Give the BBC a Gold Medal: A Love Letter to Britain’s Olympic Broadcaster

Even as I've taken my place in the Olympic Stadium, there's been a niggling sense that the best views are from my armchair. Dear BBC, you're even better than the real thing.

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Wu Xiaoling / Xinhua via ZUMA PRESS

Members of the British team attend victory ceremony of Equestrian Dressage Team competition, at London 2012 Olympic Games in London, Britain, on August 7, 2012. The British team won gold medal.

My dear BBC,

“Magical” is a word your correspondents have overused in recent days as they’ve struggled, and most often failed, to contain their excitement at Team GB’s golden streak. “It’s going to be a glorious, glorious win. Oh yes! Oh YES!,” screamed your trackside commentator, as Mo Farah crossed the finish line to clinch the 10,000m race. In the studio, your pundits erupted in joy. At the climax of the sprint cycling finals, one of your reporters, so overwrought his voice crackled with emotion, informed viewers that 24-year-old Jason Kenny, overtaking French rival Grégory Baugé to win, was “quite literally on fire.” And when Team GB bestrode the podium to collect Britain’s first-ever gold medal for dressage, and the opening notes of the national anthem sounded, your man on the scene made the following declaration, his voice strangely choked: “I make no apology; we are going to sing.”

(MOREOlympic Highlights in Photographs)

So it has gone, and so it will go until Sunday’s final events: every British win celebrated extravagantly; every loss mourned like a family bereavement. My colleagues, over from the United States to cover the Games, are puzzled. “And they call Americans jingoistic and sentimental? U.S. journalists would never openly root for the home team,” said one. I don’t know what to tell them. The impartiality that you bring to domestic politics and international affairs seems almost entirely absent from your Olympics reporting, even if a BBC spokeswoman insists “we pride ourselves on our balance and objectivity.” She adds that “as a national broadcaster, we’re trying to reflect the mood of the nation.” These apparently contradictory aims combine, says the spokes, to produce “measured actuality.” I’d call it “love, actually.” And let’s be clear: you aren’t just reflecting the mood of the nation—you’re amplifying it.

Your coverage is all the more engaging for that. In your handling of live events, news or sports, the BBC usually offers a window on events so transparent and unadorned that we look through you, rather than stopping to admire your work. Your critics will of course disagree vigorously on this point; they accuse you of showing us the world through a filter of soupy liberalism. Examine the BBC’s output and you’ll find material to support that view but much more to sustain your claims of balance and objectivity, even if there’s at least a touch of Enlightenment thinking in the Charter that defines your “public purposes” as including “sustaining citizenship and civil society,” “promoting education and learning,” and “stimulating creativity and cultural excellence.” You’re also tasked in the Charter with “representing the U.K., its nations, regions and communities” and “bringing the U.K. to the world and the world to the U.K.” Well, you’re certainly doing that with bells and whistles during London 2012.

And that’s not only in cheerleading for the U.K but because you are one of the U.K.’s core institutions and one of its greatest cultural exports and exporters. National broadcasters in many countries are modeled on you; some of their top staff gained their experience with you. Your programs and formats are enjoyed globally. Like Scotland Yard, you represent an international gold standard for what you do, and controversies at home rarely filter through to your admirers overseas. They just wish they had a service of such high quality to complain about.

During the Games’ opening ceremony, your cameras cut away from the march of the Olympians to catch the Queen unawares, apparently bored and staring at her nails. Brits excoriated you for that. Imagine if they had been forced to put up with the iniquities visited on NBC‘s viewers—delays, cuts, the unintentional comedy that erupted when its presenters failed to recognize World Wide Web inventor Tim Berners-Lee. And the commercial breaks. All those breaks.

Your performance hasn’t been fault-free. There have been moments of national coitus interruptus, as your editors have withdrawn without warning from scenes of high drama to bestow their affections elsewhere. But you’ve also provided live online coverage for all events after the preliminary stages, with illuminating data and useful commentary. Indeed, when your people aren’t too breathless to speak, they’ve been expert and aimiable guides to the proceedings, and for all their open partiality, are unstinting in their praise for the athletes of competitor nations. (Unless, of course, they suspect someone of unfair tactics directed against a member of Team GB. After cyclist Victoria Pendleton was penalized for straying out of her lane during the sprint, the BBC’s commentator called the decision “very, very unjust,” blaming Pendleton’s fault on her Australian rival Anna Meares. “You have to just elbow your competitor and you win.”)

London 2012 has been the best-ever Olympics for women, the first with female competitors representing all countries but for the world’s smallest republic, Nauru, and women’s contests generating at least as many edge-of-the-seat thrills as the men’s events. This has also been the best-ever Olympics for women at the BBC, with some of your finest women presenters given key roles. Among British women to emerge from the Games as national treasures will be not only sports stars such as Jessica Ennis, Pendleton, Laura Trott and Joanna Rowsell, but also your very own Clare Balding, never less than informed and informative, the televisual personification of your own affectionate nickname, Auntie Beeb. Your departing Director General Mark Thompson has admitted that there are too few Clare Baldings gracing the BBC or, as he put it in this mea culpa for the Daily Mail, “manifestly too few older women broadcasting on the BBC, especially in iconic roles and on iconic topical programmes.” His (male) successor could do worse than to start his tenure by signing up Balding and the rest of the London 2012 team for Rio 2016.

The Games are drawing to a close and it’s tempting to try to get to as many live events as possible. It’s a pleasure and a privilege to have press accreditation that secures ringside seats and a special pink Oyster card that enables free travel to venues. But even as I’ve taken my place in the Olympic Stadium, there’s been a niggling sense that the best views are from my armchair. Dear BBC, you’re even better than the real thing.

Yours sincerely,

Catherine

77 comments
nancyba
nancyba

The argument may go on and on, across the pond, around the world, but I have been a BBC fan since the "80's when, for us expat workers in  the Middle East, the BBC broadcasts were the one TRUE  source of daily news...

Firozali A.Mulla
Firozali A.Mulla

Business

confidence has dropped to the lowest point this year, falling for the fifth

consecutive month. According to a new business trends report by accountants BDO

LLP, economic prospects in the UK continue to look gloomy as confidence in

manufacturing and services sectors fluctuates. Measuring business performance,

BDO's optimism index has hit a seven-month low The figure has decreased from a

high of 98 in the first quarter of the year and moved even lower than 95, the

index's marker that crucially highlights growth. falling from 93.5 in June to

93.1 in July. The firm's optimism index predicts the economy will contract for

the rest of the year. BDO partner Peter Hemington said: "This month's

figures serve as a stark reminder of the continuing difficulties the UK economy

faces, with zigzagging business confidence undermining the improvement in

confidence that we saw at the start of 2012." In a separate report Lloyds

TSB says the majority of English regions have seen business activity fall in

July. The bank's regional purchasing managers' index showed six out of nine

regions saw a downturn, which Lloyds also attributes to poor performance in the

manufacturing sector. It says the North-East of England saw the sharpest fall

in private sector manufacturing output, the steepest for the area in more than

three-years. Read on ..........It is a

simple thing like tipping the waiter so you get better services later. When we

were in schools the medals did not matter, it was the dad, mom, family waiting

for us to say, “Hey I made it. I won second in the 100 yards race” The only

thing then was to beat the neighbours’ sons in the race and tell all this. At

that time there was no CRM but I guess we were applying this unknowingly Britain congratulates itself for job well done 12 minutes ago LONDON The party of

a lifetime over, Britons woke up and rubbed their eyes to jubilant headlines on

Monday as London said farewell to its Olympic visitors Let me never fall into the vulgar mistake of dreaming that I

am persecuted whenever I am contradicted. -Ralph Waldo Emerson, writer and

philosopher (1803-1882) Language

is the amber in which a thousand precious and subtle thoughts have been safely

embedded and preserved. -Richard C. Trench, poet (1807-1886) I thank you Firozali A.Mulla DBA

 

cumbie6
cumbie6

The clearly jingoistic BBC Olympic Games coverage is only another expression of the arrogant British attitude towards other countries and cultures.  The Brits think that they are very special and unique, and actually  the best in everything, really the center of the universe.  So naturally they are staging "the best Games in history", and winning a gold medal only confirms their "excellence". The BBC biased coverage is only another expression of the typical British arrogance. As an American living in the UK,  I have found  some of the anti-American remarks on the BBC coverage disgusting, and anti-German comments beyond the pale.

In reality the world is very different from the way the Brits perceive it. The UK is today  a relatively backward country economically, technologically, socially and politically. And every day it is falling further behind the more advanced countries such as the US, Germany, Canada, etc. Rooting for their athletes makes the Brits feel better. So let them enjoy their gold medals-they  have nothing else to be happy about because deep down they know that they are an insignificant little island pretending to be an important country.

John Harrison
John Harrison

Just a correction, 'Auntie Beeb' is not an affectionate nickname - quite the opposite in fact, it comes from the phrase 'Auntie knows best' and is used by people who believe the BBC portrays a similar arrogance. 

Jonathan Baldwin
Jonathan Baldwin

I don't think the BBC cut away to show the queen bored - the opening ceremony was covered by OBS, Olympic Broadcasting Services, the IOC's in-house coverage producers...

Sara Conrad
Sara Conrad

I've been watching BBC exclusively for the Olympics. NBC thinks I should pay more than I do for their channels and I disagreed. F* NBC

rocketjohn
rocketjohn

The shots and direction from the games are all courtesy of the Olympic Broadcasting Service, not the BBC - the commentators are theirs, but the camera work is nothing to do with them if it's outside a studio or piece-to-camera context.

Tim Almond
Tim Almond

As a Brit, I'm kinda tired on the emphasis on rinky dink sports like dressage getting promoted over more competitive sports, just because a Briton has a chance.

I'm happy for a Briton to win, but I watch sport for the competition.

Deibitto
Deibitto

As a Brit I partly agree. The BBC either underestimates our interest in other athletes or is too scared to test for it.  However if you think other national broadcasters are any better then I think your fooling yourself.  I lived in China during the beijing games and quite literally didn't manage to catch a single event bar the 100m in which the focus wasn't on a Chinese participant.  I've seen similar in Japan and Spain.  As for the US, I would say its different.  Its not that the US media  cheers its own - it simply seems to ignore that others exist! As an example, the LA Times ran a poll on the greatest over Olympian and offered reader s choice of 10 of whom 8 or 9 were American!  

Anita_London
Anita_London

Totally agree with Catherine. It's unprofessional, unethical and unjust to focus on your Home Team and completely ignore what's happening, who's injured, disqualified, set the WR/OR, etc, etc. It's not about US or UK or China or any other country, it's all about sport. People want to see history's been made irrespective of the nation, it's all about sportsmen and their performance and achievements, a team if you like, but  not a flag, singing anthems or chanting "Team GB" in all appropriate and inappropriate moments.  

Catherine you make me feel sane again, I thought it was me.

Thank you really

ken reynolds
ken reynolds

All sports available live at all times in GB via the interactive red button or online.

ken reynolds
ken reynolds

All sports are available live at all times on the interactive red button and online. Gold medal for moaning

Ray657
Ray657

Dear Catherine:  "American Journalists would never openly root for the home team?"

Who are you trying to kid?  I've never seen bigger homers than American sports broadcasters.  Frankly it's nauseating to see them fawning over every American athlete at these games and most others, and I've watched a lot of sports in my 71 years.  So your implied notion of balance in American broadcasting and print journalism at athletic events is simply ludicrous.  Let the Brit commentators have their few minutes to remember  over the London Games.   They haven't had much to cheer about lately.

                                                    a Canadian skeptic

                       

                                                                     

                                                                  

nick price
nick price

ad-free  24 channel  uninterrupted  reliable live BBC coverage

christineesteve
christineesteve

Quite frankly, except for the odd expert in their own area of sport (the Redgraves of this world) the BBC commentary has been appalling. Presenters shrieking so you cannot hear a word said, over use of the same similies and adverbs, vacuous celebratory comments  from those who seem to know nothing about anything, the constant repetition of  'at this moment in time' when a nine year old could tell them there are no other moments and do they mean 'now',  the covering of events so that you get the impression that the only athlete taking part in that particular event  is British (long jump coverage a case in point) and having interviewed one exhausted athlete after another then to ask them to 'sum up' what they  have already said. The best thing about is that  the Olympics began all about Big Business interests and the British public has managed to reclaim it back.

Sardonic_Soul
Sardonic_Soul

When our Sports broadcasting organizations in the colonies grow up, I hope we emulate your outstanding performance with the Olympics.  Your understated presentation LOOKS good because it IS good.  You do not call attention to YOURSELF with narcissistic popinjays preening for the camera, you let the athletes tell their stories of their agonies and their sacrifices through their actions that lead to their victory while gently allowing the defeated a graceful exit to solitary sorrow.   Like  an old master's painting, the undercoat of your presentation supports the glory of the games effortlessly and with great depth.    Your work looks good.. because it IS good.  If Zeus in his Majesty were to decree the games be shown to all mankind, I am confident he would choose BBC to execute his will.  Since he is not available, I am glad your Queen in her infinite wisdom came to the same conclusion.

Tim Boddy
Tim Boddy

"Like Scotland Yard, you represent an international gold standard for what you do"

I was with you until that silly comment, sorry.

Adam Jeal
Adam Jeal

Anyone who ever accuses the BBC  of 'Soupy Liberalism' OR claims that they are 'balanced' (outside the games coverage) is deluded. They are the mouth-piece and hand maidens in-chief to the right-wing thugs that run our country. Try watching BBC's 'Question Time' for a prime example on how the quality of the so-called 'debate' is non-existent. Every time anything even remotely controversial is said, the host David Dimbleby will quickly interrupt the perpetrator and move on to another subject. The general news coverage is also a joke.

Maajid Bashir
Maajid Bashir

Clearly the author didn't watch the Cycling Road Race event. It was a shambles.

Scullerina
Scullerina

Firstly, the coverage is actually provided by the Olympic Broadcast Service so cut aways are not the fault of the BBC.

Secondly I think the coverage has been very broadbased and enthusiastic of other countries performances, particularly the coverage of sport that GB is no longer involved in, on the Red Button.

Finally whilst the supportive, excitable commentating has been fantastic most of the interviews have been terrible 'tell me what went wrong and how bad you feel right now for only getting the bronze?' 'You won the gold but there's this negative thing I can bring up right at this moment and this inane question I can ask about the future.' .... really? Is that really what we want to hear? Most of the crassness is in the phrasing of the questions. Generally the media likes to approach things from a negative point of view (rightly or wrongly). I guess they just don't have the vocabularly of their commentator compatriots to sing the praises of unique and glorious human sporting endeavours on a daily basis.

Melina Smith
Melina Smith

I disagree with most of this. As a non-British person studying in the UK for the summer, I have found this to be the most frustrating Olympics to watch. I respect Team GB and am happy for the amazing things they've accomplished, but it is infuriating to see events cut in the middle, or finals completely ignored in order for the BBC to cut back to their own athletes, replaying the same won events countless times throughout the day, and showing the same interviews over and over when other events are being ignored completely. I've barely been able to see my country, and half the time when I'm watching an event that Great Britain isn't winning, it has been changed. Even today I was watching the women's long jump final, and as soon as the British athlete was knocked out the announcers ADMITTED that they no longer had interest, and failed to show the rest of the final. It's frustrating and disappointing, and I never imagined that watching the Olympics in the host country would the most disappointing TV experience. 

FrillArtist
FrillArtist

I completely agree. American commentators are just completely inept especially NBC. Always talking about something that has NO relevance to the game at hand. 

"Oh, his father's uncle's cousin daughter died a few weeks ago. This gymnast has been having a hard time coming to terms with it. I just spoke to his teammate's father who said they will be moving to Arkansas to visit their grandmother..."Don't forget those cheesy documentaries they always show. It's not like there aren't tons of games going on at that moment but we want to cut them out so we can show you crap to fill up the space before the next commercial. Besides, you should be glad that we are taking some time out of airing commercials to show you glimpses of tape delayed games.

WHAT A JOKE. NBC - No Brains Channel.

Greer Nicholson
Greer Nicholson

I am not sure I completely agree with you. Clare Balding is terrific. But I have seen too many BBC commentators - not Clare - being negative about the appearance of women competitors. They don't require male competitors to be attractive, but they do seem to require that from the women.

Equally, it feels the BBC is too stretched across too many platforms. The coverage on BBC 3 has included some presenters who didn't seem to know anything about the sports they were discussing. Clare is magnificent. Many of the others seem more worried about their hair than their facts.

 

deconstructiva
deconstructiva

Thanks, Catherine. Memo to the BBC –  allow your iPlayer to work in the US. You would’ve gotten a HUGE boost in site traffic. NBC’s American coverage during “prime time” has been awful. Yes, there’s a five hour delay, but withholding marquee events and pretending they’re live when everyone on the internet already knows the results ahead of time is a terrible idea. Use the after-hours (in London) time to recap the day and repeat the best events, but don’t to fool us. I’d say Catherine and everyone in London got a waaaaaay better deal. These Games aren’t really the first online events for journalism and social media, but the internet's impact on London is real.

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