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The disgraceful Rio Olympics broadcast U-Turn

By Kannan Raj

The Rio Olympics is already upon us and it feels like a blessing that Singapore sports fans are able to catch the action live in the comforts of their home on MediaCorp’s Okto or on their mobile devices through Toggle.

That the deal between MediaCorp, a Temasek-owned company and DENTSU, the rights owners for the Olympic broadcast in 16 territories in Asia was reached at the last minute is scant consolation, and still leaves many questions unanswered.

It also appears that what made matters worse for Singapore’s sports fans, officials from National Sports Associations, and athletes were the somewhat awkward comments made by the Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Grace Fu in the two weeks after it was made known that first world Singapore sports fans had to contend with watching delayed broadcasts.

And in an age of social media immediacy, this was plain unacceptable for a country which was aiming to be a Smart Nation.

In trying to justify to have Singaporeans settle for a delayed broadcast, Minister Grace Fu said that the decision not to telecast the Games live was a “commercial one”. Then on 31 July Ms Fu made many scratch heads when she said that watching a delayed broadcast was a “different way of celebrating” and added that the athletes were competing in a different time zone. It is not known under whose advice she made those comments but any Singaporean sports enthusiast would have informed her that if the heart is willing, Singaporeans will wake up in the wee hours of the morning for the World Cup, Euro Championships or any other sport where there is interest. Also, she was obviously not informed that swimmer Joseph Schooling, who was expected to make the finals in his events, would swim at 9am and 10am Singapore time.

Leading up to the Olympics, the public were left to reconcile with the fact that Singapore would probably be one of the very few in the world which would not have a live broadcast.

However, in a hard hitting Facebook post made by Vice-President of the Singapore Swimming Association (SSA) Mr Jose Raymond on 1 August, the public rallied around and roundly criticised MCCY and in particular the Minister. A former  journalist, Mr Jose is also known in political circles as being involved with the People's Action Party (PAP) at Holland Bukit Timah GRC.

A look through the responses on his post showed local athletes, celebrities like Hamish Brown, parents of athletes throw their support behind his comments.

The post was used as trigger for other online stories stories. After that initial post, Ms Joscelin Yeo, yet another Vice-President of the SSA issued another set of strong statements in which she said that if she was an athlete today, she would feel disappointed with her country.

Then in the morning of Friday 5 August, Singaporeans woke up reading how MediaCorp had re-entered negotiations with DENTSU, with a deal announced a day later.

What possibly were the trigger points which led to the monumental U-turn?

TOC could point to at least two which could have made the Government take notice.

First, in a op-ed written by the Straits Times’ Han Fook Kwang on 31 July, which said that watching a delayed broadcast was like eating "stale bread" and the post by SSA’s Jose Raymond.

While the result of that negotiations is now purely academic as Singaporeans are able to enjoy the live broadcast, there still leaves many questions which need to be answered as follows:

  • If the decision not to agree to terms by DENTSU was a commercial one as Minister Grace Fu had pointed out, then why was the Government making that announcement? Shouldn't that announcement be made by the broadcaster and in this case MediaCorp?
  • Instead of trying to justify why MediaCorp wasn't spending the money, shouldn't the Government be trying to find ways to justify the expenditure for the benefit of the public?
    If there was an issue with negotiations or if it wasn't prudent to justify the investment, why was the issue not made public earlier? After all, negotiations had started in 2013.
  • If the issue was with DENTSU seeking an arm and a leg and if the Government was not willing to pander, then did MCCY or its sports statutory board Sport Singapore engage its partners like sports associations or key influencers in the sports circle to let them know what was the main issue so that they could direct the anger at the right body? It seems obvious that both MCCY and Sport Singapore did not engage its core group partners on this matter. This then brings into question both MCCY and Sport Singapore’s engagement strategy with its key partners.
  • Why was the communication on the broadcast deadlock made public at the last minute and why was the public not informed earlier so that they could understand the issues at play and put pressure on the right bodies?

A check with a few sports association officials have left TOC to conclude that not all seems well in the sports fraternity, with quite a few sports associations unhappy with the treatment handed down by the sports authority Sport Singapore.

For the record, the CEO of Sport Singapore Lim Teck Yin is a former army general. Among the members of his senior management are another former army general Chiang Hock Woon who is the Deputy CEO and former army Colonel Toh Boon Yi, who is head of the strategic development and marketing division.

It is also a pity that the Opposition did not take advantage of this broadcast issue as it is obvious that it struck a chord with many members of the public.