Ian Burrell: Supremacy of BBC leaves commercial rivals struggling for a role

Media Studies

Ian Burrell
Sunday 12 August 2012 21:08 BST

Without any question this was, from a media perspective, the BBC's Olympics. It was the moment when the potential of red-button technology, with us for so many years, became apparent in the most hypnotising way. It was the Games we loved to watch in slow-mo, seeing up close every grimace and stretched sinew on the way to the podium.

That immediacy was matched by the whirlwind of comment on Twitter and Facebook that drove ever more viewers to BBC1, BBC3, the BBC Sport Olympics app and the iPlayer.

But so transfixed were we by BBC coverage, led by Gary Lineker, that most of the commercial sector of the media was left with almost as great a sense of Olympics anti-climax as the traders in the strangely deserted streets of the West End of London.

It wasn't for the want of trying. "I think the press have covered the Olympics brilliantly well – it might illustrate to us what we would miss if some of these titles don't exist in a few years," said Stewart Easterbrook, chief executive of Starcom MediaVest. "The surprise was the sheer volume of audience the BBC generated, with the amount watching through the red button being more than anticipated."

Commercial broadcasters expected to be frozen out but not to this degree. ITV, struggling at some points to compete with even BBC3, might as well have taken a fortnight off – though it claimed success for the launch on ITV2 of Keith Lemon's Lemon La Vida Loca as some viewers sought alternatives to sport.

Sky, supposedly the home of sports, was on the outside looking in as audiences tumbled. Its consolation was that its long-term marketing investment in Bradley Wiggins's Team Sky and cycling in general now looks so prescient and has conferred a halo effect on the brand.

Channel 4 also took a gamble in committing to cover the Paralympics and is now set to reap the dividend. Olympics euphoria has left a hunger for more and C4's only concern will be that the BBC's coverage is such a tough act to follow, although it has already secured the services of the nation's new favourite presenter, Clare Balding.

On the news-stand, the most obvious winner has been The Times, which landed a 100,000 sales lift for its opening ceremony coverage. The paper has won plaudits for its eye-catching front-page posters. These sponsored souvenirs – with partners such as Samsung and Sky – were sold at bargain rates and could be a high-profile signal by News International that it is willing to be flexible with advertisers (breaking old Times traditions), so that NI appears commercially more attractive to prospective buyers.

The quality sector of the newspaper market has outperformed the popular press in circulation uplift during the Olympic period. But the hoped-for surge in advertising spend did not materialise. The free paper Metro did some of the best business with its arty wraparound covers sponsored by Adidas.

Once the Games got under way, the tier one Olympic sponsors, especially McDonald's, struggled to convince the public of the depth of their support for a sporting extravaganza that is free of trackside advertising.

"There's an element of the Olympic movement that's explicitly non-commercial," says Matthew Hook, chief strategy officer at Carat. "It's not a media spending frenzy in the way that a World Cup is."

After Twitter embarrassed itself by censoring criticism of its Olympic partner NBC, the micro-blogging site was able to showcase its strength in providing instant interaction with the absorbing television content. "With every live event Twitter becomes more powerful," says Mr Hook. It's a shame that NBC didn't recognise that power of the immediate and chose to show the opening ceremony five hours late in order to maximise primetime advertising.

After all the pre-Olympics hype, the memories most media executives will have of London 2012 will be shaped by the images they watched on the BBC, the one news organisation that unquestionably produced a personal best.

Two cheers for Al Jazeera

Al Jazeera English has won news channel of the year at the Royal Television Society awards for its coverage of the Arab Spring. One step ahead of its opposition as revolutions broke out across North Africa, the young network appears to have come of age.

The honour is among a string of awards Al Jazeera has won this year from organisations including Columbia University in New York and Amnesty International.

But it can't take this praise for granted. As civil war is waged in Syria, the Qatari-based news organisation has faced questions over its coverage. At the start of the revolution, it appeared reluctant to cover the story at all.

But after the network's Qatari government paymasters switched allegiance to the Syrian rebels, Al Jazeera seemed to change tack. Senior Al Jazeera correspondent Ali Hashem resigned this year after claiming his Syrian report was censored. "The decision was a political one taken by people outside the TV centre," he said. This month, the American magazine Foreign Policy ran a piece by Sultan Al Qassemi claiming Al Jazeera had "lowered their journalistic standards" in a "bid to support the Syrian rebels' cause".

Al Jazeera denies following any political agenda, and many of the criticisms are directed at its Arabic service, which has a different editorial team to the English service. But if Al Jazeera has come of age, then it must be given a higher level of scrutiny.


Twitter: @iburrell

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