David Abraham: Paralympics show transformative power of TV

campaignlive.co.uk, Thursday, 20 September 2012 08:00AM

Channel 4's coverage of the Games helped change public perception of disability and disabled sport, David Abraham writes.

David Abraham is the chief exeDavid Abraham is the chief executive at Channel 4

David Abraham is the chief exeDavid Abraham is the chief executive at Channel 4

One of the many magical elements of the London 2012 Paralympic Games was the presence of lots of families with young children going to the venues to enjoy live Paralympic sport for the very first time. The effect of such a positive and exciting spectacle on young minds is difficult to overestimate. Children have responded as children do - directly, honestly with fascination but without prejudice to the thrilling achievements of Paralympian athletes. When this generation of children become either able or disabled adults, they will have many positive images, memories and experiences from the Paralympics imprinted in their minds, and these will help to shape a nation more at ease with disability.

This point was brought home to me last week when my colleagues and I received several moving letters and e-mails from viewers who have been coming to terms with recently becoming disabled themselves or are parents of disabled children. All explained that the Paralympics have changed their outlook on the future, giving them confidence to look forward with greater optimism.

The magic of the event has also been revealed in the development of a new and very special bond between Paralympic athletes and more than 2.5 million enthusiastic fans packing out all the live venues. Television has helped to amplify and celebrate this relationship - but it is one that is based on the authenticity of the talents of the athletes. As Sir Philip Craven, the president of the International Paralympic Committee, said at the opening ceremony: "Prepare to be amazed."And so we were.

This is all the more remarkable because our research pre-Games showed a basic lack of understanding and engagement. In contrast, our research from the end of the Games shows a gigantic shift: two in three viewers feel more positive towards disabled people as a result of watching Channel 4's coverage of the Paralympics and 68 per cent feel the Paralympics have had a favourable impact on their perceptions of disabled sport. Seventy-nine per cent agree that Channel 4's coverage helped the event to be taken seriously.

Another special relationship that evolved on screen over the 11 days of the event was between a new generation of young disabled presenters and their more experienced able-bodied on-screen partners. We saw a generosity between the generations quite new to television. In keeping with our heritage, Channel 4's original bid for the Games included an audacious commitment to new talent: 50 per cent of our presenting talent in Games time would be disabled and new to television.

We'd also promised 400 per cent more coverage than ever before and, by the time the final light went out in the Olympic Stadium, we had broadcast some 500 hours of coverage - far and away the most comprehensive of any Paralympic Games.

The ambitious commitment to new talent was one that I inherited when I became the chief executive of Channel 4 in the spring of 2010, and honouring it was a daunting prospect. It was met by introducing one of the biggest training programmes ever run for disabled talent, supported by the BBC, Sky and ITV, in order to give our rookies sufficient experience to succeed on this biggest of stages. So here we now are, having introduced new talents such as Arthur Williams, Alex Brooker, Rachael Latham, Giles Long and Daraine Mulvihill to the British public. The fact that they are all disabled has, as with the Paralympic athletes, been secondary to their professional talents. This week, we announced our intention to invest a further £250,000 into future on-screen opportunities for this group on Channel 4. We hope other broadcasters will continue in a similar vein now that public attitudes and expectations are changing so fundamentally.

At the height of the Olympics, nearly 15,000 people were hard at work at the International Broadcast Centre on behalf of nearly 200 countries. Within 48 hours, this huge facility emptied and, as of the opening of the Paralympics on 29 August, only British and Australian broadcasting teams were to be seen in any serious numbers. But, with the success of London 2012, the IPC has now captured the attention of many other broadcasters contemplating future coverage to much higher levels. This, in turn, will help Olympic Broadcast Services provide more comprehensive coverage for future Games as the costs can be shared more widely than was possible this time round.

Mould-breaking marketing is another critical factor that has powered these Games and caught the attention of our international guests. Channel 4's "meet the superhumans" campaign was not, on the face of it, a comfortable approach. But it succeeded as a statement of intent in the run-up to and the aftermath of the Olympics by cheekily positioning that event as "the warm-up" and deploying a film that many now regard as one of the finest creative executions of the year.

The role of brand sponsorship has been debated, quite understandably, by those conditioned over the summer by an ad-free Olympics. The simple fact is that the involvement of companies such as Sainsbury's and BT is much more than skin-deep. BT, for example, has been supporting Paralympians at the grass roots for more than 20 years. As Jonnie Peacock said in his post-race interview after winning the T44 100m gold, he could not have been there without them.

In many ways, the 2012 Paralympics have been the ultimate example of what can be achieved when brand owners come together with real ambition and creativity in pursuit of the public good. Hopefully, a virtuous circle has now been firmly established: ignited by lottery funding and private sponsorship, the full potential of ParalympicsGB was realised; LOCOG and the IPC then succeeded in staging a live event with a scale and impact unseen until now; this was then explained, amplified and popularised by commercially funded television in the form of Channel 4.

Not all broadcasters have the privilege of public funding, but that does not mean that commercially funded broadcasters cannot deliver public benefits. If we needed an example of the transformational power of television that we can all be proud of, then the London 2012 Paralympic Games was surely it.

David Abraham is the chief executive at Channel 4.

This article was first published on campaignlive.co.uk

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