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Wednesday, 21 August 1996
Page: 2788

Senator ROBERT RAY(1.11 p.m.) —I want to make some comments on the electronic coverage of the Atlanta Olympics. Let me say, first of all, that I followed it very intensely and I found that the ABC—

Senator Schacht —Never went to sleep.

Senator ROBERT RAY —I acknowledge, Senator Schacht, that sleep was at a premium if you followed it properly, although most of the events were between eight and 12 in the morning. I found the ABC radio coverage of this quite faultless. It was always up-to-date, it covered a wide range of sports, it featured in-depth analysis and, whilst it catered to a degree for chauvinism that the Australian audience would expect, it also gave full acknowledgment to the sporting efforts by athletes around the world. Whether they came, as a 5,000-metre runner did, from Burundi or whether it was Hong Kong winning its first gold medal at sailing, it was all covered on the ABC.

I want to pay tribute to a few of the individuals involved in the coverage. Tracey Holmes was the anchor person and did a splendid job. Most of us who are familiar with her performance on Sports Grandstand on Saturdays and Sundays have come to expect high standards from her because she has helped turn that program into an absolute must, especially in summer. Her interviews are always in-depth, she is articulate and a reasonable degree of humour is always injected into any of her interviews. She did very well. She was able to do well not because she is a person with or without natural ability but because she knows her sport—all sorts of sport—and she knows it back to front. She was able to bring that experience to her anchoring of the ABC coverage of the Olympics and make it a really meaningful thing.

I also thought Gerry Collins and Norman May did well in the swimming coverage. I know at times Norman May has attracted criticism. But now he has become a specialist commentator. He knew all the swimming form from around the world and was able to bring it to us and give us an excellent assessment of people's prospects in each race. Tim Lane did an excellent job at the athletics, covering a wide range of events. Of course, Tim Lane is also a versatile all-rounder—an excellent football commentator, a very good cricket commentator; in fact, he can turn his hand to almost any sport. We also had Neville Oliver at the rowing—one of his specialities. Again, I found his descriptions—sometimes I listened to the radio while watching the event on television—enormously insightful and enormously accurate.

I also have to mention a Western Australian, George Grljusich, who covered the equestrian events. It should be noted that, in 1992, George Grljusich brought live to Australian audiences coverage of two gold medals that television missed. At the equestrian in 1992, George Grljusich not only described Matt Ryan winning an individual gold medal, but also described the Australian three-day team winning the team medal at the same time. It is interesting that, even on the television broadcast an hour and a half later in 1992, the commentators had not really realised that Australia had won the team gold medal. But George Grljusich had calculated the odds and I will never forget his description—every time the leading New Zealander hit a rail, George was able to calculate how many more rails he had to hit to put Australia in a gold medal winning position.

He starred again at Atlanta. On the second day, the day of the endurance event, the computers went down but George Grljusich was able to tell us over radio exactly where we stood in the teams event and how many penalties the three continuing riders had attracted. Gillian Rolton had fallen, although she still was willing to continue if necessary. George had calculated to two decimal points the penalties the three leading Australian riders had attracted and where they stood on the table, when everyone else seemed to have no idea at all. So George Grljusich at two Olympic Games has proved his depth on equestrian matters and has given an excellent coverage to Australia.

I suppose we should also acknowledge that George Grljusich, with Benny Pike, attracted quite a cult following at the boxing. I cannot recall their actually ever describing a fight, but nevertheless they provided entertainment in abundance. In particular I can remember Benny Pike remonstrating with someone behind who had a ghetto-blaster on. I have never heard anyone turn loud music off so quickly as when Benny had a word to him off microphone.

I have to make a political point here, though. The reason the ABC has been able to give such a great coverage is that it has had the funds to do it and it has the widespread experience of describing sporting events. If the ABC funding is cut by $210 million over the next four years, and if the Mansfield inquiry recommends, as it is expected to, that the ABC cuts back on its radio sports coverage, Australia will never ever again be able to mount the sort of coverage that we saw at the Atlanta Olympics. And for the host nation, I think that would be a major tragedy.

It does not matter if in four years time the government throws $10 million, $15 million or 20 million dollars to the ABC and asks it to do the Olympics on radio. If you have lost all that expertise from your sporting departments around the country you will not be able to provide the necessary commentators to be able to make the sorts of accurate and considered descriptions of events that we have so far been so lucky to have. This point should be made in respect of maintaining funding to the ABC sports departments.

It is terribly fashionable to profess concern about symphony orchestras, and I am concerned about those, or to profess concern about the rotten current affairs programs the ABC often runs—Four Corners last Monday night was a classic example of a distorted program. I have been a critic of the ABC over the years. But the fact is that no commercial radio network or station could get near the standards and integrity of ABC sporting broadcast. We do not want to be elitist and just be concerned about the top end of the market. These are the bread-and-butter programs of the ABC that a majority of Australians like. It is not to say, in pushing that line, that we should ignore the minority groups who have other tastes in Australia, which the ABC also adequately caters for. But make no mistake, if the funding cuts go ahead, sport and sports broadcasting will be the first victim and, as such, its value will be greatly diminished.

While I am on my feet, I might make some comments on the Channel 7 coverage of the Atlantic Olympics. I found their performance at Atlanta a vast improvement on that at Barcelona. Some of the lessons learnt at Barcelona were applied very well in Channel 7's coverage. Everyone complained about Channel 7's coverage because they ran commercials. Frankly, that just goes with the territory. If you have to spend multiple tens of millions of dollars to win the rights to Olympics, you must expect that there will be adverts coming on and off during the time. But they were able, on this occasion, to get a lot more events live to air and had a lot more flexibility switching between venues than they showed at Barcelona.

There was also a greater acknowledgment by Channel 7—not complete; they were not perfect—that some events were off tape and not live to air. But I think they actually carried every Australian gold medal winning performance live to air. They carried every Olympic swimming final. They also carried a majority of the athletics finals, apart from maybe on the last day when the Australian basketball match was being played contemporaneously with those athletics events. They also managed to give an excellent coverage to the men's marathon and, I have to say, in terms of critique, an inadequate coverage of the women's marathon event. But on the whole, I think Channel 7 showed that they were an improving broadcaster of the Olympics. Let me pay tribute to some of those who covered it.

Bruce McAvaney's coverage of the athletics was absolutely superb. There have been many accolades delivered to Bruce McAvaney over the years. He does know his athletics probably better than any other commentator in the world. He knows where all the key individuals come from. He has that nice blend of Australian patriotism and an acknowledgment of superior efforts by athletes from around the globe. He brought much to that commentary.

It was interesting also that Channel 7 was able to get interviews with the key athletes within three or four minutes of the events concluding—the Michael Johnsons and all the rest of them. A lot of it, I think, was due to Bruce McAvaney's reputation. Bruce McAvaney has been probably the best sports broadcaster in Australia in the last couple of decades, and certainly the best athletics broadcaster. The only tragedy was that these responsibilities probably deprived him of anchoring a lot of the sports coverage that we all would have benefited from.

I must also pay tribute to Denis Commeti for his very accurate calling of events in the swimming pool. He also had a realistic blend of analysis as to Australia's prospects and was assisted ably by Neil Brooks. Peter Landy, who is not necessarily my favourite broadcaster for football reasons, brought great credit to himself in respect of one area in which he has expertise, and that is his description of rowing events. He knows it back to front. He was very good at picking where the Australians were in the field, their chances of improvement or whether they would drop off the place. Peter Landy did an excellent job.

I also commend Sandy Roberts for his efforts. He was thrown in at the deep end in several sports, and again showed the sort of experience that enabled him to cover them competently. Pat Welch did very well on the track.

I must say that one of the things that bind these sporting broadcasts together is the anchor person. Most of these did very well. If I have one criticism of the Channel 7 performance, it was the anchor person between midnight and 2 a.m., although I must concede that counting up the mistakes she made did keep me awake. You usually got to 15, 20, 25 bloopers, inanities or misread cue cards in that two hours. Whilst I am not a great fan of David Fordham, wasn't I relieved every night when he came on at 2 a.m.! The classic point here is that there is no use putting a newsreader who can just read cue cards into a position where you are switching from venue to venue.

I do not know if you, Madam Acting Deputy President, know that she got totally wrong the names of the two great female rowers who won on the first night. She acknowledged that two different rowers had won the gold medal! Channel 7 needs to make sure that commentators with sports backgrounds anchor these events. This will relieve the sorts of absolutely elementary blunders that we saw in that particular coverage.

On the whole, I think Channel 7 has improved its coverage of the Olympics. The ratings show that they got outstanding ratings right throughout the Olympic Games, and I hope that when they go on to cover Sydney they will improve yet again. They face challenges in Sydney where we will have teams in every team event, which we normally do not do. They are going to have to give a lot of consideration—I know my colleague Senator Schacht has been thinking about this too—to how they will be able to get enough events live to air. It may well be that some arrangement will have to be made to try to maximise that. Sports such as women's soccer and men's volleyball deserve some airplay during the Sydney Olympics. But quite clearly they are going to have to prioritise and give concentration to the athletics track, the swimming pool and the velodrome, where the majority of peak audiences will be. But that challenge is in front of them. If Channel 7 continue to improve at the rate they have since Barcelona through to Atlanta, we are in for a real treat.

I want to conclude my comments by reiterating how good the ABC radio coverage of the Olympics was and the fact that that has now been put in jeopardy by the funding arrangements that this government has put in place. It will be an easy mark for those highbrow people who tend to run the ABC and who will say, `Let's get rid of the sporting coverage.'

I can tell you now that there will be a rebellion all round Australia, not only in cities, but in regional areas that rely on the ABC for such a component of the broadcasting service. When you think of the ABC you cannot but think of their test cricket coverage, their Sheffield Shield coverage, their range of coverage from women's netball right through to all the sports that deserve at least some mention and coverage. I hope that when Mr Mansfield does his review of the ABC charter, he does not take the weak road and simply recommend that most of these sporting programs be butchered.