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31 August 2011

Wince along with Ortis Deley

But Channel 4's problems aren't down to just one man.

By Steven Baxter

We’ve all been there. That moment when you realise that you are hopelessly out of your depth can strike at any time. For some of us, the knowledge comes when you get asked a slightly awkward question in a meeting while you’re peering out of the window and wishing you were somewhere else; for others, it happens live on television, in front of hundreds of thousands of people.

For poor Ortis Deley, sometime CBBC broom cupboard anchor and latterday likeable Gadget Show product demonstrator, that moment came this week when he presented Channel 4’s World Athletics Championships coverage. Sit through this video – if you can – and wince along with the rest of us.

 

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Oh, the poor man. I like him. I don’t think he’s a bad presenter, at all, but this really wasn’t the thing for him. I don’t want to see someone fail like that. I’ve been sitting there, willing him to succeed. But no.

To borrow an image from the athletics arena, it’s been a little like watching a very fat man take an unlikely run-up at a 19-foot pole vault; you want it to happen, but you know, in all likelihood, that someone’s going to end up with a pretty nasty graze rather than sailing triumphantly through the air and landing smack-bang in the middle of the cushion. You don’t want to look, but you have to.

It’s wrong, though, to think that Channel 4’s problems have been down to one man. Deley’s performances are symptomatic, rather than the root cause of the broadcaster’s woes — and installing Rick Edwards, a chisel-faced T4 clone, won’t save them now.

So what went wrong? For one thing, Channel 4 were unlucky with the championships: the every-two-years format of world athletics means these games were never going to arouse the same kind of interest as others, and the presence of the Olympics less than a year away means all athletes have one eye on London.

As well as that, the big stars have failed to sparkle: British hopes like Mo Farah and Jessica Ennis have been pipped for glory, while Usain shot his Bolt and denied the world a moment of magic.

Bad luck, then, but it goes beyond that. The sheer amount of adverts — accompanied by that rather irritating tune that reminds me of “Do you think I’m sexy” by Rod Stewart — has irritated many viewers, used to seeing the flow of a championships develop on the ad-free BBC.

Channel 4 have done sport before, and done it very well: look back to those dim and distant days when you could actually watch live cricket on terrestrial telly, and they provided epic coverage of the Ashes series between England and Australia back in 2005. Since then, though, the channel’s sports coverage has fallen away somewhat, apart from racing, which they continue to provide to a higher standard than their competitors.

That’s a shame, because sports fans are left with rather binary options when it comes to their viewing pleasure nowadays. We’re stuck with either the gloss of the BBC output — which guarantees a roar of disapproval from the Corporation’s critics in the broadsheets; how dare they spend money doing something properly, sending more than Hamilton Bland and two cocoa tins on a string to the biggest sporting spectacles in the world, etc etc etc – or never knowingly subtle Sky Sports. Must it be one or the other?

The trouble is, I suppose, that to do something actually well costs money. Sport costs a bundle before you’ve spent any money on the programme itself – just buying the rights sets broadcasters back an eyewatering amount – so by the time you’ve got around to thinking about what you’re going to do with it, it might well be too late.

That’s the reason for the mass of adverts during the athletics on Channel 4. I hope the rather limited success of Channel 4’s Daegu coverage won’t put them off having a bash in the future, but I rather fear it will.