BBC cuts a worrying sign for minor sports after London 2012

The BBC announced on 6 October its plans for delivering programming and content through to 2017 in the context of 20% cuts mandated by the government. The sports budget will be reduced by 15%, which could hit some minor sports particularly hard.

Initial plans to cut some services in their entirety met with fierce opposition so the BBC has opted to make reductions across the board, including a previously announced 25% saving in the budget of BBC Online. Among the BBC’s media rivals in the UK, the plans have generally been accepted as sensible (see, for example, the Daily Telegraph and the Huffington Post).

In order to save money, the BBC will share the rights to Formula One in 2012 and 2013 with BSkyB. There will also be reductions to some unspecified smaller sports events and to sports coverage on the website.

With the start of the Olympic Games in London now less than 300 days away, the race is on for many of the sports involved to stake a claim to continuing BBC coverage after 2012. As Channel 4 has secured the TV rights to the Paralympic Games, Paralympic sports may believe their best option lies there.

Among Olympic sports, the likes of athletics, swimming and cycling must win medals and demonstrate spectator appeal. Other sports ambitious for British success at London 2012, such as rowing, hockey and gymnastics, will be hoping that the Games can help them produce stars that the BBC want to continue to feature.

While there are plenty of other TV broadcasters in the UK that cover sport – BSkyB, ITV, Channel 4, Eurosport, ESPN, newcomer GBSport.tv and others – the BBC provides a sizeable audience on free to air TV and by far the most popular sports website (12.5m visitors a week, according to the BBC’s own figures). The BBC also has a heritage of covering Olympic sports which other channels rarely feature.

Even with the advantage of marketable British stars, Olympic sports will still need to offer the right kind of events to attract the interest of broadcasters, which is not straightforward (competition should ideally be live, conveniently packaged for TV, avoiding clashes with other events).

And then there are the issues of rights fees and production costs to consider. Only the most popular sports and events can successfully sell their rights to the highest bidder. In many cases federations or event organisers will have to pay for TV production and offer the feed to broadcasters. With advances in technology it should be possible to produce footage more cheaply than before, increasing the chance that an event will be screened on TV, even if it is not on one of the most popular channels.

It is clear that very few of the Olympic sports can be confident of TV coverage on the most popular channels in the UK after London 2012. The best way to guarantee interest will be to have high profile British stars. The pressure is on.

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