Friday, 31 August 2012

Vulgar Vultures

Channel 4 Television approaches its thirtieth year of broadcasting this November.  They have rightly earned plaudits for their readiness to push the boundaries of what otherwise may be found from the stables of other broadcasters.  This can be traced back to their approaches to soap operas, in the form of Brookside, to their commitment to American Football, long before the sport had a fanbase here.

Channel 4 was created two years before the first Olympics to generate a profit, the games of Los Angeles 1984.  That it should happen just 8 years after the loss making debacle of Montreal was remarkable, an Olympiad which became a byword in later years for irresponsible financial planning. 

Channel 4 held no broadcasting rights to the 1984 Olympics.  4 years later, in conjunction with ITV, the fledgling broadcaster covered its first Olympic games.  The BBC, as always, provided round the clock coverage supplemented by their daytime recorded coverage.  ITV and Channel 4 shared the rights, with the former providing daytime recorded coverage from overnight events while Channel 4 broadcasted live through the night.  ITV was the senior partner in the relationship, mainly due to their history of covering several previous Olympic games.

Channel 4 and ITV never covered an Olympics again due to the fact that they were not considered commercially viable.  An example of this is best illustrated by the struggle for advertisers which Channel 4 attempted to fulfil resulting in the broadcaster often being forced to fill designated slots of adverts with musical montages due to the absence of commercials.  ITV as the daytime Olympic broadcaster did not suffer the same embarrassment which meant it was a case of Channel 4 sustaining heavy losses for their one and only foray into the Olympics.

The BBC held the rights to the 2012 London Olympics, and thanks to an extension to the deal earlier this year, will be exclusively hosting the games until at least 2020.  Apparently there was no possibility of any commercial broadcaster hijacking the glittering potential of an event which would only occur once in our lifetime.  It represented an Aladdin’s cave of revenue for any commercial broadcaster and yet somehow Channel 4 is creaming off the benefits.

Just how was this possible?

In the summer of 2010 Channel 4 were awarded the rights to the 2011 and 2013 editions of the IAAF World Athletics Championships, an event which had been broadcast solely by the BBC since it made its bow in 1983.  The capture was significant because these World Championships would take place either side of the London 2012 Olympics.  A hugely significant window coinciding with a period when commercial interest in Athletics would peak in the UK.

The move raised eyebrows within media circles and followed on the back of events six months earlier in 2010, when the rights for the 2012 London Paralympics were surprisingly awarded to Channel 4 Television.   Critically the broadcaster pledged more money accompanied by more hours of broadcasting on their flagship channel. 

The BBC had broadcast every Paralympics since 1980 and would have been seen as a long term “safe pair of hands” to continue to invest in Disability sports beyond the peak of 2012.  They had won several awards for their coverage of not just the Paralympics, but many other sports including wheelchair tennis as part of their Wimbledon output.

Channel 4 defended their sudden, albeit incredibly convenient, interest in both Athletics and Disability sport with claims that they wanted to provide an innovative approach to broadcasting these sports.  It was a credible assertion at the time, given their history of covering minority sports. 

But upon closer inspection this is nothing of the sort.  The 2011 World Athletics Championships were heavily criticised in terms of UK TV coverage thanks to the organisation.  This is further reinforced by the fact that the 2012 Paralympics TV coverage is fronted by a team hired from the BBC.  Jonathan Edwards and Claire Balding are amongst the names that have been leased by Channel 4 Television for the duration of the games.  A host of other commentators and analysts also make up the contingent. Far from offering something new and innovative, the BBC team has simply been temporarily outsourced to a commercial organisation. 

Channel 4 has no long term interest in Athletics, a fact demonstrated when the BBC won back the rights to the 2015 and 2017 World Athletics Championships.  The rights to the 2016 Paralympic games in Rio will be awarded in two years time, but it doesn’t take Nostradamus to predict that the Paralympics will be returning to the BBC.

How can one be so sure?  Well the Olympics will be airing at hours that are commercially undesirable for Channel 4 and they will once again promote commercial needs above and beyond their duties as a public service broadcaster, as has been seen in the period since 1988.  Already Channel 4 have shown in the first 24 hours how their commercial needs take precedence.  The high volume of commercial breaks has upset some and the coverage being shunted off to an obscure sister station to make way for commercially valuable Channel 4 programming such as Deal or No Deal probably won’t have impressed games organisers LOCOG either. 

Therefore the notion that Channel 4 is trying to promote minority sports is invalid.  They are capitalising on a unique commercial opportunity to serve their own agendas.  A dubious honour at the best of times, but when you consider that what is being exploited are minority sports, then it makes the whole episode all the more vulgar.

Exploiting a minority is not why Channel 4 was established.  It goes against the very grain of the identity and fabric this organisation was intended to be.  If the broadcaster is serious about committing to minority sports then it should do so long term rather than its current ruthless strategy of opportunistic “cherry picking”.

Channel 4 needs to remember why it was created and the function it is intended to perform.  At present it resembles a vulture, reaping the rewards of everyone else’s years of investment, all in the name of a lucrative pay off to probably off-set the loss of that perennial money spinner Big Brother.