Channel hopper: Paralympics break coverage records

The Paralympics (BBC 1, 2 and interactive)

THE BBC was lambasted in some quarters for the resources it threw at the Beijing Olympics. The thousands of staff and millions of pounds could have been better used elsewhere, at least according to those critics who will not rest until the licence fee is abolished and the company is broken up or perhaps partially privatised.

The criticism died down a lot, of course, once the gold medals started rolling in for Team GB. Now, as the success continues at the Paralympics, there is barely a word of complaint.

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That is despite the record amount of coverage – six hours of live action every day, plus hour-long highlights in the evening. The quantity of programming is greater than four years ago in Athens, and the quality is up too. Clare Balding, Eddie Butler and Steve Cram are among the commentators, and the whole event is being treated with a thoroughgoing professionalism.

One reason for the current lack of criticism is the realisation that the nation by and large responded with wild enthusiasm to the feats of Chris Hoy, Rebecca Adlington and their team-mates, and the presumption that a similarly positive, if more muted, attitude will be taken towards the Paralympics. Another reason, surely, is the fear of being branded politically incorrect.

It's an interesting and fairly rapid turnaround. Not so long ago it was common for women's sport to be routinely decried, not only in some sections of the media but also by male chauvinists everywhere. Now, thanks in part to the BBC's willingness to publicise women's football in particular, that has changed. Events such as the Paralympics used to have an even worse image problem. They were simply invisible to the wider public, getting little or no mention in the mainstream media.

Tanni Grey-Thompson, who is also part of the BBC team in Beijing, did much to change that with her feats on the track. At the same time, there has also been a wider social improvement, going beyond sport, in attitudes towards people with disabilities.

But the reality remains that able-bodied men's professional football attracts audiences and sponsorship far in excess of anything else, and BBC coverage over the course of the year reflects that. No matter how PC you want to be, there is no escaping the fact that Fabio Capello's England are of more abiding interest than, say, wheelchair tennis.

But the task when you present the Paralympics, or women's golf, football or tennis, is not to pretend that the achievements are necessarily the equal of what professional male sports can achieve. It is to highlight the merits that those sports have in their own right, and to offer a realistic commentary on the standard on offer.

From the point of view of the broadcaster, there is also a need to recognise that some sports, whatever level they are played at, are more telegenic than others. Having learned as much through its decades of Olympic coverage, the BBC is well aware of this, and as a result has concentrated its Paralympics coverage on the more accessible sports.

At the Olympics, for example, there was not a huge amount of coverage of sailing, for all the British success, or of archery or shooting. To capture live the skills that have made Ben Ainslie a triple gold medallist on the water, for example, you would need a couple of dozen camera crews, most of them floating a few feet above the waves. In other words, it's an impossible task.

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At the Paralympics, we have seen a lot of athletics, basketball, cycling and swimming, on the one hand, and not too much boccia on the other. Boccia, as Butler explained during the week, is a form of petanque in which even some severely disabled people can take part.

Spectators who know how petanque or bowls works can appreciate a good shot in boccia, but in the case of players with brain injuries the real skill is often invisible – namely, the ability to master one's reflexes. As in the case of Ainslie in a boat, the expertise of a boccia player in a wheelchair is impossible to depict on camera.

So the BBC, whose coverage of the Paralympics continues through to the closing ceremony on Wednesday, have done a pretty good job. More coverage than ever before, but not over-the-top programming, a respectful but not patronising approach to the athletes. And a decent spread over the channels.