A New Year: Same old format.
That’s the impression I, and a lot of others got when watching the BBC’s coverage of the Birmingham Indoor GP this weekend. How can they get it so wrong with athletics when their football, golf, tennis, rugby, even lawn bowls coverage is as good as it gets?
The one advantage the BBC has over most other broadcasters is that there are no adverts. This means that in a 3 hour broadcast you have roughly half an hour more than ITV or Sky Sports to show the action, or in the BBC Athletics team’s case, talk at length about a social media spat, or the London Marathon (which takes place in 2 months time), or haberdashery, or breastfeeding. Talk about whatever you like. Just make sure it interrupts as much of the live action as possible.
Never mind #BoltDown or #MoTime – how about #ChatEnd or #ActionTime countdowns, so we can set a timer & come back to the TV when you decide to show what we’ve all tuned in to watch. Imagine using all that time spent chatting & showing slow motion replays from 16 angles to instead give a chance to someone like Lee Emanuel, who went 2nd on the UK Indoor 1500m all time list, meaning he’s the second fastest UK man over 1500m indoors in history. Ever. Quite an achievement I’d say, but definitely not worth an interview with the BBC. Imagine if he had something interesting to say. Maybe that TV exposure after a breakthrough performance for him could have resulted in some mildly life changing opportunities. Who knows? Who cares? The BBC certainly doesn’t. Anyway, that interview time would have caused pandemonium with the montage schedule.
The Red Button coverage works. What we usually get on the Red Button is Steve Cram, the absolute pinnacle of commentating excellence. Stuart Storey, who sounds like he has rocked up to the commentary box straight from an all day drinking session at a free bar, which is quite entertaining. Tim Hutchings, occasionally throwing in a comment about how pleasing to the eye Darya Klishina is (which you aren’t allowed to say on TV), but otherwise doing an excellent job. Steve Backley is also underused on the non-Red button format but does an excellent job – as does Paula Radcliffe. The Red Button works because you take away ‘studio chat’ & instead get voiceover analysis, without going over the top, resulting in the amount of action shown on the screen being nearly doubled & not happening in the background as viewers try to get a glimpse of what’s going on behind the people with microphones.
We all know that there is an uninterrupted stream of action which is filmed & easily broadcast-able, which goes from track to field showing events as evenly as possible. What we get on BBC One, Two & Three is picking and choosing what they show, with seemingly no time limit on how long the usual suspects can chat about how nice their hotel is in between track events. If you are tuning in to a Diamond League to watch throws & other field events, forget it. Save yourself the infuriation & wait until a resourceful Russian person puts the highlights on YouTube. The Diamond League I can recall enjoying the most last summer was the New York one, during which we saw a lot of the men’s high jump on the Red Button & it turned out to be one of the greatest competitions in history. Imagine how little of that they would have shown if the panel of Loose Women had been up to their usual tricks & using the time to discuss live on air which flight home they were getting.
If I were the director I would allocate 20-30 minutes before the action starts to get all the montages, pre-comp athlete interviews & irrelevant subject discussions out of the way so once the action starts, everyone who’s tuned in to watch the athletics can watch the athletics. If it’s Philip Bernie (the BBC’s head of TV sport) who is responsible for the current format, then he does well to stay out of the limelight while the exceptional array of ex-athletes employed to be the faces of his athletics coverage become the scapegoats for his ineptitude. His responses to the questions in the Athletics Weekly interview were, in my opinion, absolute nonsense. If someone were to have read his answers to the probing questions, then tuned in to watch the coverage from Birmingham on Saturday as a first time BBC viewer, it would not have taken them long to realise he was talking nonsense either.
I’ve seen rumours of the BBC not getting renewed coverage rights for the Diamond League. To be honest, it wouldn’t bother me at all were it to switch to a different channel. I would rather pay a subscription to watch what I want to watch, than have to watch what I don’t want to watch because I pay my licence fee. It makes my afternoon/evening when athletics coverage is on the TV and it is done right, like it usually is on the Red Button and almost always is on Eurosport (despite adverts). Why can’t it just be done correctly when I type in the number on remote control of whichever of the BBC channels the coverage happens to be on?
Nothing I say will change anything as it’s hard to have any influence in athletics when you can’t even qualify for the Commonwealth Games javelin final, but I know I’m not the only one thinking these things. I would love it if a big name has a mild outburst when interviewed by the BBC and highlights some similar points to the ones I’ve made, while live on air. That would be superb.
I know the coverage format won’t change any time soon, but I’ll keep tuning in and having a whinge until it does.