One thing that should be analysed when thinking about success of the Olympics is the broadcast. We should remember that for most people, the entire Olympic experience was mediated by the BBC. I think there is general agreement that they did excellent job – at least, a much better performance than during the Jubilee celebrations! This is obviously because it plays to the BBC’s strengths, reporting breaking news as it happened. Listening to the Olympic coverage on Radio 5 Live was not that different from listening to their usual Saturday afternoon coverage of Football League matches – and I mean that as a conpliment. That broadcast team in particular are already very experienced at juggling several outside broadcast units and reporters on location.
The corporation also did a good job at explaining the rules of many of the obscure sports to novice viewers.
Let us not forget that the BBC did have help from the Olympic Broadcast Service. This is a group of international broadcasters who together deliver the actual Olympic coverage (i.e. making sure we see people cross the line, not making sure Clare Balding interviews them afterwards). Apparently the BBC was directly responsible for the rowing coverage, but the athletics was actually project managed by the Finnish broadcasters!
All this coverage was enhanced by some fantastic advances in digital technology. There were under water cameras in the swimming pool, boom cameras sweeping over action in the stadia, and cameras on wires tracking the action from above. There were ultra slow motion replays too, all of which led to an immersive experience.
So, what should we learn from all this? Well, obviously we can hope that TV sports coverage will improve across the board. Many of the clever techniques used during the Olympics should be deployed in other, domestic coverage.
But that is not what interests me. I am more interested in how the BBC (as by far the biggest broadcaster in the UK) can help to facilitate grassroots sport. If we accept the premise that much of the enthusiasm for previously obscure sports has come due to increase broadcast exposure, then the BBC could give those same sports a permanent structural boost by simply devoting more coverage to them all year round.
They can do this in two ways: first they can simply send cameras and reporters to cover major sporting events (they may need to do this anyway, to fill the airtime gaps left in the schedules as Premiership football and other highly popular sporting events are snapped up by Sky, Setanta, and ESPN).
Second, they can also do this by improving their online presence, to allow greater crowd sourcing and audience reporting of sporting events. This would enable them to provide coverage of regional and local sports – not just athletics and gymnastics, but non-league football and youth football as well. This will link the broadcaster’s output with communities and the localities that BBC is meant to serve, and should also inspire greater participation, and more people coming out to spectate. In this way, the Olympic spirit that the BBC generated over the past two weeks may be bottled and disseminated to local sports fields and even schools.This is not such an outlandish idea. Back in 2006 I blogged about a speech by Mark Thompson where he hinted at precisely this kind of technological innovation (although the speech has dated somewhat – Thompson is quoted as saying that the BBC might need to compete with MySpace, which seems hilarious in hindsight).
The technology to report in collaboration with citizen journalists, and generate news at the hyper-local level, is already available and being used by other news outlets. CNN already has a mechanism to allow citizen journalists to upload content. And there iare some very interesting experiments being conducted where computers are writing plausible news reports on sports and financial news.
Crucially, I do think there will be a market for this kind of news. Although an individual report may only have a readership or viewership of a dozen or so, the long-tail effect comes into play – If there are enough of these reports generated and shared, then the aggregate viewing figures become quite large.
There is no shortage of events to report on: Although newspaper pundits are fond of lamenting how lazy our youth have become, in reality there are thousands of youth and school sports matches taking place every day. A trip past my local park on a Saturday morning reveals dozens of football matches taking place, which have as much value to the participants as a top-of-the-table Premiership fixture.
If the BBC were to incorporate such coverage into their output, I think there would be a positive feedback loop. If a child (or indeed an adult) reads about their own performance on a prestigious, branded website like the BBC Sport site, that would surely cement their commitment to the sports club, reduce the drop out rate, and maybe even improve performance.
As a side effect, this system of grassroots coverage could also serve as an early warning system to spot talent. Development directors could receive alerts when young footballers, swimmers, gymnasts or judo players are reported as performing consistently well.
(Below: A genre-mixing, hyper-local family report as a BBC news item)