The International Paralympic Committee said last night that media coverage of the London games had exceeded its “wildest dreams” but appealed to sponsors and broadcasters not to abandon its sports for the next four years.
After round-the-clock television coverage and daily front page pictures, the Paralympic governing body is anxious that media interest does not sharply fall away until the Rio games in 2016. “I don't expect Paralympic sports to be front page news when the games aren't here but hopefully they will enjoy a far bigger profile,” said Craig Spence, the IPC head of communications.
The first big tests will come with media coverage of the Paralympic Athletics World Championships in Lyon in July 2013, followed by the Swimming World Championships in Canada the following month. Disabled sports have previously struggled to market the rights to cover such events to broadcasters and some will be offered as part of the rights package to the Rio games, which Channel 4 will again bid for.
Talks are due to open with Paralympic sporting bodies in around two weeks. “The Paralympics have been great for Channel 4 and we would be mad to simply break off and walk away,” said Stuart Cosgrove, C4's director of creative diversity. “Rio will be a creative fist fight for the rights. We will put forward a strong argument based on the airtime we have given and the creative energies we have brought to it.”
Media organisations are recognising the broad level of public interest in such spectacles. The Disabled British Open golf tournament will be featured in an hour-long show on Sky Sports 3 on 18 September. Channel 4 has enjoyed its best weekend viewing figures for seven years and the 11.2m who watched the Opening Ceremony was its largest audience in a decade. The Australian Paralympic broadcaster ABC also had strong ratings, in spite of time differences.
The evidence that the London Paralympics have been a boon to the British media is irrefutable. Channel 4, nervous at having committed to 500 hours of coverage of its first games, ended up clearing the daytime schedule of its flagship channel and shifting Hollyoaks to E4 to feed the Paralympics appetite. Following the success of its project to use disabled presenters to analyse the games, C4 is to spend a further £250,000 in searching for more disabled talent to host programmes on subjects beyond the world of sport. New shows are being planned for some of the Paralympic presenters who have broken through during the games coverage.
Day after day the quality newspapers dedicated front page coverage to the achievements of Team GB's Paralympians, embracing their uplifting stories in what is traditionally the quietest period of the annual news cycle. News International decided to continue its “The Times of London Souvenir Edition” wraparound covers that it pioneered during the Olympics.
The IPC has been stunned by the “unprecedented” media attention the sports have received around the world and, especially in Britain. “The coverage in Great Britain has been sensational, it has been beyond my wildest dreams,” said Spence.
The frenzy of media interest drove people to the Paralympic governing body's own outlets, quadrupling the number of friends on the Paralympic Games Facebook site from 30,000 at the opening event to 117,000. The @paralympic Twitter account grew to 37,000 followers. The IPC became a broadcaster, streaming five sports a day from its website and uploading films to YouTube where it quickly logged more than 1 million downloads (a quarter of them for the controversial sprint duel between Alan Oliveira and Oscar Pistorius).
But with the media under great financial pressure, future spending on disability sport will need to show commercial value. The level of media coverage will be crucial to winning sponsorship, said Mike Parker, director of sponsorship at the media agency Carat. He said sponsors would assess whether the level of interest in the London Paralympics was “an anomaly” caused by the success of Team GB at the Olympics and London's position in the global economy.
“Sponsors looking to continue their involvement and achieve maximum value from media would be best placed to create long-term partnerships with Paralympic associations and significant British athletes,” he said. “Continuing the story behind individual athletes and teams will allow them to engage with their audience in a meaningful way,” he said.
The IPC will aim to present the media with sports personalities to follow by updating the 54 names on its “Ones to Watch” list, which was prescient in highlighting medallists at London 2012. The emergence of the Brazilian Oliveira - who forced football off the back pages of the newspapers in his home country - is a public relations gift ahead of the Rio games.
Spence spoke of a “slight disappointment” that the feverish commitment to the games of the British broadsheet press had not always crossed over to the red tops but, nonetheless, tabloid coverage was “more than I expected”.
He praised the BBC for featuring the Paralympics heavily in its news bulletins despite losing coverage rights to Channel 4. “A lot of people when they lose the rights just walk away.” The BBC said it would be reviewing the “success of the Olympics and Paralympics” to see “what opportunities there are going forward” for future coverage.