Dave Gordon, former Head of BBC Athletics, gives his opinion on the coverage of track and field on television
Apart from having to stay up until the early hours, there was much to celebrate and little to complain about when it came to the televised coverage of athletics in Rio last summer.
All the drama, including Mo Farah’s epic gold medal-winning performances, was brilliantly captured using the Olympic host broadcaster’s state-of-the-art core coverage. There were more than enough camera angles to show almost every nuance and incident, plus the BBC had some of its own cameras to add a unique British slant on events.
We can expect more compelling action to the same high standard next summer at London 2017. When the world’s broadcasters gathered last month for a pre-production meeting, they would have had few fears about the core athletics coverage. It was principally the logistics they focused on.
Two production companies, Sunset & Vine and Filmnova, joined forces and were appointed the host broadcaster by UK Athletics last year in a competitive tender process. They will use all their experience and knowledge of the sport to provide viewers around the world with that “best seat in the stadium” perspective.
Yes, there may well be small differences in approach but all will be conscious of the importance of “geography” and ensuring viewers can always see the “big picture”.
Coverage of the 400m is a textbook example of where you ideally need to see all eight runners all of the time. Audiences should not be disorientated by the use of too many close-ups – I must confess that it’s one thing that has me shouting at the television!
Fundamentally, it’s all about the storytelling and the IAAF, through its TV commission, has been diligent in sharing best practice in the production of a neutral host world feed. A lot of thought and hard work has gone into creating that blueprint, which outlines the philosophy and best way to deliver coverage of all track and field events.
There was much to celebrate and little to complain about when it came to the televised coverage of athletics in Rio last summer
Before I am accused of living in an ivory tower and ignoring the subject that features regularly in the letters page of AW magazine, I do know there are many aficionados of the sport who are constantly frustrated by the BBC coverage. Its critics frequently complain that there are too many “talking heads” and not enough action.
As a former Head of BBC Athletics – and still a keen observer – I think that it’s a question of balance and reconciling the different interests and perspectives of all the groups that make up a television audience.
Readers of this article are likely to fall into the camp that leans towards all-action and very little chat. Given your expertise and familiarity with athletics, you have less need for the previews, explanation and analysis offered, whereas the general audience find these elements valuable.
Research tells us that major events bring vast new and younger audiences to the sport. So it’s understandable why the BBC, as a multi-genre channel – as opposed to a pure sports channel – takes a more rounded approach.
To their credit, commentators such as Steve Cram and Brendan Foster have that rare ability to be able to talk to both the general and expert audiences without alienating either group. Their passion, expertise and insight is a real asset to the sport.
The good news now is that the technology exists to keep everyone happy. Extra choices are available via the red button and web streaming, assuming the broadcasters want to and can afford to do it, plus have those rights. Some of you will have noticed during Rio that, sometimes when athletics clashed with other major sports, the BBC chose to stream athletics on the red button and web.
In this instance, viewers were offered an “integrated” feed. Provided by the host broadcaster, it combined all the track events with the best of the field and the medal ceremonies. There was a separate commentary but no interviews or analysis. It’s pure athletics with no British slant.
The BBC has yet to announce its plans for London 2017 but I would expect blanket coverage of all sessions on either BBC1 or BBC2. As for streaming extra feeds, we’ll have to wait and see.
Beyond that, the position has changed for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. The BBC has now only got secondary rights and Discovery/Eurosport is the primary rights holder. They’ve made a very astute signing in Jonathan Edwards as their presenter and it will be interesting to see who joins him. I, for one, think it’s about time that one of the lead athletics commentators for either broadcaster was female.
The BBC will still feature live athletics, as it has traditionally done, with the occasional interruption for key events in other sports which clash. However, Discovery/Eurosport will be able to showcase athletics and can provide the general streaming of multiple sports feeds, which the BBC previously had the rights to do.
It will be fascinating to compare the two approaches in 2020 and the competition may well raise standards and encourage innovation.
The changing media and technology landscape does, of course, open up new opportunities. We’ve already seen more sophisticated coverage of the sport with miniature cameras being placed to give new perspectives.
How much longer will it be before we can not only get a bird’s-eye view of a jumper clearing the pole vault and high jump bars but also have a graphic that tells us how far over the bar they were?
We already get that information in the long jump. I’d also hope that we could reduce the number of relay disputes and be more definitive about what happened. Surely, the Hawkeye technology in use in cricket and tennis could be adapted to provide that service. Yes, it will be expensive but aren’t major athletics events worth it?
I would also expect more second-tier events to be streamed via the web in future. Of course, the quality will not be up to broadcast standard but governing bodies, with the help of sponsors, may well find the idea of exposure via their websites to be attractive. It could certainly fill a need for niche audiences.
Talking of innovation, it’s too easy to be complacent. Athletics will need to experiment more and develop attractive new and shorter formats, which can sit alongside major events. Future “consumers” of the sport are not as hidebound by tradition and have a shorter attention span. They are the generation who view life through a tablet or smartphone rather than TV, newspapers and magazines.
TV companies understand this and will be receptive. They are well aware of the importance of attracting new audiences and creating new heroes. It’s no surprise that they are questioning the value of traditional event formats, which no longer generate the audiences they used to. Inevitably, this will also require a review of the disciplines that make up the meetings too.
Fortunately, the far-sighted in the sport understand this too. We’ve already seen events like the IAAF World Relays and Great CityGames become popular in a short space of time. The crowds on the Newcastle/Gateshead quayside and in the heart of Manchester have been a testament to the success of street athletics.
All eyes will be on Australia early next year as “Nitro Athletics” is launched. Many new athletics fans, and younger ones in particular, will be attracted by these new formats with their emphasis on spectacle and entertainment.
Yes, the Olympics and IAAF World Championships are the pinnacle of athletics but, for the long-term health and profile of the sport, it’s crucial to have a compelling narrative outside of those ten days every two years. What’s needed is a season-long story, attractive to audiences, in which they can follow the progress of the stars of the sport.
It shouldn’t only be about the same meetings in different locations, as we see with the Diamond League, but supporting it with inventive and entertaining events that refresh and enhance athletics.
It is a real challenge for the sport but it has no option. We live in an age when people have more distractions and less leisure time. Athletics needs to be prepared to adapt if it is to continue to get the TV coverage it does.
Athletics can’t stand still. It is the envy of other Olympic sports because it gets such good exposure
Are televised meetings and sessions too long? Traditionally, yes, and the Diamond League is now careful to offer a two-hour television window for global distribution of its events. Even at major championships, the target for those prime-time evening sessions is no more than three hours.
Perhaps people haven’t got the patience they used to have but audiences are definitely more sophisticated. They know or can easily find out when the specific events they are interested in are happening and are less likely to watch on the off-chance there will be something unexpectedly compelling.
The Diamond League has been a positive step forward and British viewers are well served with live coverage on Eurosport and highlights on the BBC. The coverage is generally of a high standard but does suffer from some inconsistency. That’s no surprise, given the variation in venues and occasionally conflict with the tradition and history of individual meetings.
However, the organisers work hard to achieve excellence and share best practice at an annual workshop, when different aspects are critically analysed.
The one thing that continues to aggravate me, and I suspect I am not alone, is the matter of what athletes wear at Diamond League and other televised meetings.
You will have all seen instances of six of the eight athletes lining up for the 100 metres wearing identical strips. It’s then almost impossible to identify individuals once they start.
I know it makes sense commercially for the kit companies but it’s no way to enhance the spectacle and make the sport more attractive. Why watch if you can’t tell one athlete from another?
It’s been a long-standing problem. I’d always hoped that the key was to exploit our passion for supporting the national teams. Would the clothing manufacturers be prepared to devise strips which mixed a combination of national identity with special colours or branding for Olympic, world, European and Commonwealth champions plus world record holders and Diamond League winners? Tackling this issue would make the sport more attractive.
Athletics can’t stand still. It is the envy of other Olympic sports because it gets such good exposure.
However it needs to rise to the challenge, question its traditional approach and look for new opportunities if it is to continue receiving quality TV coverage.
» This article first appeared in the December 8 issue of Athletics Weekly