The Olympics will be brought to British screens largely from Salford rather than Tokyo under BBC plans to stop its vast army of broadcasters from flying.
A “skeleton team” for Japan – a fraction of the 455 staffers sent to Rio 2016 – will see some of the corporation’s best-known commentators and presenters told to stay home.
Amid ongoing anxiety amongst corporation bosses around Covid-19, the scaled-down BBC presence is likely to be commonplace for the great summer of sport. Coverage of overseas matches at Euro 2020 will also see reduced numbers at venues.
One BBC figure, already told he is unlikely to be flying to Japan, believes reduced numbers could become permanent amid efforts to reduce carbon footprints in the coming years.
However, the corporation is understood to insist this summer’s policy is purely down to infection protocols, and there remains flexibility to scale up numbers if the pandemic eases by July.
There is no denying, however, that BBC coverage for the Games will feel and look very different as its team reacts to events 5,867 miles away. The likes of Clare Balding and Gabby Logan are all-but-certain to host from Salford, but a final decision has yet to be made on whether any commentators will be present in venues for the biggest events, such as the 100m.
One senior broadcasting figure, speaking on condition of anonymity, said those kept at home will face an uphill task to provide their normal levels of insight.
“The background that only emerges in the days leading up to the event will be sadly missed,” he said. “You don’t want to be saying ‘and here comes Mo Farah… oh goodness he’s limping’.”
The Games were first televised by the BBC in 1948. Commentary on radio and TV have become synonymous with some of British Olympian’s greatest moments, including Steve Cram and Brendan Foster’s commentary on 2012’s ‘Super Saturday’ when Great Britain won six gold medals, including three in athletics, in the space of 48 minutes.
“Some of the great track and field commentaries – from Brendan Foster, David Coleman, Steve Cram and others – would utilise conversations with the athletes in the days leading up to the championships, getting to know where they were, what the level of expectation, whether the athletes been injured or is not confident,” the senior BBC figure. “You find out what they were thinking and what their plans were, and then use that conversation to provide the inside story and the insight. If Mo says ‘I’m really struggling’, for example, then the commentator can really hedge his bets in terms of whether he goes heavy.”
The biggest team the BBC has ever sent to a single event was London 2012, when the number of accredited staff peaked at 765. A total of 493 flew to China for the 2008 Beijing Olympics. A spokesman for the corporation declined to comment on how many would be sent to Tokyo, but sources confirmed it would be a “skeleton team”.
The BBC has repeatedly faced criticism over large staff numbers compared with media rivals, but its total deployment for Rio was one-fifth of the number being sent by US broadcaster NBC.
For the first time the BBC is sub-licensing the rights to the Games, having been outbid by Discovery, which won the pan-European rights from 2018 onwards, and 2022 in the UK, in a £920m deal.
The plan to scale down staff track-side and pitchside is in line with the corporation’s strategy for the Six Nations when matches in France and Italy were hosted from the main studio instead of at venues.
The Olympics coverage will be largely based at BBC Sport’s headquarters at MediaCityUK, a 200-acre site on the banks of the Manchester Ship Canal in Salford.
An internal exercise to consider how to manage with 80 per cent of its programming hours was launched last year by Tim Davie, the new BBC director-general, to help plan a fresh financial strategy for the corporation.
However, those involved in the decision to reduce numbers at Tokyo insisted the decision was not cost-related. Hotel rooms booked in the BBC’s name to ensure the corporation still has the option of sending bigger numbers will be non-refundable.
Analysis: BBC can hardly be criticised for caution
The BBC can hardly be criticised for caution over Covid-19, but keeping its star roster in Salford is unwelcome news for viewers and athletes alike.
Since Grandstand was axed in 2006, the Olympic sports have found it tougher than ever to get a slice of the TV riches gorged on predominantly by football.
This is the summer for Dina Asher Smith and the rest to remind broadcasters of their value after a depressing 12 months in which Diamond League meetings were on the brink of being cancelled as TV bids stalled.
Extra resources will be poured into studio-led analysis in the absence of extensive on-the-ground reporting and face-to-face athlete, family and fan interviews.
Viewing figures should hold up, analysts say, but senior broadcasters are already speaking privately of their concerns around the potential impact on live commentary.
One staffer cited a conversation he had with a high profile athlete, who had informed him on the eve of a final that she was carrying an injury, which she was happy for him to reveal once the event had started. “I only found out during an off-record chat with her the night before,” he said. “I just don’t think that chance conversation would take place unless you are there, but it really helped explain to the viewer what the athlete was up against that day.”
Even prior to the pandemic, the Tokyo Games were due to be uncharted territory for the BBC. It is no longer a direct rights-holder with the IOC after it was outbid and forced to settle for paying American digital giant Discovery to show the Games until 2024. British Olympics chiefs, in these uncertain times, have been toying with a host of innovative solutions. UK Sport and the British Olympic and Paralympic Association secured 2,600 hours of content across 26 sports so far for a new in-house over-the-top (OTT) broadcast platform.
Rowing, cycling, ice hockey, field hockey, canoeing, taekwondo and amateur boxing could all feature on a new streaming site so long as this summer’s delayed Tokyo 2020 games go to plan.
With British spectators, and now most of the BBC army, absent from Japan this summer, alternative revenue streams could be more important than ever for the minority sports.