Media mega-events: Olympics

The Importance of Olympic Broadcasting

When comprehending saturation media coverage, there is no greater example than what has become known as a 'Media Mega-Event': an event which is considered, by production and broadcasting companies at least, to require an impromptu method of production treatment, one that differs from the usual categories and genres of 'news' and 'entertainment'. 'Coronations, contests and conquests' as described by Dayan and Katz (1992) are of such description that they 'go beyond news and entertainment, and can also be said to ''make history''. Contemporary examples of such 'history-making' events could be the death and funeral of Princess Diana, the Pope's first visit to communist Poland, or technological developments such as the first Moon landing. A general frame of reference for a Media Mega-Event is an occurrence, that will unify people, spanning a vast array of nations, to witness, and in doing so feel privileged. This belief strives to contradict the notion of the 'couch potato', suggesting that an audience is 'typically active in response' {to the event coverage} 'and experience participation of the event in a way which would not be true for routine TV viewing' (Roche, 2000)

In sport, there can be no occasion more relevant as a media-event than 'The Olympic Games'; a sporting event that stands head and shoulders above others (on a global scale) in terms of its ability to 'interrupt normal social routines, feature heroic personalities, and can be highly dramatic' (on media events : Roche 2000). However, The Olympic Games has not always been considered in this way.

More recently it has become apparent that the vast scale of the event, and the increased desire for nations to take part in, and especially host an event such as the Olympics has heightened greatly. At the 1984 summer Olympics in Los Angeles 140 countries were represented, 6797 atheletes competed, and 221 events took place in 23 sports. By 2004 in Athens 201 countries were involved and 11,099 atheletes took part in 301 events in the 28 Olympic sports (Malfas et al., 2004: 210; www.

It is often stated that 'Sport has long been at the cutting edge of TV and technology' (Kang 1988), and because of that technological developments for the purpose of mass communication have enabled the exceptional global audiences for mega-events such as the Olympics.

A particularly strong example of this would be the development of satellite television. When the 'Communications Satellite Corporation broadcast the 1964 Olympics, a new era began' (Kang 1988) From this time onwards, broadcasting companies, particularly those in the US, have been in fierce contest for the rights to 'buy' the Olympic Games.

Despite little research being done on The Olympic Games as an individual 'genre' (that detaches from more mainstream sport and news coverage), the research that has been undertaken is almost entirely from the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics onwards. This era can be seen as a critical juncture in terms of understanding Olympic media, as only then was it revealed the extent to which Television broadcasting companies would go to secure rights to transmit The Games, and the effect the resulting revenue supplied by the respective broadcasters has had on the events' substantial growth.

Expansion of the sport mega-event has been as a result of formation of a 'sport-media-business' alliance that almost single-handedly revolutionized professional sport in the late 20th century. The assembly of this tri-partite design has enabled attributes in the shape of merchandising, sponsorship and, most importantly, broadcasting rights (and the income that they bring) to create ongoing expansion for The Olympics. In particular, the income from Television has now become crucial to 'underpinning the huge expenditures on facilities and infrastructures which are needed for cities to be able to stage the Olympic Games in the contemporary period' (Roche 2000:165)

TV rights accounted for 53% (US $2.229 billion) of total revenue, followed by sponsorship (much of which is portrayed through TV) (34%, US $1.459 billion), ticketing (11%, US $441 million) and merchandising (2% US $86.5 million) in the period of 2001-2004 (, accessed....)

The President of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) Jacques Rogge also made a statement that he 'expected total television rights for the Olympic games to rise to US$3.5 billion by 2012' (The Financial Times, May 2005). It is not surprising therefore, that 'representatives of the media easily outnumber the athletes - in Sydney in 2000 there were 16,033 (press and broadcasting) reporters and during the Winter Olympics Games in Salt Lake City in 2002 there were 8730 reporters covering the performances of 2399 athletes' (Malfas et al., 2004: 211) p23 meg-event

These statistics show that, as Rowe has put it, 'more records have been broken more frequently in buying sports rights than in performing in sport'.

For example, the US TV network NBC paid rights of US$715 million in 2000(Sydney), $793 million in 2004, and $894 million in 2008 (Rowe 2004: 75) to show the games to American audiences in (then) unknown locations (later revealed as Athens and Beijing).

Under these circumstances it brings to light questions as to the reasons for such large quantities of money changing hands. These figures have been marked as beyond extortionate, because although the network had power to 'sell subsidiary rights, charge inflated advertising rates and make returns on 'spin-offs' such as selling videos of Olympic highlights, the cost of producing TV coverage ensured that NBC would lose large sums of money on the deal.' (Rowe 1999:75)

Although, from this statement, it may appear that NBC broadcasting have gone out of their way to be charitable to the American public, there are other economic aspects to be taken into consideration. For instance, being the exclusive governing body of Olympic broadcasting feeds for the US attracts enormous audiences for the duration of the Games. These audiences boost the networks ratings overall, and in doing so give them a distinct advantage in negotiating advertising rights for their programming of all genres, all year round. The idea behind this is known as a 'spill-over effect'; hoping that viewers of the Olympic shows will acquire exposure to the networks whole variety of programs, and to a certain extent, switch to NBC first 'out of habit'.

The Olympic Games, being one of the largest media events in the world, acquires a certain degree of illustriousness to the station that holds its exclusive rights, much of which is down to the appearance that it even has the capacity to manage an event of such great scale. This 'brand' (being recognized as the Olympic network) and all the prestigious accompanying factors, go a huge way to achieving an advantage over other competitive stations, because after all 'sign-value' for a station is all important.

Being able to maintain the broadcast rights for the Olympics can achieve a 'spoiler-effect' - here rivals such as Rupert Murdoch's 'Fox Network' can be impeded (McKay and Rowe 1997) and 'squeezed' into devoting vast amounts of both time and money in an attempt to secure their own broadcasting rights, in fear of being totally shut out of major TV sport.

A further advantage can also be observed by acquiring 'psychological ascendancy over other networks like CBS boasting a strong sporting culture who have lost out in the fight for key TV sport properties' (Rowe 2004: 75)

For these reasons, justifications can be made for the enormous amounts of money that change hands in efforts to secure sport coverage, as long as 'by one means or another' as Rowe puts it, the 'over time benefits outweigh the costs'.

It can easily be recognized that a station's ability to govern the production and distribution of imagery can create great symbolic and commercial value. In the case of the Olympic Games, 'global images do not come any more desirable' (Schaffer and Smith 2000a)

With Olympic broadcasting rights proving so attractive to TV stations it is no surprise that a substantial amount of conflict is generated between those possessing rights and those who do not. This struggle will often force allegiances to be made with sports organizations, their athletes (under sponsorship) and the various TV networks.

This situation inevitably ends up in competition, in true sporting style, with unofficial sponsors trying to find ways of combining their corporate trademark with the event, those without broadcasting rights scrapping to obtain as much in the way of major sports coverage as they can; and those in possession of rights doing all they can to hinder them.

As Rowe suggests, by 'negotiating, honoring, helping police and strategically modifying broadcast rights, sports organizations and personnel become economic allies, even colleagues of the media'. Consequently, these personnel must posses an in-depth knowledge of the rules and regulations that govern the respective parties. For instance, what is known as the 'three by three by three' initiative ('three minutes of Olympic footage three times a day in the news programmes at least three hours apart'). These regulations have been applied in a variety of countries, and a reasonably common occurrence is a stricter variation known as the 'two by three minus eighteen minus two thirds rule!' (two minutes of coverage three times a day in established news programmes, but no events screened less than 18 hours after they took place', and no more than one-third of an event to be broadcast, even if it is the sub-ten second 100 metres final) (IOC), which was advised in the 1996 Olympics (Moore 1997: 4).

Further discussion on this topic can then be spawned into copyright laws and the respective policies and regulations of the country in which the broadcasting is taking place. Matters of debate could include the categorization of a mega-event such as the Olympics. Can a classification of 'news' be made? and therefore, as a public or national interest, lay claim to a more detailed manner of report; or as a 'sport', which could fall into the category of a form of entertainment, and fall subject to ordinary broadcast restrictions.

Questions such as these can never truly be given a correct answer, and consequently much deliberation continues to envelope media broadcasting of sport; and the entire economics of the 'sports media cultural complex' revolves around the in depth 'rationing, packaging and sale of media sports texts' (Rowe), and the various markets that they occupy.

This reveals the notion that the moving images that greet an Olympic audience, in a manner that seems to be subject to no unusual methods of control or preference among other choices, are in essence extremely deceptive. Instead the processes undertaken by networks and sports companies are, in fact, extremely regulated, and the authority against parties that aim to appose such regulations, very serious.

The Bread and Butter of Sports TV broadcasts

The position of leading US sports network has generally been occupied by NBC over the years, and this has gone a great deal to also establishing it as the top rating network overall (the power of media-sport is never to be underestimated). However, the Olympics cannot take all the credit for such a position as, after all, it only takes place once every four years, and leaves a tremendous void in between its occurrences. This 'void' can be filled by other dates on the televised sporting calendar, for example national competitions in sports such as American Football or Baseball, the 'bread and butter' of sports television (Klattel and Marcus. 1988:21).

In USA Football is considered to be the most prized televised sporting broadcast, demanding fees reaching well into the billions each season. As a sport though, Football is barely played, watched or understood in countries other than the US, yet it still generates massive competition between broadcasters to secure it rights. This goes some way as to highlighting the distinction of the US as an entirely independent media sport market.

As mentioned previously, the value of possessing these broadcasting rights can often become obscure in terms of economics, and instead be valued more as presenting the appearance of networks triumphing over competitors.

Several morals can be drawn from this US price war. One is that, more than ever, sport is 'the' most important commodity for TV. Another is that the desperation of grown men, most of whom have never played top-level sport themselves, to feel as if they are part of the game should never be underestimated. (Attwood 1998: 39) 2nd ed.

This competitive state can therefore reveal the power that sport can possess in culture, highlighting factors far beyond that of just accumulating capital.

In 1993 Fox network succeeded in out bidding CBS for its rights to Football broadcasting. Fox handed over a sum of around US$1.58 billion, which in comparison was three times the usual fee paid by CBS network (Attwood 1998: 39). Although Fox were highly unlikely to make profit from this transaction, the resulting effect it had on one of their strongest competitors (CBS) was vast. In fact, for the beginning of the 21st century at least, the US networks that have succeeded in landing broadcasting deals for Football (and in doing so handed over exceptionally large sums of money) see Football to be so 'crucial to their credibility and programming that they are prepared to pay almost any price' (Attwood. 1998: 39). These circumstances have also been noted as not just occurring within US borders but also on a global scale, and can 'demonstrate how crucial major sporting events are to networks, worldwide, in an increasingly competitive TV market' (Attwood. 1998: 39). These points go a very long way in validating the importance of media sport broadcasting rights to television networks. It can be stated that 'today's rule of thumb mandates that any viable network must have sports to help raise the profile of its other properties' (Singer. 1998: 36); in essence, an intrinsic factor in the success of television broadcasting as a whole. Where Singer mentions 'to have' sports he appears to mean it quite literally, in relating to exclusive ownership of the sports broadcast, the likes of which that has been so favored by US corporate groups in recent years. As Rowe and Singer (1998 and 2004) state, 'while the cross-promotional possibilities of jointly owned media and sports enterprises are attractive, it is the cultural appeal of sport that ensures old fears in club owners that 'over saturation' and that ''giving away'' the product on TV would 'kill the gate' are in reality, as 'misguided as Hollywood's fear of the VCR'.

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