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Now that the London 2012 Olympics and Paralympics have ended, it’s time to compare and contrast television coverage on BBC and Channel 4, respectively.

The Olympics on BBC

The BBC featured events on BBC1, BBC2 and BBC3 as well as HD channels along with several extra channels. Many of the feeds came from the Olympic Broadcasting Service (OBS) and the International Paralympics Committee (IPC).

What worked

The BBC studio was in the Olympic Park and offered panoramic views, giving the broadcasts a certain dynamic as the viewer could always see people milling about outside.

Generally speaking, the various sports received good coverage, especially minority sports which were a pleasure to watch. Although it would have been nice to see more of the shooting and archery, we saw plenty of judo, badminton and fencing.

The triathlon, pentathlon and marathon coverage put the viewer at the heart of the action.

The equestrian coverage was excellent as was the cycling. All credit to Team GB’s Mark Cavendish who had missed out on the gold medal for which he’d worked so hard. There he was in the commentary box for a few days in the Velodrome being asked, ‘So, what must be going through as he contemplates winning gold?’ Cavendish answered with grace and equanimity; he did a great job considering the circumstances.

Gabby Logan’s daily show offered a great round-up of the day’s action. It was a delight to hear Spandau Ballet’s Gold played every time one of her guests went to update the medal table. She also had a good variety of guests and often started the show just outside the studio where plenty of people stood behind the ropes waiting to see former Olympians and Team GB’s latest medal winners, reminiscent of America’s NBC’s Today show where the presenters go outdoors to meet the public.

Gabby was the best-dressed BBC presenter, always adding a touch of glamour to the proceedings. The intro to her show showed scenes of central London at night — what could be more atmospheric?

The introduction used for evening coverage, morning recaps and Gabby Logan’s show begins at 2:00 minutes and runs to 2:56. The night shots show London at its best:

Clare Balding did an outstanding job introducing the equestrian events. Nicky Barrett, a former British dressage champion, provided precise commentary, quietly explaining the various aspects of the riders’ routines.

My favourite commentator, however, was Ron McIntosh. He could comment on paint drying and make it interesting. He spoke in complete sentences throughout; I even heard him use a few polysyllabic words I’d not heard since secondary school. No ‘ums’ or ‘ahs’, either.  During the boxing, he could in that short time not only give running commentary on the match but also provide the viewer with interesting biographical sketches of the Team GB contenders. He was the best commentator, bar none.

What the viewer learned

Those who watched the less mainstream sports saw that badminton could be every bit as exciting as tennis. Watching the Danes and Chinese play changed my mind about the game forever. The smashes and the need to be all over the court was a revelation. This is certainly not the gentle garden sport many of us know.

Many of us did not know that dressage horses dislike noise. Clare Balding explained that the little hoods they wore over their ears not only kept the flies out but also muffled some of the sound. This came as news to those of us who watch only horse racing.

Dressage also captured viewers, presenters and former Olympians alike. American athletics champion and former Olympian Michael Johnson said that this was the first time he’d really watched dressage and — amazed — asked one of the medal winning Team GB riders, ‘How do you do that? Controlling a horse?’ Gabby Logan asked another of our young medal winning equestrians what he wanted to happen next. He said that he hoped his medal would help him ‘pull some girls’. He didn’t have to wait long for offers, which came in to the show via Twitter.

General Olympics comments

The dressage fences at Greenwich Park were stunning. There were three different configurations; one was London-centric (red double-decker, Tower Bridge and other monuments), another English (Magna Carta, Stonehenge to name two) and the third combined elements of the first two. Whoever designed them deserves a medal.

The sportsmanship and cameraderie amongst the athletes was a pleasure to see. Winners and losers shook not only each other’s hands but also those of the other team’s coach. It would be nice if professional athletes could rediscover such measured behaviour.

The crowd, the Gamesmakers and the other volunteers helped to make the Olympics a success. I never tired of the splendid crowd noise and could easily listen to it every day. It was redolent of days of yore — old Olympics newsreels — where the sound reverberates with happiness and enthusiasm.

Things one could have lived without

The CGI intro and song were disappointing. In fact, the images still give me the creeps. And why is it that no one enunciates sig tunes anymore? I listened to this throughout the Olympics and can still only pick out three words — ‘going for gold’. Whilst this is the advert, the part starting at 1:17 in was the intro:

The daytime BBC presenters and some of the former Olympian guests didn’t discuss strategy or tactics enough. It did not seem to me that John Inverdale, Hazel Irvine and Gary Lineker really added value to the shows. Yes, they are the faces of BBC Sport — but did we learn anything from them or their guests? Not really. At times, they just held a gabfest between events.

The famous red button didn’t always show the featured feeds. I don’t have satellite so cannot comment on the other temporary 20+ BBC channels.

The shrieks from some of the female judokas, especially one of the Americans, were blood curdling. If this is a byproduct of feminism, I can live without it. The men, on the other hand, were quiet.

Their parade coverage could have been better. Channel 4 seemed to be at all the right places at the right moment.


Overall, 8/10 for the BBC. Some coverage could have been better, but the majority of it was compelling. The Olympics has to be seen to be reasonably experienced at home.

The Paralympics on Channel 4

Disability was always going to be difficult to sell. Up to now, Channel 4 has been known informally as the freak show channel. There is a fine line between learning something about unusual medical conditions and outrageous voyeurism. These are the shows people in the office discuss the next day: ‘Did you see …?’

Was Channel 4 repenting with the Paralympics coverage, I wondered. I was sceptical, especially as this was new territory for them, but better owt than nowt. Something’s better than nothing.

As Channel 4 is a commercial channel, its sponsors would also need to develop advertising which presented disability is a sympathetic way. They couldn’t skirt the issue as they were Paralympics sponsors.

What worked

The idents and adverts were outstanding. BT featured a series of Paralympian ambassadors, all of whom were in the Games. These whetted the audience’s appetite, particularly as they were filmed in their home regions. These showed not only the Paralympians at their best but also Great Britain. Atmospheric and engaging! We saw them wondering when we would be able to see them compete.

BT Ambassador Liz Johnson, swimmer:

Jonnie Peacock, blade runner:

Hannah Cockroft, wheelchair racer:

Sainsbury’s came up with a marvellous advert featuring a store aisle, David Beckham (he helped win our bid for the Games) and a few Paralympians in action.

Reality trumps CGI nearly every time:

McDonald’s put out a charming advert which intelligently approached the Olympics from the spectators’ and volunteers’ perspective. ‘We all make the Games’. Because it was oriented this way, it could also double nicely for the Paralympics:

It would be a pleasure to see more of this type of advertising: well-filmed, evocative, novel or gently amusing.

Channel 4’s idents and intro approached disability realistically yet sensitively. This one shows a man with a prosthesis jogging along a canal with the Olympic Stadium in the background (no sound needed). As seen on Channel 4+1:

Their intro to the Paralympics programmes combined film of London scenes, including an amazed taxi driver, with a red, white and blue Paralympian abstract figure racing around the city. The use of Baker Street station was a stroke of genius. Music for ‘Meet the Superhumans’ is adapted from Public Enemy with the words ‘Fight back!’ The intro starts at 0:17 and runs for a minute:

The shows were outstanding and the analysis the best I’ve ever heard. I learned more about running, racing and swimming during these 12 days than I have in my whole life. American former Paralympian Jeff Adams explained racing and running tactics simply and thoroughly. Iwan Thomas was also informative and interviewed the Paralympians intelligently, particularly 7/7 survivor Martine Wright who plays sitting volleyball.

Former Paralympian swimmer Giles Long described the drag a swimmer experiences and how a Paralympian overcomes this depending on his disability.  Long also developed LEXI, C4’s easy-to-follow and simply illustrated guide to disability by athletic class. Absolutely brilliant!

It was a pleasure to listen to Clare Balding presenting, Nicky Barrett offering expert commentary on the dressage and Ron McIntosh make basketball interesting — again in complete sentences! Ade Adepitan, who co-presented with Balding is a former Paralympian medal winner in wheelchair basketball. He started with the Hackney Sparrows in north London.

At the end of the day’s events, Australian foot amputee Adam Hills hosted an irreverent show, The Last Leg, which also featured journalist Alex Brooker, who also wears a prosthesis. Paralympians sat on the sofa with Alex and comic Josh Widdicombe. Weird and wonderful outtakes of the day’s coverage were shown. I wasn’t sure what to make of it at first but ended up watching it nearly every night.

C4’s coverage of the London 2012 Parade was fantastic — so much better than the BBC’s. The presenters were really enjoying themselves and seemed to be everywhere just at the crucial moment. I’ll never forget Clare Balding running down the Mall high-fiving the spectators!

As with the Olympics, I’ll really miss the crowd noise!

What the viewer learned

I’d never seen the Paralympics before and, as these were our home games, had to watch. As my regular readers know, I was also suffering severe Olympics withdrawal.

I can only tell you what I learned here, moving from a position of ignorance to partial enlightenment. First, a lot of the Paralympians are very attractive. Runner Jonnie Peacock and cyclist Jody Cundy have no doubt attracted a lot of attention from the opposite sex.  Wheelchair racer Hannah Cockcroft is probably getting Tweets from young men.

After a few days, I no longer saw disabilities, only athletes who were differently abled.

Adam Hills and Alex Brooker discussed the close relationship an amputee has with the maker of his prostheses.  Even if an amputee moves far away, he still tries to retain his original prosthetist, who knows everything about him.

The Paralympians’ commentary on the events was excellent. We learned that it takes several hours on waking for any swimmer to gain physical equilibrium. Therefore, morning heats are particularly challenging. Yet, they are the time for the Paralympian to put his mark on the contest; there is only one chance to make the final. Jeff Allen said that the runners and racers would be intent on psyching each other out and boxing the leader in. Fortunately, this didn’t happen to David Weir.

The causes of disability were also interesting. Some are congenital, but a number of accidents can also leave us disabled. Our parents were not wrong when they told to be careful. Four or five British Paralympians hung out near train tracks until that fateful day when they lost a limb. Stay away from railway lines!

Things one could have lived without

Certain events — archery, fencing and equestrianism — were billed as ‘coming up shortly’. Blink and we would have missed them. This seems to be more the fault of the Olympic and/or Paralympic people in charge of the cameras, yet, C4 presenters could have done just a bit more to set viewers’ expectations.

The Paralympics were athletics, swimming and football heavy. However, their budgets were restricted on what and how much they could show.

Other than that, I’m completely sold on the Paralympics. I would certainly watch both Games again, although, admittedly, the atmosphere will be different.


Overall, 9/10 for C4’s coverage of the Paralympics. It far exceeeded my expectations.

Thanks to these two broadcasters, the OBS, the IPC, our Olympians and Paralympians for four weeks of unforgettable sporting memories.

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