Channel 4’s valiant efforts at major sports broadcasting have met two very particular challenges this week, each testing their capacity to cope with the full burden of an excitable, demanding and very very large public. It’s a classic David/Goliath situation. Channel 4, having spent a good deal of promotional budget painting itself as the rising underdog of Olympics broadcasting, the outlier set to burst in and show the turgid BBC how it’s done, has suddenly found itself with everything it wanted. Following the unexpectedly stellar status of the Olympics, the eyes of the world now turn toward the Paralympics. With them, however, comes a colossal weight of expectation. Whether C4 will weather the storm and emerge triumphant remains to be seen.
First, Frankie Boyle. The wayward Scotsman’s unique brand of Mail-baiting, arch-teenage snipery has always served Channel 4 well in grabbing a few controversial column inches and maintaining the broadcaster’s edgy comedy credentials. However, over the past few days the broadcaster has learned that relying too much on mavericks can be dangerous. When you become part of the mainstream, you’ll find yourself just as much in their firing line, and Boyle has certainly fired on the Paralympics with trademark lack of restraint.
No comment on whether his gags raised any smiles here at the Borkowski offices, but they won’t have done in some quarters at Channel 4. Whether the ‘insiders’ quoted in the press carry any authority or not, its unquestionable that suits will be debating how best to distance themselves from the comic. Certainly they must to some degree, but they’ll need to tread a fine line to manoeuvre out of the reflected ire whilst not compromising their alternative credentials or besmirching past decisions.
Then there’s the rather more deeply ingrained issue of ad breaks. ‘Thanks for warm up’ proclaimed C4’s brilliantly snarky billboards, and they were only half-kidding: the public now is more hungry for cerebral yet saccharine Olympic/Paralympic sports broadcasting than ever before. However, they’ve been raised on a diet of uninterrupted coverage. Of course, a commercially funded broadcaster might believe that it’s reasonable to interrupt coverage more than their publicly funded rival. They’re right- it is reasonable. The problem is that people aren’t. The backlash against ad breaks was inevitable and is likely to be surprisingly pervasive in the public memory of the Paralympics. Too late now, but C4 might have done more to negotiate with advertisers about an alternative to traditional ad breaks since winning the rights.
C4 hasn’t made any serious mistakes yet, and they’ve still plenty of time to make the Paralympics the personal legacy project they deserve, but they’re learning fast that it’s tough at the top. Welcome to the major leagues.