When Channel 4 was awarded the UK broadcast rights for this year’s Paralympics, it was because they offered to deliver a fresh, youthful and exciting approach to a sports event in which the BBC had helped to develop interest and build an audience for over the course of two decades of dedicated coverage.
So when Channel 4 unveiled what their press release this week described as “ground-breaking” presentation team, who did it include but… Clare Balding and Jonathan Edwards, who will be fronting huge chunks of BBC sports coverage throughout this Olympic summer, together with Kelly Cates and Georgie Bingham, both former Sky Sports News presenters.
The announcement of such established – perhaps even broadcasting Establishment – figures to anchor the 150 hours of Paralympic coverage to be transmitted over 11 days on C4 and digital channel More4 is, at least in part, an acknowledgement by the channel’s chiefs that they dare not risk the sort of squirm-inducing TV that viewers endured last August when Ortis Deley, without any live sports TV presenting experience, was embarrassingly exposed when fronting C4’s coverage of the athletics world championships (as first highlighted by the SJA website, here).
Deley got pulled from the front man’s job within a couple of days; C4’s athletics coverage has since been headed by the calmer presence of Rick Edwards, who is also named among the Paralympic team, and is expected to present next weekend’s C4 coverage of the world indoor athletics from Istanbul.
The “ground-breaking” bit this year is that half of C4’s Paralympics presenters will be people with disabilities. But the channel has opted to lace its relatively inexperienced team with long-established broadcasters. For instance, Jon Snow, Channel 4 News‘s much-respected anchor and a mainstay of the channel for most of its 30-year history, will take charge of the Opening and Closing Ceremonies coverage.
With the BBC, Balding has worked on the past three Paralympics, though even that may not yet qualify the 40something for the “veteran” tag she was lumbered with by one website this week.
The daughter of the racehorse trainer Ian Balding, Balding has been involved in training C4’s intake of Paralympic presenters. “I came along the other day and met everybody and did what they ambitiously call ‘a masterclass’,” she said. “My partner said: ‘They should just call it a class’.”
But Balding is keenly aware of the responsibilities on her shoulders. “I have to make sure I get this right and ensure that everybody around me, particularly the young talent, feels relaxed and comfortable and also gets it right,” Balding said.
It will be difficult – apart from the ad breaks – not to think you are watching the BBC when the Paralympics are on the television in September. Ade Adepitan, the former Paralympian, established his broadcasting career with the BBC, the dreadlocked wheelchair basketball player even featuring in one of the Beeb’s station idents.
Unsurprisingly, Adepitan praised his new employers for giving a roster of disabled people a chance in front of the camera, following a nationwide talent search in 2010. “I think it’s fantastic,” Adepitan said this week. “For me, if Channel 4 hadn’t won the rights I don’t think it would have been possible for this amount of disabled talent to show their skills on TV.”
The seven new presenters come from varied backgrounds, including a former Paralympic swimmer, an ex-Royal Marine and a carpenter. Somewhat radically, the broadcaster has even recruited a sports journalist, Alex Brooker, to work as a location reporter. Some have been gaining experience on C4’s Paralympic sports magazine programmes, and in fronting coverage of the Paralympic World Cup last year.
“They bring a different angle and experience, not only knowing about disability sport but also about people with disabilities,” Adepitan said. “I think they’ll add another layer and another perspective, and they’ll be able to say things which no able-bodied presenter would be able to say.
“It would be ridiculous to show Premier League football without having some ex-footballers involved; why shouldn’t you do the same with the Paralympics?”
UPCOMING SJA EVENTS
Tue Mar 6: SJA Ladbrokes Lunch with former England rugby star Simon Halliday. Click here for booking details.
Mon Mar 12: SJA British Sports Journalism Awards in London. A gala dinner celebrating our colleagues work. For ticket details, click here.
Mon Apr 16: SJA Spring Golf Day, Surbiton GC. Watch the SJA website for booking details.
Thu Apr 19: SJA Annual General Meeting. Details to be announced on the website and in members’ emails.
Thu May 10: SJA Ladbrokes Lunch with former England cricket captain Alec Stewart. Booking details to be announced.