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August 14 2012

14:00

Channel 4 Gives Blanket Coverage to Paralympics, While NBC Falls Short

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Later this month, the Paralympics will open at the same London venues as the Olympic Games, and for the first time, will get full-day and prime-time coverage in the U.K.

In 2008, Great Britain and Northern Ireland came in second in the Paralympics medals table with 102, including 42 gold, compared to 47 medals in the Olympics. But the success in the Paralympics was not matched by media coverage.

While the BBC, which held the rights to both games in 2008, aired several hours daily of Olympic action on the main networks, BBC1 or BBC2, their Paralympic broadcasting was limited to highlight shows during the week on BBC2, and live coverage on the weekend.

That imbalance between the major sporting events is about to change in the U.K.

When the Paralympics open on August 29 in London, Channel 4 will carry the broadcasting torch, marking the first time the contract has been split for the two linked Games.

Channel 4 is stripping back its entire schedule, leaving just its evening news and half-hour evening soap opera. The rest will offer 400 hours of estimated broadcasting of the Paralympics.

They have been building up profiles of British Paralympic athletes, challenging disability transport issues in London ahead of the games, offering free phone and tablet apps for following the event and plugging into various social media platforms.

Other networks around the world have signed up to broadcast the games, including China's largest national broadcaster, CCTV, Brazil's Globo TV, and ABC in Australia.

In April, the London Organizing Committee of the Olympic Games and Paralympic Games (LOCOG) said the 2012 Paralympics would be the most watched ever.

By contrast, NBC is not broadcasting any Paralympic events to U.S. audiences except for a highlights show on September 16 from 2 p.m. to 3.30 p.m. ET. NBC Sports Network is showing the Paralympics for the first time. But the coverage is limited to four, hour-long programs on September 4, 5, 6 and 11, according to Adam Freifeld, vice president of communications for NBC Sports Group, in an email to me.

He added: "This is the first time Paralympic coverage has been available on NBC Sports Network, the cable network that was rebranded earlier this year from VERSUS."

Channel 4's approach to coverage

Rachael Latham competed at the Beijing Paralympics and holds the European record for the 200m butterfly, the world record for 50m butterfly and British record for the 200m backstroke. But, because of injury, she has moved into broadcasting. Channel 4 conducted a talent search for new presenters, recruiting a number of fresh faces from different disability backgrounds, including Latham.

The 22-year-old from Wigan, Lancashire, was born with Erbs Palsy -- paralysis of the arm -- and said the increased coverage will make a difference.

"It is not that prior to Channel 4 winning the broadcasting rights there was bad coverage," she said via email, "It's just that BBC did not show enough. Maybe the BBC thought they knew what the public wanted and served them accordingly, seeing the Paralympics as having minority appeal rather than something in which the public could have a big interest in.

"In 2008 the BBC approached the Paralympics with respect, with most events available to the viewer; however, there was no substantial background or build-up to any of this.

"Channel 4's belief in the Paralympics is reflected in the amount of transmission hours given to the game and it is their biggest focus for the whole summer. The BBC can thrive on the Olympics and Channel 4 can thrive on the Paralympics."

Despite the criticism of NBC's delayed broadcasts of the Olympics, the Games so far have been a hit on both sides of the Atlantic for both NBC and the BBC, and Channel 4 will be hoping that interest will extend to the Paralympic games.

Regular features on "Meet the Superheroes" as well as other documentaries have introduced the athletes to TV audiences like never before, as well as explaining the sometimes complex classification system.

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The network is introducing the Lexi Decoder (LEXI) to help explain the different categories according to levels of impairments, developed in cooperation with Paralympic gold medalist Giles Lorig.

Latham said the media is a vital way to spread the word about sport and inspire people to participate, not just watch the Paralympics.

"Paralympic athletes train alongside the Olympic athletes in Britain and train just as hard," she said. "So for the public to build up their respect for Paralympic sport alongside Olympic sport would mean everything to the athletes. It is not Channel 4's job to 'turn round the attitudes' just more 'create an attitude'. I don't think the public has ever been given the chance to care about the Paralympics. At the end of the day, if you aren't given the chance to see something and understand it, you probably won't care, and that relates to all aspects of life.

"Channel 4 is giving the Paralympics the air time it deserves and hopefully by doing so people will watch the athletes and understand the sport so they want to watch it. C4 doesn't need to do anything in particular to change people's attitudes, just by the network broadcasting it for the public to watch will be enough for people to make up their own minds and then potentially positive attitudes will be formed."

Social media coverage

Twitter and social media in general, has formed a massive part of the Olympics so far this year, and Latham said social media will also be a huge part of the Paralympic coverage. Channel 4 has always been keen in getting Twitter and Facebook followings for presenters and reporters, but this is increasing with the Games and promotion of the athletes as well. The free tablet and smartphone apps will also allow live-streamed action.

During the Games, Latham will be the main "mix zone reporter" at the pool, interviewing athletes after their races, as well other presenting duties. She had always set the goal of being in London for the Games, but the injury forced her to turn to presenting from competing. On a personal level, she said she is loving the opportunity.

"C4's goal is to bring Paralympic sport into full public focus before, during and beyond the 2012 Games and to deliver a lasting legacy, including developing public attitudes to disability and disability sport," she said. "If four years down the line, people are excited about the Paralympics as well as the Olympics, that will show C4 has been successful."

Channel 4 set a goal of 50 percent disabled on-screen talent during the Games and searched for new presenters to help towards the target. For the network itself, this is the biggest event in its 30 years, but they could not confirm at the time of writing whether they would bid to broadcast the Rio Paralympics in 2016.

A spokeswoman for the British Paralympic Association said in a statement: "We welcome the increased media interest in the Paralympic Games and we hope that, with the support of the British media in raising the profile of British Paralympic athletes and their phenomenal sporting achievements, the BPA can achieve its vision of positively affecting the way that British society thinks, feels and behaves towards disabled people."

Tristan Stewart-Robertson is a Canadian freelance reporter based in Glasgow, Scotland, operating as the W5 Press Agency.

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August 01 2012

13:46

The Quixotic Quest to Avoid Olympic Spoilers on Social Media

Olympic fever hit me young. One of my earliest memories is of a coloring book featuring the raccoon mascot from the 1980 Lake Placid Olympics that my mom gave me when I was three. I colored in the pictures of the raccoons skating and bobsledding while I watched the Olympics on our old boxy television. From then on, wherever I was, whatever I was doing, I always took two weeks out to gorge on the Olympics, as the technology that delivered them to viewers evolved.

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I've passed on my enthusiasm to my kids. When my daughter was two and half, coverage of the Beijing Olympics in 2008 was practically the first television I allowed her to watch. One day she saw an elderly neighbor of ours swimming shortened laps in the decidedly not Olympic-sized oval pool at our condo complex. She pointed and said, "A champion!" She pointed out champions everywhere -- joggers slogging down the street, slackers pedaling cruiser bikes, they were all champions.

During the Beijing Olympics, I managed to mostly avoid hearing results of competitions before I was able to watch them on the evening network TV coverage. But there are now more ways than ever to take in Olympic coverage -- network and cable TV, iPad apps, live feeds streaming on the Internet, and the athletes' Twitter and Facebook updates, to name some. The ubiquity of real-time coverage threatens to undermine what I most enjoy about the Olympics: the drama, the thrill of not knowing how the competition is going to turn out. So I will try to digitally sequester myself as much as I can during the London Olympics.

Against the Digital Grain

Why am I trying to go against the modern digital grain? When I was in high school, I almost won a 300-meter hurdles competition. There I was, charging down the track. I could hear my teammates chanting my name and saw no competitors in front of me. I was beginning to taste the thrill of victory that I'd heard so much about during my obsessive Olympics watching. Then I tripped over the second-to-last hurdle and landed flat on my face on the track. I picked myself up in time to collect my customary fourth place.

My loss was not at the level that an Olympian who has trained her whole life experiences when she makes an unfortunate mistake, nor would a win have been as great. But when you're rooting for an athlete, what you're really doing is rooting a little for yourself -- for the little bit of you that you see in every champion. And so, when you can see the win within her reach, and then something goes wrong, your own mishaps make you feel her pain. And you share a little of the athlete's glory when she wins, because you've been through the nerve-wracking experience together.

When, however, you hear through Twitter or a news site that an athlete tripped over a hurdle, and later you watch the race, it feels like all you're watching it for is to see when and how the calamity happened. This rubbernecking feels unwholesome somehow. It's less like the participatory feeling that watching a live sporting event can give and more like the why-have-I-sunk-this-low self-loathing that watching reality TV provides.

I have a few advantages in my quest to digitally sequester myself, chiefly that I am somewhat behind the rest of the country on my gadget acquisition. This is in part because I try to limit my online time, but mostly because on my meager writer earnings, I can't afford all those pesky monthly fees. So I don't have cable or satellite TV, and I still rock a flip phone without a text or Internet plan like it's 2005. I will try not to visit Facebook much during these two weeks. However, I can't give up Twitter. It's just too fun.

A Two-Week Olympic Sequestration

During the first few days of Olympic coverage, my quest to digitally sequester myself has yielded mixed results. As I watched the Opening Ceremonies, I checked out Twitter, figuring that since this wasn't a competition, there was nothing really to spoil. I enjoy visiting Twitter during events that millions of people are watching together -- it's like throwing a party without having to cook and clean. But apparently the majority of the people I follow live farther East than I do, because I was reading lots of tweets about the parachuting Queen and Mary Poppins taking on Voldemort hours before I could see this in Colorado.

So I shut off my computer and enjoyed watching Kenneth Branagh, dressed kind of like Abe Lincoln, wandering around on that Hobbity hill in the pastoral portion of the Opening Ceremonies. If I'd had Wikipedia fired up, I could have learned that the top hat costume was meant to portray not Lincoln, but Isambard Kingdom Brunel, a British engineer whose "designs revolutionized public transport and modern engineering."

But I didn't need Wikipedia to tell me that Branagh is a great actor. His expression of joy and awe at the sight of the illuminated Olympic rings rising above looked so much more intelligent and convincing than the slack-mouthed stupefaction of the volunteers nearby him, who were perhaps feeling the same awe but weren't trained to express it through their faces. Branagh's eyeballs tracked side to side as he gazed at the spectacle, the way actors' eyes do when they give each other meaningful looks. Give that guy an Oscar.

Nor did I need Wikipedia to tell me who Tim Berners-Lee was when he appeared in the modern section of the ceremony. I had my software engineer husband to tell me that he established the first web server, and that in the opening ceremony he was sitting at a NeXT workstation, the computer he used in his pioneering work on the World Wide Web. My husband further informed me that Steve Jobs founded NeXT in 1985, the year he was fired from Apple. See! In the absence of the Internet, family members can also be fonts of information. However, my husband said, "I didn't know Tim Berners-Lee was British. I thought he was Swiss." So the same rule applies for information derived from Wikipedia and family members: trust, but verify.

Family Members Ruin It

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On Saturday, the first day of real competition, I fared less well on my digital seclusion. I avoided checking the Internet or listening to the radio, but at the birthday party for my dad that day, most of my family was armed with smartphones and iPads. My brother and my husband started a discussion that made it clear to me that Michael Phelps had not won the gold in the 400-meter IM. "Stop!" I said. "No more!" I ran away from them. So I was able to at least preserve the mystery of who had won the race until I watched it a few hours later and saw Ryan Lochte take the gold.

It will be hard for me to find time during weekdays to sit down and watch live Olympic coverage on the Internet, so as the London Olympics unfolds, I will continue my quest to maintain my ignorance until the moment when network TV chooses to enlighten me. I know, it's retrograde, but it's the best strategy I can come up with to maintain that Olympic magic that I first experienced as a kid.

However, I don't think I will be able to resist sneaking away from my weekday duties to watch a Colorado girl, Missy Franklin, in her swimming finals. She goes to the same high school that my little brother attended, which for some reason makes me feel like I have a stake in her wins. She's already won her first gold medal and is expected to contend for six medals.

She's taken it as her mission to bring some joy back to Colorado. At a news conference last week she said, "The only thing I can do is go to the Olympics and hopefully make Colorado proud and find a little bit of light there now." She tweets @FranklinMissy, and you can bet your gold medal I'll be following her.

Jenny Shank's first novel, "The Ringer," is a finalist for the High Plains Book Award. Her satire appears in the new "McSweeney's Book of Politics and Musicals."

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