Thursday, 6 September 2012

Watching the London Paralympics in the UK (cos you can’t in the USA)

Disclaimer: This is a guest post with a difference: It's my mum! As the US coverage of the London Paralympics has been so bad that even the International Paralympic Committee has complained about it, I went to my mum for a review of the UK media coverage.

I do watch a lot of sport on TV – I admit that. From the very moment that London was awarded the Olympic and Paralympic Games in 2005 I was already planning my viewing.

Come 2012 when the Olympics finally arrived, the viewing options on how to watch the Olympic Games had been transformed. The BBC’s coverage was astounding – taking full advantage of digital TV and extensive options on their website. If I wanted to watch every moment of the archery or the women’s pole vault competition then I could. And I did!

And so to the Paralympic Games. Rather than being on the BBC, the Paras were awarded to Channel 4. This to me seemed an unusual arrangement. Channel 4 is partly a public service channel, but also funded by advertising. It has always had a a remit to be alternative and edgy, at the same time aiming for the sensational (Big Brother and Big Fat Gypsy Wedding anyone?) so I could understand the `disability’ aspect falling under their remit. But Channel 4 are not noted as a `sports channel’ – horse-racing and Kabadi aside.

The first test came with the Paralympics Opening Ceremony. The main commentary was by Jon Snow, the Channel 4 newsbroadcaster. For all Channel 4’s sensationalism they do take their news very seriously, and this spilled over on to the Opening Ceremony commentary. As the athletes paraded around Olympic Park Jon Snow told us at length each country’s particular political woes and upheavals. What he didn’t mention though was disability, and it soon felt like the elephant in the room. Happily the other commentators, who have disabilities themselves, did not veer away from the subject, and it made for some informative and compelling exchanges of opinion. Danny Crake, for example, was keen to point out which countries could obviously only afford the cheapest and most outdated of wheelchairs, and how support should be given to some countries or it will never be a level playing field.

The other `elephant in the room’ was of course the adverts – and there were a lot of them. It seemed slightly disrespectful that they waited until a country with many athletes came into the stadium and then cut to adverts because there was time to do so. But then it transpired that whilst the ads were on smaller nations appeared and disappeared and never got their moment of fame at all. Apparently Channel 4 has said that they have actually shown fewer adverts, and advertising does allow for events such as the Paralympics to be shown.

Also unlike our experience of the Olympics, advertising also appears in the Paralympic venues. It is somewhat strange to see BT logos actually on the velodrome track, and the swimming pool to be
festooned with jolly Sainsbury’s bunting, but I understand someone has to pay for all this.

And so to Channel 4’s coverage of the Games, which so far has been, on the whole, very good. The Paralympics have unique broadcasting logistical issues – and how to refer to disabilities has been the least of the problems. In fact, Channel 4 has been candid about the disabilities and has provided LEXI, a comprehensible guide to Paralympics classification. Some sports, such as swimming, running and wheelchair events get a lot of air-time. Others, such as Goalball and Boccia, less so. Even in the dressage, where Team GB have done so well, is not fully covered. However this is due to the Olympic Broadcasting Service and not Channel 4, who went the extra mile to get their own cameras to the equestrian venue.

Also consider that for the 100 metres sprint there are 15 gold medals up for grabs because of the various classifications and you soon realise that to broadcast every event and every medal ceremony must be nigh on impossible. Channel 4 does have its accompanying website with four websites of live action plus a text update service, but even this cannot provide absolute blanket coverage of every minute of the Games.

Having said that, Channel 4’s broadcasting of the Paras has been a huge success: partly helped by the overspill from the Olympics (the warm-up event!): partly because the entertaining and enthusiastic presenters, Clare Balding (a BBC host who is no longer BBC-exclusive and is fast becoming a UK national treasure) and Ade Adipetan deserve a special mention for their entertaining double act; partly because Para events are darned exciting sports to watch (Murderball, anyone?!) and partly because of controversy supplied by a certain Mr Pistorius.

I have never been a fan of the 'Stick the microphone under the nose of the athlete that’s just competed (and lost)' approach, but boy, it did Channel 4 no harm at all as Oscar let rip with his immediate reactions! Whatever the reasons, the Paralympics on Channel 4 have become so successful that they have increased the number of hours broadcast on the main channel.

During the first week the Paras were demoted to one of their digital channels to make way for such delights as teen soap Hollyoaks. In this second week, it is Hollyoaks that has to move. Only the Channel 4 News stays in its prime-time slot and that is because of broadcasting regulations, and Jon Snow no doubt. However, last night there was a women's swimming final with a GB medal chance so they showed that on More 4. But this clashed with the 200m heats featuring a GB guy and Oscar Pistorius, so they showed the heats during the News. The Channel 4 News has effectively become another Paralympic programme; clever way to get round the regs and the clashes!

Whatever the reason for increased viewing figures, be it Clare Balding, patriotic fervour, Olympic withdrawal symptoms or the impromptu stooshies* over prosthetics, it has to be good news for sports broadcasting, disability sports and Channel 4.

*Stooshie = argument.

Thanks mum.

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