In case you don’t know how to use your red button (or aren’t aware that you could have just asked your TV to present you with channel 301), or didn’t happen upon BBC2 between 2:30pm and 4:30pm on Sunday, you might not be aware that Badminton Horse Trials took place over the weekend. As it’s 2014, if you are an eventing fan, or even someone with a passing interest in competitive equestrianism, you would also have to have avoided the Internet (specifically: Facebook and Twitter, although those services were also very busy handling Eurovision) to remain unaware of Badminton. Either way, there it was, fighting against rain, wind and some other nearby event known as Japfest. Badminton triumphed again this year in the thrills and spills department, but many believe it was less than well-presented in terms of live broadcasting.
The progression and results of the event itself have already been analysed repeatedly within the media and the blogosphere, but one of the most interesting discussions I’ve seen so far is via my least favourite website: Facebook. Your Horse magazine opened up a discussion via their page regarding what fans think of the TV coverage equestrianism gets. Predictably, as Your Horse fans and readers are avid equestrians, the vast majority replied to say that it’s appalling, there isn’t enough of it on the correct channels at the right time and why on earth is there so much football on TV? Interestingly, other sports mentioned were rugby (of which no coverage clashed on this occasion), Formula 1 (which dominated the BBC this weekend, as a race took place on Sunday, meaning qualifying aired on Saturday) and cricket (none of which has been available on main free-to-air channels for years, which leads me to think that opinions were at least partially based on perception rather than reality).
The thing is that the BBC isn’t commercially driven: they have no advertising to sell, so the pressure to get eyes on screens isn’t completely financial. They do, however, have a commitment to serving the general public – as they are publicly-funded, they must provide for the majority rather than the minority. Sadly for those of us who don’t like it, the majority of Brits are football fans, which addresses the “there wasn’t enough coverage” issue. Sorry, equestrians, although British athletes currently top the world rankings in all three Olympic equestrian sports, those of us who’d watch it are still in the minority. As for the fact that the coverage was highly unbalanced and poorly timed (Badminton takes place over four whole days of competition, and the BBC showed six hours of uninterrupted coverage of the cross country phase, plus two hours of “highlights”, which comprised of two days of dressage crammed into ten minutes, followed by six hours of cross country in about 90 minutes and finishing with letting us see eight riders showjump out of the 28 remaining in the competition), the BBC should look to resolve one of these issues.
Although I felt that the highlights programme was so bad that it wasn’t worth watching, that’s from my standpoint as a long-term eventing fan. Watching with the eyes of someone just getting into the sport – particularly children – the package was ideal. Queen Clare Balding did her usual job of presenting brilliantly; televised equestrianism wouldn’t be what it is without Mike Tucker and his comments about dropped knitting; the audience were introduced to a variety of riders who were engaging ambassadors for the sport, and the phases were explained well. It also offered an overview of the most exciting parts of the competition – heavy on the cross country coverage, light on the showjumping and just a morsel of the dressage was enough for anyone wanting to know more about Olympic sport and have a taste of what eventers do outside of the Games. If broadcasters want to aim at hardcore fans, they need to stick to the following rules:
- Show every minute of competition live, provide a detailed breakdown of what to expect and make all coverage available in a recordable format, live online and on-demand online. Unfortunately, we now live in the “gotta have it all” era where this kind of total access is demanded. Highlights, lowlights and delayed coverage just don’t cut it anymore
- Analysis – but only if it’s good. The BBC had graphics of the cross country course, and Mike Tucker explained which fences had been removed for safety since the graphics were created. But in the past they have provided a full course walk with knowledgeable types such as Lucinda Green. Key fences were discussed with riders, but this isn’t enough for the big fans. They want to see Lucinda striding it out – including the Lake and ponds – in her muddy Hunters, possibly with a dog at her side, definitely telling us how she’d be sat, what length her reins would be and how much time she’d expect to have left on her watch at any given point on the course
- Clear communication – several people on Your Horse’s page were confused, and I replied to a few queries on Twitter. You may have thought you were clear about what could be seen and when, but the message didn’t get through. To her endless credit, Balding did her bit via social media, patiently explaining when and where coverage could be found. But a lot of people tried their red buttons on Sunday and were very angry to see cars instead… so perhaps consistency would be good too, if possible
I can understand the media struggling to know who to satisfy – it’s something I experience myself! As my target is to reach as wide an audience as possible, I tend to write as if my audience has never heard of a horse, so that those who don’t know what I’m talking about have a chance of following my posts if they are so inclined, rather than having to give up immediately thanks to unexplained acronyms or jargon. If I’m honest, it is also a level I’m comfortable at: I’m used to having to explain why horses are wearing hats in competition, or what that white stuff is on the front of their legs when they go cross country, but I’m nowhere near the level of a qualified dressage judge, so I’m not going to split hairs over why Clark Montgomery’s test was better than Francis Whittington’s. What it comes down to is that you can’t please all of the people all of the time, but the BBC and other broadcasters try their best. Which is why we get the opportunity to see all of the football all of the time, and some of the eventing an hour after the winner’s been presented with the trophy and we’ve all heard about it on Twitter.
Do you watch equestrian sport on TV? Are broadcasters right to show some coverage aimed at casual viewers with the hope that experienced viewers will still enjoy it, or should they not bother?