For viewers of the BBC Olympics coverage, it’s back to the old days. Not since Sydney in 2000 has all the Games content been squeezed into the main terrestrial channels, with the red button and its one extra stream making its debut in Athens 2004. ‘The Olympics are perfect for interactive television,’ said a BBC executive celebrating the innovation, ‘because there are so many events happening at the same time.’ In the run up to London 2012 we made the promise that UK viewers would be able to watch any event they chose, from beginning to end – and the corporation delivered 24 HD television channels and an equivalent number of online streams to achieve that. The research was unanimous: it allowed tens of millions of people to share every moment, and they loved the amount of choice they could exercise.
Now, in Tokyo, the BBC’s offering has shrunk back to a regular format of one live main channel service and one more via the red button and online – provoking a predictable cloudburst of criticism. But for once this is not really the BBC’s fault. Rather, it shows the way the sports world is heading: at best to a balance between free to air and pay content, or at worst to the international media giants knocking out the public service broadcasters. In this case it was Discovery, with its sports brand Eurosport, which delivered a mighty blow to the PSBs across the continent by paying nearly a billion pounds to own a series of Olympic Games.
The public broadcasters were not guilt-free in this. One participant at the time thinks their representative body, the European Broadcasting Union, let the deal slip through their fingers, and were ‘disjointed and complacent’.