When UK broadcaster Channel 4 launched the trailer for its coverage of the 2016 Paralympic Games back in July, it was almost crushed beneath an avalanche of critical praise.
The three-minute video, by 4Creative, shows not only Paralympic athletes, but a whole bunch of other people with impairments achieving extraordinary things in everyday situations. The video, which is played out against the audio backdrop of a remarkable band of disabled musicians belting out the Sammy Davis Jr number Yes I Can, had been seen more than 4.2 million times within a month, helping to set the scene for C4’s coverage of an event they embraced at London 2012 and show no sign of letting go of any time soon.
Much has been made of London 2012 as a watershed moment for Paralympic sports and, in the host country at least, a lot of that success can be laid at the door of C4 and its innovative coverage. But while the channel may have helped make the Games, there is equally little doubt that the Paralympic Games helped redefine Channel 4.
In many ways C4’s coverage, which won a BAFTA award (effectively Britain’s TV Oscars), rewrote the book on Paralympic broadcasting, not only through the extent, but also the tone of its coverage.
Before London the BBC had covered both the Olympic and Paralympic Games, but, with only limited air time available, it was perhaps inevitable that Paralympic coverage felt like an add-on. With nothing to distract it from its mission, C4 made it the main event.
No surprise then that the channel went back in to sign a two-Games deal with the IPC, covering Sochi and Rio, a deal which bolstered the growing commercial confidence of the IPC and which was warmly welcomed at the time by president Sir Philip Craven, who described the London coverage as “a stunning success”.
“With London 2012, Channel 4 created a blueprint for how a commercial broadcaster can raise the profile of Paralympic sport and its athletes to new levels. They reached record audiences, in particular young people, identified and developed some fantastic new presenting talent, and played a significant role in delivering seismic shifts in attitudes and perceptions towards people with an impairment in the UK,” he said at the time.
“They have promised to build on this fantastic work over the next four years and we look forward to working with them as they help contribute to the IPC’s vision of enabling Paralympic athletes to achieve sporting excellence to inspire and excite the world. This is the first time the IPC has agreed a two-Games deal with a TV station. To sign up such a high-quality broadcaster so soon after the conclusion of the Games underlines the growth of the Paralympic Movement and the significant impact London 2012 had.”
For Stephen Lyle, Channel 4’s commissioning editor for sport (pictured below), covering the Paralympic Games in London was “one of the most important things the channel has ever done”. Lyle, a multi-award-winning senior producer, editor and director, joined C4 from the BBC, where he was, among other things, series editor of BBC Match of the Day 2 and programme editor on Match of the Day.
“The Paralympic Games coverage is bang on the C4 remit. It is what we should be doing to fulfil our public service remit,” he says.
“Looking back, I think the coverage of the Paralympic Games had been improving since Barcelona on the BBC, but even at Beijing 2008 there were only three hours of highlights and very little live action broadcast.
“Through the sheer volume of coverage the Games were changed. It made it clear that these (Paralympic) Games are as important as the Olympic Games themselves. They are about high quality elite sport and what Channel 4 has done is to give them the showcase they deserve.”
The coverage certainly helped build the C4 brand.
“It is great to walk into a room and hear people talk about what a great job we did,” Lyle says. “It wasn’t just about being recognised by the BAFTA; it was about how the coverage enhanced C4’s reputation as a broadcaster of highly complex events. It showed we could take on anything.”
Lyle describes the impact of the coverage as “transformative” for the Paralympic Movement.
“There has never been that sort of coverage of the Paralympic Games anywhere in the world and other broadcasters from around the world have been keen to speak to us about what we achieved,” says Lyle, who had the luxury of studying the C4 coverage of London from a distance.
“I was able to sit and watch how they did things, and I think the secret of the success lay in the storytelling and determination to treat the Paralympics as elite sport. From the initial ‘Superhumans’ campaign onwards, C4 was telling the story of extraordinary athletes who had trained ridiculously hard. This constantly challenged established perceptions and, as a result, the sport is now taken more seriously.
“In the past there had been a sympathy thing around Paralympic coverage, which really rankled. C4 got rid of that without impacting on the wonderful human interest stories, which will always be there.”
Like so much around Rio 2014, the build-up to the Paralympic Games has not been troublefree. At the time of writing, it appeared that the budgetary constipation which threatened to prevent some teams receiving travel grants amounting to $6million had been dealt with, but ticket sales – which in mid-August were put at only 12 per cent of available seats – continued to be a worry.
As every sports broadcaster knows, when events are played out in front of near-empty stands, it makes it somewhere between difficult and impossible to create the excitement which is the hallmark of great sports television. So far as the Paralympic Games are concerned, there is anger that could mean losing some of the momentum built up around Sochi and London.
“Of course, it would be disappointing if crowds were sparse and that is a concern for the IPC and Rio,” admits Lyle. “But I don’t think it will be a reflection on the Paralympic Movement. I hope that the momentum we have seen building throughout the Olympics will be maintained when the Games are over.”
Certainly, the enthusiasm of Japanese broadcasters to learn from Channel 4 before making plans for the Paralympic Games in Tokyo in four years’ time suggests that even if there is ablip in Rio, the long-term outlook is positive.
For Lyle and his team, Rio presents an opportunity to develop new ideas for presentation and he is pleased with the scheduling of events, which, by and large, fall favourably, despite a four-hour time difference, which has seen some key Olympic events going live in the early hours of the morning.
“The Paralympic events will be easier to view than the Olympics and allow us to schedule programming in two blocks, one in the afternoon and the other from 9pm until midnight,” he says.
Between the two blocks of live sport will be an hour-long daily edition of the channel’s groundbreaking Last Leg show, fronted by Australian amputee comic Adam Hills, which takes an irreverent look at the Paralympics and other topics of the day.
“We will be doing Last Leg live from the Olympic Park in Rio and look on it as a significant innovation in terms of our overall coverage,” Lyle says. “Beyond that, there will be new camera angles and techniques used by Host Broadcast Services, which is responsible for providing the worldwide feed for the Games. We have worked hard to ensure that the coverage it delivers is of the same standard as that of the Olympics and takes the viewer out there into the heart of the action. We are always trying to raise our game.”
C4’s coverage will be judged in different ways by different groups. On the one hand, it will be expected to deliver against its public service remit, something which places huge emphasis on its social impact. However, the channel’s hybrid structure – it is owned by the UK government, but funded from commercial revenues – means that it also needs to generate income.
The signing of Allianz, an IPC International Partner as sponsor of the broadcasts, will make a contribution to revenue and indications from London 2012 are that advertising around the shows will be strong. But the overall impact may be better judged against a benchmark recognised by CEO David Abraham after London 2012.
“Not only did Channel 4’s coverage reach record audiences, but, more importantly, it had a meaningful and positive impact on UK attitudes to disability and disability sport in general,” he said. Repeating that result would represent the ultimate win-win.