It has been a glorious few weeks for British sport in Rio, with second-place finishes in both the Olympics and Paralympics. When it comes to broadcasting such events, however, we top the podium. The comprehensive excellence of the BBC’s sporting coverage is taken for granted now; not so Channel 4, which has been quietly burnishing its reputation over the course of the Paralympics.
After the triumph of London 2012, the Paralympics could have been treated like a burden, a reluctantly shouldered element of Channel 4’s public-service remit. Instead, the broadcaster has gone all in. The live sport has been covered seriously and professionally; the athletes’ backstories, the stuff of an X Factor producer’s dreams, have been handled with grace and humour. And the irreverence of The Last Leg, one of the most heartening sleeper hits of recent years, has bled through into the rest of the coverage. Whatever the hopes for The Great British Bake Off, this is the stuff that redefines a channel.
For Clare Balding, anchor for both broadcasters, the secret is simple. “You have to make sure people understand who they’re watching, what they’re watching and why they’re watching, and Channel 4 does that really well, whether it’s through Lexi (the graphic system demystifying Paralympic classification) or the access to athletes willing to talk about their sport and their background.”
Channel 4’s studio team blended seasoned broadcasters, retired athletes and exuberant novices. 2012 presenter Arthur Williams and old hand Ade Adepitan have tempered the informality with expertise and enthusiasm. Newcomers JJ Chalmers and Sophie Morgan have radiated unaffected charm, their lack of polish both understandable and actually rather appealing. And while no one would mistake RJ Mitte for Des Lynam or John Simpson, his wide-eyed awe as a roving viewer-surrogate has been infectious.
It’s no exaggeration to say the future of the Paralympics depends on television. With sponsorship and state support at a premium, it’s essential to maintaining the profile of disability sport, changing perceptions and raising awareness of related issues.
The USA topped the Atlanta medal table in 1996, when British coverage amounted to two half-hours on late-night BBC Two. Britain’s medal tally has since soared alongside its coverage and viewing figures, while US performance and media interest has slumped. Of 2,800 staff that America’s NBC network sent to Rio’s Olympics, only 25 stayed for the Paralympics.
“I asked to be involved with NBC and they told me they weren’t sure they were covering the Games,” says Mitte. “American television doesn’t see the value of it, which is really frustrating. You don’t have to hit people over the head with it. They don’t always think disability is something people want to see, but if you give it to them, people will watch it.”
“Broadcasting sport isn’t necessarily going to change the world,” says Balding. “The areas it can have real cultural impact are women’s sport, especially where women don’t have the vote, and Paralympic sport: Brazil has taken its Paralympic medallists into favelas, presenting them as heroes.”
So, what’s next? Ideally, more of the same, but with an ever greater focus on online content: Tokyo (where the 2020 Games will be held) is eight hours ahead of the UK, so many potential viewers will be at work during big events. In the meantime, expect the raw talent of Chalmers, Morgan and co to be cultivated away from sport, as Williams was with his excellent Flying to the Ends of the Earth documentary series.
Channel 4’s Head of Events and Sport, Ed Havard, has seen encouraging signs of movement from other British broadcasters. “The BBC has given the Paralympics great coverage. ITV did a documentary with Ellie Simmonds. And the BBC, BT, Sky and a whole range of indies helped train the disabled members of our production team (making up 15 per cent of the total working on the Games). I hope broadcasters around the world will look at this and see that London wasn’t a one-off, that Paralympic sport can rate well with everyone.”
Adepitan, too, is optimistic. “Everyone grows up knowing who the great Olympians are. For me it was Daley Thompson, Seb Coe. Did we learn about Paralympians? No. This level of coverage, compared to Sydney when I made my debut [in wheelchair basketball], it’s like night and day. A generation is now growing up knowing about Paralympians. It’s going to take time, but in the next 10, 15 years, it’ll be on a par with the Olympics in terms of profile. It already is in terms of sport.”