An hour of equality

After seven years of preparation, and a grand total of 26 days of competition, the Vancouver 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games have drawn to a close. But having watched over the past few weeks, it is no wonder that the so called ‘Olympic Broadcaster’ has lost the rights to broadcast the 2012 Paralympic Games, which will now hop across to Channel 4 for the most extensive coverage of the games ever. In Canada, the BBC turned it’s back on the Paralympics, covering nine days of competition with just a one hour highlights show. Just four years ago, the closing hours of the Paralympic Games in Beijing 2008 were watched by 23% of the population – a record number of viewers – so how can the BBC justify covering Vancouver with just a feeble hour of a programme? They say budget restrictions and the time zone – but I don’t buy it.

With so many avenues to give accessible and fair coverage to one of the biggest multi-sport competitions in the world, the BBC turned its back on the Paralympics
Photo: Mafue / Matt Boulton

The BBC has offered a set of excuses which just don't add up

The actual cost of delivering a broadcast for the Olympic and Paralympic Games has become cheaper thanks to changes in the way television feeds are delivered from the games’ venues. It is now streamlined - and every broadcaster who owns the rights to cover those games has the same feed delivered to it. So when the BBC won the contract to deliver the Vancouver 2010 games, it won the right to have that feed delivered to it – there are no extra costs or savings for showing more sports, or less coverage, even if you just showed the coverage direct from feed without any additional presenting or commentary. This is a major step forward by the International Paralympic Committee, which just doesn't add up with the BBC's excuses of rising costs.

Its second excuse over the time zone is just a joke. The BBC had no problem giving decent coverage to the Olympics from Vancouver and I wasn’t aware the time zone had shifted over the two week break between the two events. It is just a cheap shot from the BBC at giving an excuse for not delivering what it is meant to - and should. The major cost, I accept, is delivering a team to Vancouver for the whole 26 day competition duration, but do the BBC really need to provide a full commentary team in Vancouver itself? They could easily streamline events with a feed from London should the budget restrictions really be that severe – or still, as suggested above, deliver a feed without commentary or analysis.

At both the 2006 Winter Games and in 2008 in Beijing, the BBC made extensive use of their ‘Red Button’ service - providing extra digital coverage or skeleton highlights of events but they chose not to deliver this for Vancouver. Across Europe, broadcasters who are also facing the same budget restrictions decided to take advantage of the Vancouver Organising Committee’s (VANOC) daily highlights packages which were assembled and provided by the in-house team in Vancouver. Yet the BBC decided to instead show a non-peak time one hour highlights show on a Monday lunchtime – significantly less than the 50 hours of broadcasting delivered widely across world networks.

The broadcaster also claims ‘huge links’ with the IPC’s ‘’ website, which delivered over 150 hours of live and time-delay broadcasting – yet failed to advertise this or capitalise on the use of their ‘extensive relationship’ by using the feed through it’s own website. As a member of the European Broadcasting Union (EBU) the BBC could have also used the Eurovision network to deliver live coverage using English commentary – showing it through the red-button or via BBC Two overnight, which it delivered for the 2006 Winter games in Turin. But it didn't.

All this is a far cry from the Sydney Games in 2000 when the Corporation (BBC) were awarded ‘Best Media Coverage’ for their broadcasting of the Paralympics.

With so many avenues to give accessible and fair coverage to one of the biggest multi-sport competitions in the world, the BBC didn't even seem to try. The Paralympic Games were hugely popular in 2008 - and figures from across the world already show the Paralympics benefited greatly from the hugely publicised 2010 Olympics. Interest in Paralympic sport is growing, but the BBC delivered less here for Vancouver than they did for Turin and Beijing. The opposite of the direction of travel of the viewers.

If broadcasters were so sure that there was no value in the Paralympic Games, then why are there huge broadcast tendering processes around the world – including here in the United Kingdom, where Channel 4 fended off both ‘BSkyB’ and the BBC in a deal worth £6 million for 2010? Some may indeed look cynically at the timing of the BBC’s announcement of their coverage for Vancouver and see that its broadcasting decisions were taken after the decision of the London Organising Committee to award broadcasting rights for 2012 to Channel 4.

A national embarrassment from the national broadcaster

Indeed in two year’s time the world will be welcome in London - but will arrive having had a complete slap in the face to every single athlete who took to the ice and snow in Vancouver as our national broadcaster could not even muster the courage to put coverage on its digital network, or even, at least, broadcast a 1 hour highlights show a day! We are hosting the Olympic Family here in 2012, but the BBC have clearly shown no enthusiasm for half of that team.

A quote struck me from the American broadcaster NBC –

“The extensive coverage on NBC Sports and Universal Sports helps to raise the awareness of the Paralympics by telling the stories of these remarkable athletes, and demonstrates NBC Universal’s commitment to the Olympic movement in the United States.”

Where is that same commitment from the BBC?

Unfortunately it is the reality that no broadcaster expects to make money from the Paralympic Games at the moment – and every broadcaster knows that when they bid for the rights – which the BBC has done since 1980. But the BBC evidently have made the decision that the Paralympics isn’t worth broadcasting, or isn’t in the public interest – or certainly doesn’t deserve strong presence on the network because people don’t watch it.

But the argument that 'nobody watches it' just doesn’t stack up. As I've already commented, figures show an increasing amount of people watching both the Winter Games and the Paralympics in general. The BBC know this as well, after all why bid for the exclusive rights to broadcast it if that was the case? It is also surely a waste of license fee funds to bid over £4,000,000 to have the rights and then not use them.

During the tendering process for the 2012 rights, the Corporation made it clear that the Paralympics should be free-to-air in the United Kingdom, so they accept that there is a reason for the games being broadcast and they accept that there is a responsibility on a broadcaster to deliver suitable coverage. The BBC therefore knew that they had a commitment to disabled sport, as a public service broadcaster, but this year they have chosen to ignore their responsibilities and use cheap excuses instead to cover up for bad decisions. This highlights the important role that everybody has to play in scrutinising public services over the next few years as they attempt to pass off cuts and changes due to “budget restrictions.”

We have to make sure that equality is not thrown to the back of the pile as big decisions are made.

Channel 4 has shown again its public service values

The Paralympics deserve better and I am so pleased that they are guaranteed over 150 hours of broadcasting in 2012 from Channel 4. They will also receive first class treatment from the channel, as well as build-up shows (in peak time coverage) which document the journey of hard working athletes building enthusiasm towards the event that will follow the London 2012 Olympics.

I am hugely supportive of the BBC, but it isn’t hard to see that another broadcaster has seen an opportunity that the BBC has passed up on.

The BBC has lost sight of its public service mandate. In my view, this is just another example how it really now is time to allow other broadcasters, like Channel 4, to benefit much more from public funds for the great job they do in the public service remit. The BBC have done a fantastic job in delivering Paralympic Sport for many years, it’s just a shame they decided not to do the same for these games in Vancouver/Whistler.

The Paralympics, from 2012, will no longer be under the shadow of the Olympic Games on the national broadcaster and they will be given more than a one-hour highlights show to demonstrate why they are so important. I hope that in Sochi in 2014 they are also given more than just an hour of equality.

I wish Channel 4 and the Paralympics good luck from here on.