‘A Games like no other’: The demise of FTA live Olympic sport?

Prof Raymond Boyle

Professor of Communication and Director of the Centre for Cultural Policy Research at the University of Glasgow.  He has written widely on sport and media and his latest book, The Talent Industry was published in 2018 by Palgrave.

Twitter: @raymondboyle67

Section 2: Media Coverage & Representation

‘A Games like no other’ appeared to be the mantra surrounding the Tokyo Olympics.  In terms of media coverage, it was for the BBC certainly an Olympics like no other in terms of the restrictions in live broadcasting.  For those viewers who had grown accustomed to the plethora of choice regarding accessing live sport across the BBC’s digital platforms in 2012 and 2016, these Games differed significantly.  The complex rights deal with Discovery meant that for the first time the BBC only carried two live events at any one time (one on television, the other online via the iPlayer), with catch up content being available via the red button and the iPlayer.  

Perhaps fortuitously for the Corporation the time difference between the UK and Japan negated some of the impact of this, unless you were a diehard who were happy to stay up all night to catch live action, rather than snack on the catch-up programmes available during the hours of UK daylight.

Yet a new generation of sports fans has grown up with an expectation that sport only really matters if its live. This lack of live coverage of so many Olympic sports on the BBC, played out in some distinctive ways.  

For example, watching the Games in Northern Ireland on the BBC meant that while the ubiquitous team GB coverage was extensive, indeed at times it felt like the Team GB Channel rather than one covering a multi-national, multi-sports event, coverage of Team Ireland was only available via catch up.  Given the cultural complexity of Northern Ireland, around thirty athletes travelled to Tokyo from here representing Team GB, but others such as Rory McIIroy in golf, Eilish Flanaghan in track and field and Mark Downey in cycling all represented Team Ireland.  Previous BBC Olympic coverage since Beijing 2008 has allowed access to live sports and hence highlighting Irish competitors was part of the digital service.  

This time around, with only two live sports at any one time and an unrelenting focus on Team GB athletes, it was more difficult to follow Team Ireland. Indeed, such was the nature of the rights issues that unless you had access to RTE coverage (the Republic of Ireland Olympic broadcaster whose signal spills into Northern Ireland’s border counties) or you paid your subscription to Discovery, following Team Ireland live in Northern Ireland was impossible via the BBC.  Those viewers in Northern Ireland that access RTE via subscription services such as Sky, also found RTE’s Olympic coverage geo-blocked, as part of the very particular IOC rights regime which mean they only cover those regions that enter the games.  Hence, RTE get the 26-county coverage for the Republic of Ireland and the BBC, get GB and Northern Ireland coverage (including the 6 counties in Northern Ireland).

I hope you are keeping up.

In short, not for the first time, catering for the needs of the Northern Ireland population, did not appear to be very high up the broadcasting agenda when the rights to these games were being thought through.

The restrictions on live coverage also meant we had the tension between the BBC’s news drive to report live sporting results, while lagging in terms of its ability to show the actual event live. So, BBC sport tweets the result of the Team GB Taekwondo contest with Bradley Sinden, ten minutes before the end of the contest being watched on BBC television, prompting some consternation on Twitter.

Another consequence of the rights regime was the focus on Team GB, that at times felt like it was squeezing out the wider sporting culture and the non-GB stories that are always part of the rich tapestry of the Games.  With less live sport to show, naturally the BBC were going to hone this to Team GB related events and stories, but for some older viewers such as myself (my first TV Olympics was Montreal 1976) the Games were also about discovering all these athletes, and sports, that I would know little about, but have their stories revealed by the television coverage.

Of course, in those days a British gold medal at the Games was a rarity, lest we forget that the medal glut for Team GB is a relatively recent phenomenon.  

For some these games seemed to signal the end of the free-to-air unlimited access to the Games that audiences across the UK had become accustomed to enjoying via the BBC.  As reduced live coverage of the next summer Games in Paris in 2024 also looms, we ended these Games in the UK with a call from Ofcom (the UK regulator) for the government to update the legislation protecting free-to-air major international events in its proposed new broadcasting bill.

The danger is that ‘these games like no other’ may become, in terms of access to live Olympic sports the norm for future UK viewers unwilling to pay extra for the privilege.