As the Rio Paralympics unfolds, an online petition is urging the Australian Paralympic broadcaster, Channel 7, to “improve coverage of The Paralympic Games to give our heroes the recognition they deserve”.
How has it come to this?
From 1960 until 1972, newspapers carried occasional results and stories about the performance of Australian athletes at the Paralympic Games, although there was more emphasis on stories before departure and covering their return.
But in more recent times it was television coverage that really mattered, and sport was only considered successful if you could watch it on TV.
In 1972, Adelaide dentist Don Worley attended the Games as an athlete carer. Knowing he had an 8mm movie camera, he was asked if he could shoot some film of the Games so that people back in Australia could get a feel for what was going on.
On his return, Don edited his film into a documentary, which was then shown at community events. Don continued to make films at the next three Games, helped by friends in the ABC, who helped edit them and provided professional voiceover. By 1980, Don’s films were being used by the ABC to bring the Paralympics to a wider audience.
In 1988, the first ABC TV crew attended the Seoul Paralympic Games. While the crew provided some brief footage for news reports during the Games, the main outcome was another post-Games documentary.
It wasn’t until 1992 that the ABC sent a TV crew with the express purpose of sending pictures back to Australia during the Games.
In 2000, the ABC’s association with the Games paid off when the national broadcaster covered the Sydney Paralympics and gained its highest ever audience for the coverage of the opening ceremony. Buoyed by this, the ABC significantly increased its coverage as the Games proceeded.
The audience grows
As the era of video gathered pace, the ABC became the broadcast home of the Paralympics. The ABC broadcast every Games from 1992 to 2012, apart from 2004, and backed up its TV coverage with extensive cross-platform support through its national radio network.
However, behind the ABC’s commitment was a commercial reality: the Australian Paralympic Committee (APC) was contributing to the broadcast cost.
In 2007, the Australian government made a pre-election commitment to provide A$1 million to the APC towards the coverage of the 2008 summer and 2010 winter Paralympic Games for the purpose of promoting female participation and role models.
The incoming Labor government honoured the commitment and repeated it for the 2012 and 2014 Games. In terms of audience, the funding was timely. Media coverage of the Paralympics reached new heights in Beijing and then took off in London.
A study conducted for the APC after the 2008 Beijing Games found that coverage of women at the Games in Australian media was broadly in line with their proportion of the Australian Team (45%) and their total medal success at the Games (37%). Coverage of women at the Games significantly exceeded the media’s usual two percent allocation to female sport.
The government’s objectives for its expenditure were achieved. The Paralympics were reaching unprecedented audiences. But what was the financial return to the APC which was, after all, the vehicle for the funding for the ABC?
While the APC’s sponsor stable was increasing, it lagged a long way behind that of the Australian Olympic Committee. The AOC’s sponsors could advertise their association during the Olympic Games, which were extensively covered on commercial TV.
After 2014, the APC made a decision to pursue a commercial TV partner. The APC took the risk of purchasing the TV rights to the Rio Games, which it then offered for sale to the highest bidder.
The risk paid off when Seven West Media purchased the rights to broadcast the Games in Australia. It further paid off when Seven ran a telethon in March 2016 which raised more than A$1 million for the Australian Paralympic Team.
While the 2016 Paralympics are expected to set new global records for coverage, the impact in Australia of the new arrangement is yet to be measured.
Channel Seven is broadcasting the Games on its second channel and through its online app. Compared with the Olympics, coverage is more limited. In addition, the impact of the loss of the ABC’s cross-platform support is uncertain.
The APC has long taken a very active role in promoting the Australian Paralympic Team. It provides free photos and video of the Games and it pre-packages stories for media outlets.
However, the Paralympics has finally entered the world of commercial TV, sponsorship and online accessibility. For the first time, commercial success may determine its future in the Australian sporting landscape, as well as its broadcast future.
Authors: Tony Naar, Facilitator, Australian Paralympic History Project, The University of Queensland