THE headline “BBC loses Olympics” appeared on Tuesday and my first reaction – while reaching for the contrast and brightness buttons on my TV set until I remembered that no set I’d owned since 1981 had controls down the side of the screen – was to grumble: “Serves them bloody well right.”
I was trying to de-wackify Wimbledon 2day, just the latest reason to despair about the Corporation’s sports coverage. What do you mean, de-wackify isn’t a word? Is Wimbledon 2day a programme title? Not by the hair on David Coleman’s chinny-chin-chin it’s not. Therefore, de-wackify: to render less wacky, to make more grown-up, to remove the comedy, informality and trendiness because it’s embarrassing.
The Olympics have gone to the Discovery Channel. If you want to watch the 2024 Games you’ll have to pay. It’s sad when a top-line sports event, one of the crown jewels, disappears from terrestrial TV and there have been plenty of days recently like last Tuesday – but when you turn on the box and bear witness to what the corporation has done to its nightly tennis round-up then I’m afraid the sympathy dissipates.
Imagine: you’ve been at work while some lucky people watched live coverage of Andy and Novak and the dude with the dreads who’s not cut his hair for 19 years, and some even luckier ones were present at the tournament. All you want when you get home are the highlights and some expert analysis.
What you don’t want is fake grass, a mish-mash of furniture, the presenter and her pundits standing up – until the first wave of complaints – then gathered equally awkwardly round a table from a 1980s wine-bar. You don’t want Clare Balding trying to be funny when she’s not; John McEnroe, who is funny, feeling that he has to overdo the humour; Balding to reduce the match action still further for a “comedy insert” which also isn’t funny; and then to bring us back into the contrived atmosphere of the studio with the words “Brilliant stuff from Phil there … ”
And who invited the public – the smelly British public? They’re clustered round the strange fixtures and fittings, some in matching outfits and matching expressions of gormlessness, and occasionally Balding will try and involve them and more often than not McEnroe will play up to them, but their presence owes everything to some ninnyish focus group’s concept of “inclusiveness”, as indeed does a lot of Wimbledon 2day.
Three different possible conclusions present themselves after an unhappy hour in front of this programme. Number one, nobody at the BBC watched W1A, the BBC-aired spoof about ninnyish focus groups and berkish think-tanks within the BBC. Number two, they didn’t think W1A was a comedy at all, rather a serious-minded show about how state broadcasting should be run. Number three, they saw it, got it and are now trying to be post-ironic.
I don’t think it’s the latter. The previous highlights package under John Inverdale could certainly be a sweaty, clubby affair, which if it wasn’t exclusively male would allow the occasional, unreconstructed comment to slip out. But the Beeb has now gone to the other extreme by making the show a model of inclusiveness: every bit of mis-matching furniture is included, everyone with an opinion and even those who simper and blush when asked a question. Wimbledon 2day is dire, one of the worst programmes of its kind and that’s saying something, and the only bright spot is that Marion Bartoli, not a looker in Inverdale’s book, makes for an attractive and perceptive contributor. (Hang on, can I say Bartoli’s attractive or will that get me banished to the back page like Invers has been sent to the back courts? What do you mean I’m on the back page already?).
The great game of tennis doesn’t need jazzed up but unfortunately this kind of sports presentation is typical now. The BBC is not necessarily the worst offender, but naffness seems more dire on its channels because they once had David Coleman opening his legs, perching on a vidi-printer and showing his class. And of course the best thing about its coverage is that it’s free.
The Discovery deal takes effect from the 2024 Games, venue to be decided. This will obviously have a bearing on future Olympians, including those who’re still just a twinkle in the eye. Their parents will not only have to do it like they do on the Discovery Channel, they’ll have to stump up for the subscription to watch the Olympics so their kids can be sufficiently inspired.
This is a serious point. In 2012 the BBC screened 2,500 hours of London Olympic action. Nine years from now, just 200 hours will be offered on free-to-air.
Athletics struggles for attention against the big beasts such as football at the best of times, and the best of times is obviously a home Games. In 2024 athletics will take the lion’s share of those 200 hours but will struggle even more.
Pretty much everyone’s got Sky now, you say? Oh no they haven’t, and some will never be able to afford the charges, which means they’ll have limited opportunity to, as the Beeb slogan goes, get inspired – be motivated by the endeavours and heroics they see on TV to take up a sport.
And what of these sports beyond athletics which depend on the Olympics, and networks with the philosophy of a BBC, for their exposure? How much of a slice of the greatly-reduced pie do you think they’ll get? Good luck to archery in the future, you’d have to say – and to rowing and handball and Greco-Roman wrestling, too.
Via Discovery, which owns Eurosport, you fear that some smaller sports will remain undiscovered. Coleman and the BBC were creating water-cooler moments out of the Olympics before water-coolers existed but there must be every sad likelihood that the Games of 2024 and beyond will turn out like the ones in Atlanta in 1996 – the Olympics with fewest shared memories and which some people hardly watched at all.
The BBC has not “lost” the Olympics because of its occasionally rubbish coverage of sport. If British TV is still, as they used to say, the least-worst service in the world, then the Beeb is the least-worst sports provider. But trivialising what’s left of the crown jewels is hardly doing it any favours.