The decision by the Ten Network to broadcast the FINA Swimming World Championships on up to a four hour delay on its digital channel ONE is one of the most surprising programming decisions ever made by a broadcast network in covering a major international sporting event featuring many Australians, especially our most successful Olympic sport.
Admittedly swimming has lost some of its audience pulling power with the likes of Grant Hackett and Ian Thorpe retiring (although Thorpe is coming back) and recently lost its title sponsor Telstra after many years of a strong partnership that resulted in the Telstra Dolphins taking it to the Americans and the Europeans in the pool.
But the decision by Ten’s programming department is unbelievable. According to the Sunday Telegraph, Swimming Australia sold the rights to their events to Ten for eight years as part of an annual $2 million deal, after previous broadcaster Nine offered a paltry $750,000 a year. This allotment of rights did not include the World Championships, which Ten purchased from the world governing body FINA separately.
Previously ONE have shown the majority of its swimming coverage live and in HD. For example over the last 12-months, ONE HD and ONE showed the Pan Pacific Championships from the USA live and even showed the short-course Australian Championship live and in prime time last month, even though this was after the rebrand of ONE as a more male-skewing general entertainment channel with less sport.
The decision by Ten/ONE does not make sense. They show less important competitions live, yet fail show the main event for swimming (bar the Olympics) live and instead place it on a huge delay. This is despite the fact that Shanghai is in a favourable time zone for Australian viewers, as opposed to the last World Championships they covered in Rome in 2009, which was a horrible time zone for broadcast to Australian viewers. To add insult to injury the coverage is being hosted from a Melbourne studio by Anthony Hudson and Nicole Livingstone. This must be the first time in at least a decade or more that an Australian commentary team has not been present at a FINA long course World Championship.
So many great memories of Australian swimming have occurred at World Championships (see above YouTube video) and such moments have been delivered live principally on Channel Nine and Fox Sports. For example Channel Nine delivered live nightly coverage of the World Championships in Melbourne in 2007 and of the Montreal World Champs in 2005. The Melbourne event was attended by a world record 215,000 people. Whilst the ratings were lower than some predicted still 1.2 million viewers across Australia tuned in to see Grant Hackett’s bronze medal in the 400 metres freestyle and the golden girls’ 4 x 100 relay team triumph. These numbers in the new multichannel environment would be viewed as a huge success and especially if only delivered live on ONE. It would surely come close to surpassing its present nightly offering in terms of ratings, especially if the Australian team are succeeding. ONE should have taken the lead of Seven which generated strong ratings for its Wimbledon coverage on 7TWO which was delivered live at 9PM AEST each night.
It is understandable that ONE are not showing the swimming live when it clashes with its Number 1 product Formula 1, but for any other night there is no excuse. At the very least it could stream it live on ONE.com.au (there is no word if ONE purchased live online rights). Swimming Australia is not surprisingly disappointed with the decision. In the Daily Telegraph Swimming Australia boss Kevin Neil said the team was upset the world governing body FINA, who own the rights to the championships that it did not insist on better coverage in its negotiations with Ten. He said,
“It is separate to the broadcast agreement Swimming Australia has with Ten, and we are bitterly disappointed that FINA has not insisted to Ten that it should be screened live. We are frustrated but once again we are not the receiver of the revenue and not party to the contract. Obviously arrangements between sports and broadcasters are a matter for them to negotiate, but I would hope that consideration is given to showing world championships and trials for Olympic sports in prime time.”
In the USA viewers will be treated to over 20 hours of coverage from NBC Sports and its sister cable channel Universal Sports. According to NBC’s press release
NBC Sports will kick off the coverage this Sunday at 2 p.m. ET and Universal Sports will , air a two-hour primetime show each night during the week beginning at 8 p.m. ET. NBC will conclude the coverage on July 30 and 31 from 1-3 p.m. ET on both days.
Whilst it is likely due to the inconvenient time difference between China and the US that these events on USTV will be on delay, at least they are in prime time when shown. For those in the US who still want to watch it live they still can thanks to Universal Sports having full multi-platform coverage of the event at UniversalSports.com. There is available for subscribers LIVE coverage of all of the races, including the prelims. You may have to pay for it but the option is there for viewers.
In the UK the BBC are delivering live coverage through its Red Button service and online for UK users.
Up until now ONE’s coverage of swimming has been fantastic from production qualities to programming times but at the biggest event (save for the Olympics) it has failed to deliver live prime time coverage. The apparent reason according to a network spokesman who spoke with the Daily Telegraph is due to ONE’s new general programming agenda.
If ONE are not prepared to cover one of the world’s premier world championship events live, especially a year out from the London Olympics then it should on-sell the rights to another network or Fox Sports, so the event can be given the live treatment it deserves.
It appears viewers will have to wait until Nine’s Olympic coverage next year to see live international swimming. Hopefully Ray Warren will return to the microphone to cover the swimming for Nine at the Olympics (listen to his great commentary in the YouTube video above).
For the record on the first night of competition in the pool Australia has won the Men’s 4 x 100m Freestyle relay beating the French and US relay teams and recording its first victory at a major meet in this race since the 4 x 100m at the 2001 World Champs in Fukuoka.
UPDATE: A race will be broadcast live but only for 10 minutes.
ONE will broadcast live the 100m freestyle final from Shanghai at 8.35pm (in all markets) tonight (Thursday) featuring Australia’s James Magnussen.
For more go to Swimming Australia’s website.