The ABC, which is operating within the constraints of a three-year federal government funding freeze, had previously budgeted $1 million to broadcast the Games live on radio.
Sources familiar with the rights negotiations said Seven’s asking price for the rights was about $250,000. The ABC had planned to send three commentators and one technical support person to Tokyo. Most of the ABC broadcast would have been produced out of a Seven hub in Melbourne.
ABC insiders told The Age that, although managing director David Anderson is a sports fan, there are not enough people willing to champion sport within the organisation.
“The anti-sport forces within the ABC have always been incredibly powerful,’’ said one source. “What has changed is the advocates for sport are fewer in number and carry less weight.”
Judith Whelan, the ABC director of regional and local, denied the ABC was losing its appetite for sport and pointed to last month’s announcement that ABC TV would broadcast A-League and W-League matches and men’s and women’s soccer internationals.
“This decision does not say anything about our commitment to sport,’’ Ms Whelan said. “I cannot see an ABC that is doing its job that doesn’t cover sport.
“The Olympics is increasingly an incredibly commercial event. We know that Channel Seven is going to be bringing 70 streams of individual sports from the Olympics to Australia that you can get on any computer, any phone. This will be blanket coverage.
“We have made this decision weighing up all the other things we have to cover.”
An experienced ABC broadcaster said this rationale could equally apply to the ABC’s coverage of the AFL, rugby league and cricket. Within the ABC, argument has long raged about whether commercial sport has any place under the ABC charter.
Radio surveys from the period covering the Rio Games in 2016, though a loose guide only for particular programming, suggest the last Olympics turned off more listeners than they attracted.
A senior ABC figure questioned the value of spending additional money to broadcast something that shrinks rather than grows audience. “If it was audience-positive the million dollars would be found.”
Maxwell said the solution was to provide a better Olympics broadcast.
“If you are saying it is adequately covered elsewhere, so is news and current affairs and a lot of other things the ABC does,” Maxwell said.
“For two weeks, every four years, it is a focus of national interest. The ABC should be delivering the message of the Olympic Games and, dare I say, doing it better than they did last time.”
The ABC charter makes explicit reference to news, current affairs, entertainment, cultural enrichment, educational programs and promotion of music, drama and other performing arts but contains no mention of sport.
Advocates of sport on the ABC argue the charter’s catch-all aim of “broadcasting programs that contribute to a sense of national identity” must include sport.
A long-serving ABC senior executive said that TV sport had been in historic decline since World Series Cricket. He hopes the decision to sever ABC Radio’s 67-year relationship with the Olympics is an aberration, rather than part of a future strategy.
“The $1 million forecast reduction in costs looked easy,’’ he said. “It didn’t require one staff member to be sacked, therefore the internal wheel wasn’t going to squeak very much.”
Chip Le Grand is The Age’s chief reporter. He writes about crime, sport and national affairs, with a particular focus on Melbourne.