those jobs because they do what they're told. Rooney has forgotten more about the tactical games of swimming than Ray Warren has ever learned, yet it was Warren who chuntered away at us during the race leaving Rooney to instruct exhausted and emotional young swimmers, "you must be disappointed". I hoped James Magnussen would have told her to get stuffed, but no.
When asked for comment by Rooney, [Magnussen] had little to offer. He looked completely stunned at what had just transpired.
Well, yes. Every weekend, cricket and netball and football commentators thrust a microphone under the noses of losing players who are not in a position to reflect on what has just happened to them, and who therefore fall back on their 'media training' (a practice performed by failed journalists not very different to Lutton) in spouting cliches. People like Lutton then blast them for spouting cliches, which is his way of deflecting blame for their own dull stories.
When the Wayne Bennetts of the world are short and dismissive of the media, they are often applauded for giving it back to the hacks. What do they owe a bunch of journos? Magnussen, still just 21 and our best freestyler by a country mile, wasn't afforded that sort of latitude.
I don't even know what any of that means, and I suspect Lutton doesn't either. Who didn't afford Magnussen any latitude? Who applauds Bennett for being dismissive of journalists, or expects that he might react any differently to the way he does? If an experienced sporting figure like Wayne Bennett is dismissive of the journalists who attend to him, then surely those of us who are interested in what Bennett might say aren't well served by such people.
[Emily] Seebohm's raw emotion, the thought that she had a gold in her grasp only to not be able to replicate her Olympic record heat time, was just too much. Twitter trolls let rip in her direction and comments on stories which quoted her post-race weren't much better ...
You should have seen the groupthink among the so-called professional journalists that wound people up, Phil! Complete crap. I saw the Twitter messages telling Seebohm to ignore the media, that they weren't representative of Australia at all, and that everyone was proud of her. Did you see them? Did you dare?
That she partially blamed a day spent on social media probably wasn't the best call. But she's only 20, and that's what kids do. Some football clubs won't let their 20-year-olds conduct a single interview in their first year of top-level competition.
 20 year olds can handle social media, but so-called professional journalists are such pricks that it's best to steer well clear of them. Got it.
Even Leisel Jones wasn't spared. She had been defended to the hilt all week after stories questioning her fitness, but when she proclaimed delight at finishing fifth in the 100m breaststroke final at her fourth Olympics, she was taken to task about why we sent her in the first place if she was happy to finish out of the medals? Where is the love?
Stories by the so-called professional media, Phil. Swimmers in a practice session before the Olympic Games are not the same as swimsuit models on a catwalk, but a half-witted media forced to cover events they didn't understand could not tell the difference. Have a look at Dawn Fraser in her prime. Hell, have a look at Giaan Rooney in hers, doing a Sally Robbins* at a medal presentation. Then look at Jones again; a few days before the Games began there was nothing to report on really, and so the journalists decided to make observations about Jones' body.

You'll note that much of the Twitter storm surrounding that was directed at journalists, and their lack of sense about what constituted a real news story.
The post-race live grilling has become a Star Chamber for a swimming team already under pressure for not producing in the London pool.
Sure it has, because it consists of journalists who hunt in packs, who don't do the necessary research that might yield different and better stories, and who are hired and managed by morons just like them.
Social media has given Australians a forum to unleash without fear of retribution.
No retribution for journalists either. If Leisel Jones refused to speak to any of the journalists who called her fat, or to Giaan "you must be disappointed" Rooney, people like Phil Lutton would accuse her of sulking. The time and resources that sports administrators channel toward media management is time and resources drained from actual coaching and competing, an arrangement that suits the Phil Luttons of this world and which never quite makes it into their half-baked coverage.
The irony that the barbs lack any sort of grace themselves I would assume has been lost.
Another schooner of grace for Mr Lutton. My 20 year old self was a lot more awake up to media scrummaging, and the sheer lack of reward for all that effort for the reader/viewer/listener, than Lutton is now (or will ever be, one suspects).

Australians used social media to try to tell journalists what sort of coverage they/we want of events like #london2012. There is no evidence that any mainstream media outlet, nor any journalist, has taken the slightest bit of notice of how such coverage might be done differently or better. The BBC and Canadian television apparently served their audiences better than the Australian media did theirs. It will be interesting to see whether subsequent sporting events learn from this experience, or whether they cling to formulae that simply don't work, and whose failures cannot be dismissed Bennett-style by media executives.

Interspersed during the Olympics coverage were ads for a TV miniseries about Kerry Packer's takeover of international cricket in the 1970s. I thought such nostalgia jarred with the running of a modern sporting event, especially one with fewer international competitors than the Olympics, until I realised: the people who run Channel 9 yearn for an age where people just watched whatever people like them bloody well felt like putting in front of them. The nostalgia is on the part of Channel 9 people, not for those of us who aren't surprised that Ian Chappell was as daring and as obnoxious off the field as on.

On social media and elsewhere (and who knows, maybe in his quieter moments even Phil Lutton might agree), two people keenly missed in coverage of the London Olympics were Roy and HG. It needed some perspective other than Kenny Sutcliffe's sad references to rugby league matches played at the same time as the Games, matches where Australians could at least be counted among the winners. That perspective is so sorely needed that the technology, and ultimately the coverage of events like this, will surely adapt to meet it.

The International Olympic Committee exerts tight control over the images that come from Games events. It is only a matter of time before it takes its own footage and sells it at a premium. What it can't do is the commentary: the explanation of who comes into a particular match as favourite, who might the dark horses be and why the game is unfolding as it is.

Like any puffed-up organisation, whether other sporting organisations or governments or corporate gabfests, the oral and written output of the IOC alternates between facile soundbites and turgid officialese. This is language designed to obscure meaning more than reveal it. Such language is the opposite of what is required in sport: because all the action in sport takes place in front of the viewer, you have to call it as it is. Commentators will be forgiven for omissions or gaffes if that is the end to which they are striving at the bow-wave of adrenaline in the event itself. Diplo-speak like "the Singaporean has performed commendably" will not do, and nor will reading from the internet about passing landmarks.

The commentary is where the intermediaries, media execs and commentators and journos and Tweeters (but I repeat myself) add value. The background, the lead-up, and the drama of how it all plays out - that's what people will tune into, and ultimately pay for. Vietnamese-Australians want to hear how well Vietnamese athletes did, and it should be possible for them to get that coverage without the heavy-handed nationalism of official Vietnamese broadcasters being their only option. The facility with language describing complicated situations under pressure with wit and style is where the action is, now and into the future. Whose is the brighter future in sports journalism: the knowledgeable and erudite Lucinda Green, or clowns like Lutton and Eddie McGuire?

As a result of Olympic pearls cast before low-tech Ausmedia swine, the Olympics brand can only suffer, in a country that has traditionally bought it wholesale and done more than most to burnish it to a high sheen. The old ways of covering sporting events - regarding the director's choice to switch to this event or that as a challenge in itself, and getting any old commentator to say any old thing as the event unfolds - will not do. The director and the Stefanovic-style host is as redundant as those who swept city streets of horseshit in the age of the motor vehicle. This sort of coverage had no heyday, merely a lack of coherent audience voices for media execs to hear and none but their employer's to heed.

We're all media employers now. We are not wrong or even particularly unreasonable to ask for more than what the established media is prepared to deliver. It isn't my fault they are not up to the job, I'm just pointing it out long after my shouting at the television has faded (and there was no mechanism for getting those messages across, either). If Australia has such excellent athletes and coaches, if we can pull off short-lived excellence in sporting accessories such as Speedo or Billabong once enjoyed, why can't we get some excellent sports reporting? Why do clowns like Lutton or the people who put Rooney up to her "you must be disappointed" performance confuse their stale performances with competence in this field?

* Don't ask.


  1. i love the fact that these self appointed spruikers of what the rest of us think are getting it back in spades. and don't they get precious and defensive when it happens. they don't speak for me,never have and never will.

  2. Then there is the sad spectacle of media types, thrusting their microphone in the faces of sportspeople, asking the only question theie tiny minds can formulate 'how do you feel?" or variations thereof. Will they never learn that we can guess that the winners are 'stoked' 'rapt' and the losers are 'disappointed' 'letdown' and don't need the inane confirmation. I loathe the immediate post match interview but it seems to be catching on alas.

  3. The role of the director was much diminished on Foxtel because they simply showed entire events, start to finish, as anyone with the slightest interest in sport would want to see them. The FTA angle isn't necessarily missing the point though.

    Consider Channel 7; they freely admit to paying overs for the AFL rights, and given that the coverage is essentially guaranteed full penetration of those who care about the sport, their whole approach is geared towards attracting those who don't.

    Hence the celebrity nonsense in the pre-game and half-time "shows", the commentators encouraged to recite amusing anecdotes about players and joke amongst themselves while the play continues, and the lack of any meaningful analysis of the game itself.

    I imagine the same logic applies to Channel 9's coverage decisions.

  4. "...that Vesuvius of Sporting Cliches"

    As a former sport journalist who has done the hard yards, taken it one week at a time, faced the new ball, ducked and weaved, ridden on the coat tails, looked for an opening, faced the challenges and asked myself the big questions, I can only rise and applaud this exemplary reference to Gerard Whateley.

    I gave up on TV coverage of sports when I went bush about three years ago and haven't missed it. ABC Radio AFL coverage is quite good, and they even succeed in making Rugby League interesting - no small achievement in itself. But their coverage of the Olympic Corporation was like listening to two four year olds arguing over the tooth fairy.

    What I did notice was the deep seated apathy towards the games from people who would have been engaged a few years ago. The decline of the liberal democratic West and its replacement with this beige corporate totalitarianism that settles like congealed fat around every field of human endeavour reduces sport to little more than a carnival sideshow to the circus of consumption.

    Which is sad, as I love sport. But what was built by a century of volunteerism on the part of supporters is now being monetised and, while Australians are woefully ill-informed (and whose fault would that be Mr Press Council?), they are not stupid. So they do the only sensible thing they can do in this age of strictured dissent, they walk away. And who can blame them.

    Totally agree that the great yawning gap in this Olympics was the absence of Greg Pickhaver and John Doyle, which was telling.

  5. Seems to me the thing to agitate for is for SBS to somehow scrape together enough cash and support to credibly bid for the rights in future. They could at least be relied on to be patriotic without being blind to Australia's ethnic diversity.

    I work in customer service now, in a call centre, and EVERY DAY I deal with at least four or five different major accents from Australian citizens. You'd have no clue these people even exist from the way Channel 9 covered the games.