I suppose it’s somewhat characteristic that when the BBC is onto a winner it has a habit of buggering it up. The 2012 Olympics in London saw the coming of age of the ‘Red Button’ system, enabling viewers to receive a more comprehensive coverage of events than they’d ever previously enjoyed. Not being an especially eager follower of most Olympic disciplines, I nevertheless found myself sucked-in by the hype and ended up on the edge of my seat watching – of all things – bloody show-jumping. I hadn’t even been aware of the sport since the childhood days of Harvey Smith and his two fingers, but wall-to-wall TV events like the Olympics often shine a spotlight on pursuits that receive little attention the rest of the time – just think of when curling became a national talking point during the 2002 Winter Olympics as a Scots-dominated side captured women’s gold for Great Britain. My experience in 2012 is one routinely repeated across the country whenever an occasion of this magnitude has television’s red carpet rolled out; a similar thing tends to happen during the World Cup – people who never normally take notice of football suddenly become hooked for a fortnight.
My earliest Olympic memory is of Olga Korbut in 1972; that particular tournament in Munich is the first grandiose televised sporting event I can remember, unable at the time to fathom why Dickie Davies was on the telly every day for what felt like forever (yes, ITV also covered it back then); but it’s interesting that the gruesome developments leading Munich 1972 to book its unenviable place in history are ones of which I have no memory at all – I suspect my parents were exercising a little shrewd censorship where Black September were concerned. Anyway, 40 years later, advances in TV technology took control of coverage out of schedulers’ (and parents’) hands and gave viewers the opportunity to choose what they wanted to watch; the BBC Red Button came into its own at this time and proved to be an ingenious addition to the viewing experience. And, as is customary, the Beeb then capitalised on this novel approach to the spectacle by announcing in 2019 that the text service providing complementary on-screen info on the coverage would cease due to financial cuts.
I guess the same financial cuts were to blame for ruthlessly pruning the World Service, for selling-off the legendary Maida Vale studios, and for transforming BBC4 from the most innovative and interesting BBC television platform of them all to a virtual Beeb equivalent of a repeat channel like UK Gold. Interestingly, however, such cuts (and the rapidly diminishing cash-cow of the licence fee) don’t prevent the Corporation from magically finding an annual salary of £265,000 for former ‘Loose Women’ presenter June Sarpong to act as an ‘equality tsar’, whereby Ms Sarpong works a three-day week and has access to a £100 million budget to promote ‘diversity and inclusivity’ across the BBC (albeit not at management level). Fancy that! Despite not impinging on the Corporation’s fanatical drive for transmitting Woke indoctrination courses under the guise of impartial news and drama productions, these selfsame cuts are also cited as the reason why coverage of Tokyo 2021 has turned out to be far-from comprehensive so far.
Although I myself have yet to be seduced by the postponed Olympiad in the Far East, by all accounts terrestrial viewers are hardly overjoyed by the less-than-comprehensive coverage of live events to date. What the BBC audience wasn’t really warned of in advance was the fact that the IOC flogged most of its European TV rights for the event to US pay-per-view company Discovery. This £920m package means a full Olympic schedule of the kind British viewers were served-up in 2012 and 2016 is now only accessible via Eurosport channels or a streaming service called Discovery+, which will cost the viewer £6.99 a month on top of the TV licence. This deal was sealed in 2016, though it’s understandable that most had forgotten about it five years on (if they even heard about it at the time); not until the overhyped pre-Olympics build-up did viewers then tune in expecting more of the same, only to find a stripped-down service that the BBC is blaming on a threadbare budget that prevented it from outbidding Discovery for the full broadcast rights.
What terrestrial TV has ended up with is a compromise not unlike the one the Beeb has struck with the Premier League; in that case, live coverage of games is the province of subscription channels whilst the highlights package remains reserved for BBC1 and its Saturday night ‘Match of the Day’ institution. But that’s for a full eight-month football season; the Olympics, by contrast, span barely a couple of weeks and only take place every four (or five) years. Without the luxury of farming-out the less sexy sports to the Red Button, there has to be extensive live (and preferably exciting) coverage to warrant the takeover of BBC1 for the duration, especially when sporting events doing so usually provoke the ire of non-sporty types who resent their favourite shows disappearing from the schedules.
Apparently, the IOC’s arrangement with Discovery has a caveat that makes limited live coverage available to free-to-air broadcasters, something that was mainly inserted to prevent what was already a far more vulnerable tournament than usual from suffering a downturn in global TV audiences. However, this means that, unlike the last two Olympics (when the Red Button service enabled viewers to pick and choose which individual sports they fancied and could watch the complete event at their leisure), this time round the BBC is allowed to screen no more than two live events simultaneously – one on BBC1 and the other via the Red Button; the interactive, multi-choice Olympics of 2012 and 2016 are not an option in 2021 unless you’re prepared to pay extra, and this scenario for me defeats the object of the exercise as a televisual spectacle. The whole point of the Olympics on TV is that the causal viewer can stumble upon an unlikely sport – such as show-jumping or curling – and become addicted to the outcome without any premeditated expectations; it’s one of the things that justifies the OTT coverage. Without that, what’s the point? Otherwise, you may as well just broadcast the glamour track & field disciplines live and sod the rest.
Ever since the advent of Sky Sports 30 years ago and the dangling of lucrative carrots before football, cricket and boxing governing bodies, pay-per-view sport on TV has been a fact of life terrestrial broadcasters have had to live and compete with. But even having the so-called ‘crown jewels’ of free-to-air events such as the Grand National, Wimbledon and the FA Cup Final ring-fenced by Parliamentary legislation hasn’t prevented the money-driven agenda of the IOC – the same one that determines who hosts the Olympics – from infiltrating its TV coverage; FIFA is much the same, which is why a wholly unsuitable country with an appalling human rights record such as Qatar will be hosting the next World Cup in the middle of Europe’s domestic football season. This year’s delayed Olympiad is the first time such an agenda has shaped its accessibility to TV viewers, and it leaves the BBC in particular looking more like some second-rate, old-school ITV regional franchise holder like Border Television or TSW than the planet’s premier broadcaster with an international reputation stretching back almost a full century.
‘The BBC is no longer able to offer live-streams of every sport during the Olympics due to the terms of the licensing arrangements laid down by the rights holder, Discovery,’ reads the official Beeb statement following criticism of the Corporation’s coverage so far. The broadcasting wing of the IOC has also declared it will make changes when it comes to those sports that draw a sizeable male audience for perhaps not necessarily the discipline itself, i.e. the likes of beach volleyball and gymnastics. The IOC says it will clamp down on ‘sexualised images’ of female athletes during broadcasts, though whether this includes the meat-and-two veg of ‘female’ weightlifters being visible beneath the lycra remains to be seen. Either way, these Olympics look like being the most pared-down since 1948 – not so much post-Covid as make-do-and-mend.
© The Editor