Following on from that post about the value of sport and live television for helping to define what television is, I saw something else to note about the BBC’s coverage of the Rio Olympic Games. The BBC used three terrestrial channels to broadcast Olympic video, plus its website and app – BBC one and BBC Two with other programmes interspersed, and BBC Four continuously from early afternoon to early morning. The main anchor for the BBC Four coverage was Dan Walker, and I thought that what he broadcast was quite exceptional in its way – even a new kind of television.
The set-up was that BBC built a leaf-fringed cabin on Copacabana beach and broadcast from there. The greater part of the broadcasts was, of course, coverage of the assorted live – or near live – Olympic sports, with an emphasis on the so-called minor sports. It was also the case that the moment that any such sport became interesting – which meant that a British competitor looked like they might win a medal – then the coverage switched over to the greater audience on BBC One, and Four left us with Australia v Serbia at basketball, or some such niche attraction. It was broadcasting for those who wanted to see any sort of sport, and weren’t that inclined to start waving flags.
In between the sport came Walker. Rather than do the usual sort of links between clips, with background puffery and athlete interviews, Walker made his location the star attraction. Behind the cabin you could see the waves crashing on the beach, and the ordinary Brazilians, in all shapes and sizes, drifting by. Much of it was broadcast at night, which added to the hypnotic mundanity of the scene. Walker interviewed the locals, made running jokes of some of the regulars – a team of bin-men, a tubby jogger who looked like the chef Anthony Worrall Thompson – and then befriended them. Most notably, and bravely, he spotted a passing hen party and interviewed the bride, Maria de Cezar, the video of which swiftly went viral and made her a international celebrity. Meanwhile Walker read out from Tweets and emails, as the audience reacted to and by extension became a part of the broadcast as it spread out from screen across social media. It was funny, engaging and illuminating.
What struck me was the bold improvisatory nature of this kind of broadcasting. It had some connection with radio broadcasting, in which a DJ might riff on comic ideas and the enthusiasm of his audience in between the songs. It had something of the vox pops you get on breakfast television (Walker’s day job), with all the riskiness of combining the passing public with live TV. It had qualities of musical improvisation, the performer turning up on stage without no idea of what they are to play until they start playing. But never before have I seen something which took such elements and sustained them for so long a period, a tightrope walk maintained for two weeks and not just a few hours.
Above all it was a celebration of liveness on TV. It broke through the predictable elements, the procession of units that make up television’s flow, to create an environment where anything might happen, and be allowed to happen. It found adventure in the ordinary and the accidental. Of course the elements of risk were minimised as much as possible, and the programmes were forever cutting back to the sports, but the potential for rude reality to intrude on television’s dream world was always there. It made television look vulnerable, but also quite special.
The balancing act between the controlled and the unscripted only worked so well because of Walker’s skillful bonhomie and awareness of three different audiences all at once – those around him, those watching TV, and those online – which may well be garlanded when the TV awards season comes round. But it wasn’t just good anchoring – it demonstrated what TV can do so well, which is to reveal the possibilities of the immediate moment. Television is defined by the qualities it has of immediacy and intimacy, yet so much of broadcasting tries to neutralise these effects, through predictability and the manufacturing of emotion. Television, generally so timorous, rarely lets itself go, as a medium for discovering the here and now. That’s what these broadcasts did so well. There should be more of them.