When Channel 4’s coverage of the Paralympics begins on Tuesday viewers will be spoilt for choice, with more than 1,300 hours of events on offer, almost triple the coverage of the home Games in London 2012, and the broadcaster turning over its flagship channel to the Olympics for a staggering 17.5 hours each day.
The wall-to-wall coverage offered by what has become the world’s leading Paralympic broadcaster since it struck an unprecedented TV rights deal for the London Games will see it deliver almost three times more hours than the BBC managed with its restrictive rights deal to broadcast the Tokyo Olympic Games.
“Every sport that is available live will be shown live,” says Pete Andrews, head of sport at Channel 4. “This is the biggest Paralympics we have ever done. It is a huge part of the channel’s identity and a massive schedule commitment. Until the sport stops, we will keep broadcasting.”
During the Olympics, in late July and early August, the BBC was allowed to broadcast a maximum of two live events at one time and a total of 500 hours of coverage, compared with 24 live streams and blanket coverage at Rio and London.
Channel 4’s shock move, in 2010, to snatch the Paralympic rights for London 2012 from a complacent BBC put disabled athletics on the British broadcasting map, while simultaneously giving the channel unprecedented negotiating power to increase broadcast hours. In turn, it pushed the corporation to extend its coverage.
This year, more than 70% of Channel 4’s presenting team is disabled, with Ade Adepitan and JJ Chalmers complemented by BBC stalwarts such as Clare Balding. A Paralympic special of the hit show Come Dine With Me has been designed to appeal to a wider audience as well.
The Last Leg, the popular sports-meets-entertainment show with Adam Hills, Alex Brooker and Josh Widdicombe, will return with a daily prime-time slot shot in London. “We have been making programmes with broad appeal to bring the Paralympians to a wider audience,” says Andrews. “We are being ambitious. Alongside coverage of the Games, we are trying to make programmes that hook people into stories and bring more of the mainstream into the Paralympics.”
The broadcaster has also opted to be more adventurous than its publicly owned counterpart, with a plan to give viewers much more of a flavour of life in Tokyo during the Games.
While Covid has restricted the original scope of coverage – Channel 4 will have 80 staff on the ground compared with 300 in Rio – it has found ways to broadcast from Japan without further antagonising a populace unhappy with the risks the Games posed. A fully camera-equipped Japanese taxi will provide the mobile base for Adepitan, who will present Channel 4’s daily hour-long Tokyo Today programme, rounding up the best of the action.
“We are doing as much in Tokyo as we can as we don’t want to lose a sense of the city, the sense of occasion,” said Andrews. “This is a cheeky way around the rules, so we can get to where we want without breaking them. No one is going who doesn’t want to go. Safety comes first over TV coverage. In a safe way, we want to deliver the best Paralympics coverage we can.”
Back in the UK, a significant amount of the action will be broadcast from Channel 4’s new “national headquarters” in Leeds, set up after the government compelled it to reduce its concentration in London.
It is a timely move as the broadcaster faces possible privatisation by the government, with any new owner likely to want to reduce costs by cutting back the very decentralisation forced by ministers. “It is great to showcase Leeds, our national base,” says Andrews. “It is a good way to show our commitment to being all around the UK.”
Leeds will also feature live audiences, something the BBC chose to avoid, although Andrews demurs when asked about their size. “We are inviting an audience of friends and family to enjoy the Games with us,” he says. “It will be as many as we can, but it won’t be large. It has a Covid caveat, depending on the Covid rules at the time; it is really hard to give a number.”
Like the BBC’s Olympics deal, Channel 4’s rights contract for the Paralympics ends after Paris 2024. However, while the scale of the BBC’s future involvement in Olympic broadcasting remains unclear, Andrews hopes Channel 4’s coverage over the past decade should cement its status as the British home of the Paralympics. “Absolutely, definitely,” he says. “That is what we are all about. We are kind of the lead Paralympic broadcaster [globally]. Without a crystal ball, you never know. But I certainly hope so.” The Guardian