Stuart Cosgrove reflects on the Paralympic Games
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In his role as Director of Creative Diversity at Channel 4, Stuart Cosgrove managed the team in charge of the coverage of the London 2012 Paralympic Games. Here, he reflects on the last few years, and in particular the last 12 days, contemplates the legacy of the games, and looks ahead to the future of Paralympic broadcasting.
When we signed the rights to the Paralympic Games, what do you think it was that secured them for Channel 4?
There's no question that we were in quite a keen, competitive battle for the rights. There's always two or three dynamics going on with negotiations, one of which is money, and the amount we were willing to spend on securing the rights, but it's actually always about more than simply money. There's also the amount of air time that you're going to commit to giving the event, and for the Paralympics that was mission-critical, because this was the first time ever that the Paralympics had effectively been sold to the international market as a rights asset. It had always been seen in the past as something that was added-on to the Olympics, with all the down-sides of being associated as the junior partner. This was the first time it had been separated out as a package in its own right. So clearly money was important, but so was the amount if air time, which ended up being close to 500 per cent bigger than the BBC had done in Beijing. That was a seismic step-change, a paradigm-shift in the way in which people had perceived the Paralympics before. Then the third thing to add to that would be the level of creative vision that we committed to bringing to the games. That included the support in poster campaigns and on-screen trails, and working with commercial partners to do a range of films in advance. For two years we've been working on programming content, magazine shows, documentaries, short films, all of those things, to build up a public awareness of the athletes and of the competition. And I think there was another thing that helped us, which is that if you offer something to a broadcaster like Channel 4, which can never compete with the BBC in terms of scale, or size of staff or that sort of thing, it mattered to us because it was something big that we'd won. So in terms of our corporate ambitions, the whole organisation got behind the Paralympics in ways that it wasn't just another thing for us, it was the biggest thing that we would do, and for many people on the team possibly the biggest thing they'll ever do in their career. So with that, you get the emotional engagement with it, of caring about it and giving it that attention, whereas with other broadcasters, it might just be another sporting occasion.
What were the main challenges you faced between winning the bid and the start of the Games?
First and foremost, engaging people with the specialness of it, the fact that we had something here that was clearly different. Another area of it was to try to decode the sometimes complex classification systems brought about by the different levels of impairment of the athletes involved. The other thing was striking the best balance between high-quality, elite sport, and emotional narratives about the lives of the people competing - how their impairments had come about, how their disability had affected their lives. Those human interest and emotional stories had to run alongside great sport and coverage of it, because if it wasn't good sport, you don't earn the right to tell the other story.
Why was it so important to get disabled talent on-screen presenting?
I think that Channel 4 is always looking to put forward a degree of authenticity that maybe other channels wouldn't aspire to. Other channels might have seen it purely as another sporting occasion, where they put their sports team and their sports anchors on it. Channel 4 has a remit to develop new talent across the UK, and so embarked on a nationwide search for first-time presenter talent who themselves had a disability. We then trained them for almost two-years off-air, and then brought them on-air gradually, in late-night shows and as-live situations. We brought them through in partnerships, where they were always on air with experienced professionals sitting with them in the studios. I think, by and large (and there's always a subjectivity about whether you do or don't love a presenter, but putting that subjectivity to one side and looking at this as an objective piece of work) I think that most people would conclude that we've had a really good success rate at bringing fresh new talent to the screen, some of whom the audience have clearly fallen in love with. And as presenters, they were able to bring their own experiences to the screen, so you had Daraine being filmed getting fitted for prosthetic blades, or Arthur's experience as a member of the British development team for the Paralympics in Rio. Having a guy like him, who can give you that sense of what it feels like to become a wheelchair athlete after you've become paralysed in an accident, that's quite an important emotional engagement for the viewer. That sort of takes us back to the Superhumans campaign, and that controversial moment in the trailer where the bomb goes off, and it flashes to a car crash, and then to a prenatal ward where a woman is clearly struggling with bad news about birth defects - it just gives you that sense that this is not just athletics as we know it.
Now that the Paralympics have finished, how do you feel that the coverage went?
Really well. The Olympic Broadcast Services provided a very extensive and high-quality coverage for us, as they had done previously for the BBC with the Olympics. And I think we benefitted from the fact that the BBC kicked off one of the most remarkable summers of sport that Britain's ever witnessed. We harvested some of the national mood of that, and I think people were just up for this summer never to end. I think they enjoyed embracing new stars who they'd never heard of before. One of the editorial tones we set for ourselves was for our coverage to be ‘More of the same, but different'. We wanted to harvest the gold medals, we wanted Team GB to be successful, all of the things we'd seen in the Olympics, but we wanted to do it differently, the difference of course being disability and all of the things that come with that.
Is there anything you'd change about how Channel 4's covered the games?
I think inevitably with hindsight, you're always looking to see "Should we have done more on that particular sport?" "Could we have enriched the coverage with even more cameras?" There's always those technical things that you look at, of that there's no question. One thing I was struck by, as a viewer, was the very deep and high quality expertise. Pure sports fans will have come away, particularly with the swimming from Giles Long, and the middle and long-distance wheelchair sports with Jeff Adams, knowing they've been in the company of real experts who can analyse sport to a point where it becomes revelatory for you. You can never have too much expertise.
Are there any other aspects of the coverage that you're particularly proud of?
Yeah, I'm really proud of the fact that we managed to tell great stories about previously unknown talent. I'm really proud of another thing: I had a conversation with a colleague of mine, who's the Scottish Football Association's Disability Development Officer, a guy called David McArdle. He had been telling me that Channel 4 didn't understand that, by virtue of placing these games so into the public domain, we were converting a lot of people to disabled sport, who didn't even know some of these sports existed. This will have a major impact, in a transformative sense, for families with disabled kids, or for people who acquire disabilities and want to rebuild their life and find purpose in their life, whether that's through cerebral palsy football or wheelchair racing or whatever. By virtue of putting this coverage on air, with the level and depth that we've done, we've played a role in alerting people that they can participate in sport to a significant standard, and start to rebuild their lives after either accidents or inherited disabilities. I feel proud of that because it's a lasting legacy. It goes beyond the ideas of "Oh, did you win an award for the title sequence?" or "Did you win an award for best promotions?" Those are nice to have, but they're industry values. What's really important is that people are now looking at disabled sport through an entirely different lens.
What was your own personal high point, in sporting terms, of the games?
I'm from an Irish family, although I'm a Scot, and I thought that the Irish team did extraordinarily well, particularly on the track. That was something I felt very proud of. If I had a little bit of a setback, I was personally putting a lot on Jerome Singleton in the 100m. My reasons for that are to do with another passion - I'm obsessed with black American music, and Jerome is a graduate of the famous Morehouse College, where Spike Lee went - it's one of black America's most famous colleges, and he's one of their elite athletes. I'd been following him through the American trials, and secretly wanted him to win the 100m. But he didn't. You watch people for all sorts of different reasons. Libby Clegg won silver in the 100m. She's a young girl from the borders of Scotland. I've been following her. I've had a photograph of her on my desk from last season, of her with peroxide blonde hair and her running dark glasses, and running with her guide athlete, who's a young black man from South London. And that image, of this blonde white girl in sunglasses running tied to a young black British athlete in an elite disability sport, if you freeze-frame it as a moment, you couldn't get a better moment of diversity in contemporary Britain. It just comes alive. So all of those things really sparkle for me.
Were you surprised by the viewing figures?
Personally I have, yes. I thought that we would do well across daytime, because we're offering something that's different and live. But I've been taken back by the numbers, and how that converted into prime time viewing. We comfortably beat the 3 million mark night after night, and for a Channel the size of Channel 4, that's a huge reward. I've been at Channel 4 for the best part of 15 years, and I can't remember a time where we've delivered on this scale both commercially and in terms of our public purposes. It's almost the event that's defined why Channel 4 exists. It's changing public attitudes, it goes to the heart of our remit, but people want to engage with it, it's hugely popular television.
You've already touched on legacy a little. But what will the legacy of all this be on Channel 4? How are you going to keep up this momentum?
First and foremost, the legacy around all of this is that we've not only increased the visibility of the Paralympics, we've nurtured in the audience a passionate interest in it. And I think we've helped educate our audience about disabled sport, so that as you move forward, the audience has every expectation of wanting to see more of the thing that you've awakened in them. Obviously we've got our new presenters, and we'll be looking to find ways of returning them to other parts of our schedule in the years ahead. And obviously we have to look to the other Paralympic events that we can bid for. But we're not going to be gifted anything. The BBC have seen the success that we've had with the Paralympics, and they'll want a bit more of that. They'll consider, as the national broadcaster, that by rights the Paralympics should be theirs. ITV might turn around and say "This was commercially a good thing for Channel 4," and want to look at it. We know that ESPN and Sky are keen to dominate the sporting market, and may be interested. So we can't take anything for granted. We don't own the rights, yet, to Rio, but clearly we'd be interested in looking at them and being part of the bidding process. But nothing is guaranteed.
And what about the legacy away from Channel 4? What do you think the long-term effect will be of these games, and the coverage of them, on the nation as a whole?
The effect is three-fold for me. Number one, we've brought disability absolutely into the mainstream. There's been plenty of disability-themed broadcasting on all channels over the years, but this is the first time that it's come so profoundly and so energetically into prime time, and made such an impact commercially. The days of saying that disabled content is a ratings disaster are over. What you do with disability content, how you frame it, and how you bring it to audiences, that is the big issue now. Secondly, I think we've really educated audiences about disabled sport, about the ranges of sports out there. And they've taken a lot of the athletes and turned them into household names. There's an enormous appetite out there for the blade runners, the amputee cyclists, the wheelchair racers, as there is for wheelchair rugby, which is a high-impact sport in every sense of the word. Disabled sport has come of age. And the final thing is the legacy of sporting participation. If you're a young couple and you live in Lincolnshire and you've got a four-year-old kid who's disabled, maybe with cerebral palsy or a genetic condition, or they're an amputee, and you're sitting down saying "What's the future for our kid?" suddenly a world has opened up where they'll be saying "How do we get our kid to be more of a participant in sport?" "Shouldn't we be taking them to swimming lessons?" "How do we get them to understand that a wheelchair is something they can use as a sporting device, rather than just a piece of mobility?" So for all of those reasons I think levels of participation in disabled sports will increase across the whole of the UK, and I think Channel 4 should be very proud to have been part of that.