NEWS

Athens breaks all previous TV viewing records

One of the first successes of Athens 2004 was the huge increase in the number of broadcasts throughout the world. German TV will show 3.5 times the coverage it did in Sydney, while French channels will increase coverage by 42 percent. China will show 660 hours of Olympics coverage, and South Africa 1,965 hours. The number of viewers for the Games continually increases. The Los Angeles Olympics had 2.5 billion viewers around the world, a number which rose to 3.5 billion for Barcelona and 4 billion for the Atlanta Games. Apart from the natural increase in viewing numbers, Athens is expected to break records for two reasons: The ancient monuments provide the right decor for a new image of the Games, and there is a small time difference between Athens and Western Europe and just seven hours from the East Coast of the US, so NBC and affiliates can broadcast twice as long as they could from Sydney. All large sporting events have become inseparable from the broadcasts made of them. «One can’t fully understand the Olympic Games without their involvement in the global media machine,» writes Professor Stelios Papathanassopoulos in the introduction to his book «Sport and the Mass Media.» Television has tremendous impact. Live broadcasts, slow-motion replays, varied camera angles, zoom shots and the commentator’s voice all make viewers feel they are present. They may miss the excitement of being in the stadium, but television can still bring the event to life for them. Television also shapes the Olympic Games themselves. Events such as the marathon, walking races and decathlon, which are not believed to make exciting viewing, are not highlighted in broadcasts. Sometimes the organizers are forced to change the scheduling of the Games, as in Seoul, where they were called the «breakfast games.» Half the finals were held in the middle of the day so that US viewers could watch them. The ecumenical message is so ecumenical, however. As Spanish Professor Miguel e Morajas has observed, national broadcasters tailor material according to the perceptions of their countries. During the Cold War, broadcasters in the US and the USSR focused almost exclusively on medals won by themselves and their allies. Funding The most significant outcome of this marriage between the Olympic Games and television is the growing dependence of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) on major television corporations. Fifty percent of IOC and Olympic Games revenue comes from television rights. In the late 1970s, when it was on the verge of bankruptcy, the IOC took the plunge in two closely linked decisions. The first was to establish the sponsor system and thereby commercialize the games (first implemented in Los Angeles in 1984), and the second was to raise requirements for television rights, though it withdrew under pressure from sponsors and television networks. One major concession, which ran counter to the Olympic ideal, was to abolish the exclusion of professional athletes. This decision paved the way for the stars of the National Basketball Association to compete in Barcelona in 1992. Since then, funding from television has increased dramatically, reaching 650 million dollars in Barcelona, 850 million in Atlanta, 1.3 billion in Sydney and 1.47 billion this year, of which 40 percent goes to Athens 2004 and 51 percent to the IOC. In 1993-96, 34 percent of IOC revenue came from sponsorships, 48 percent from television rights and only 10 percent from ticket sales. Thus, television networks have become the IOC’s best customers. Television and sponsors perceive the Games in terms of records and super athletes, which may make them less keen to combat doping. The expanded role of television in the Olympics has led to greater commercialization. But companies, sponsors and advertisers also change the image of the Games. Spats about which companies’ logos are to appear on TV, athletes who cover up or brandish sponsors’ logos, and the creation of sports slogans to push certain products all distort the Olympic ideal. While Athens 2004 has promised to reverse this trend, it is not easy for massive sports events to evade the tight embrace of television networks and sponsors.