Arif Durrani: Paralympics is the bullseye of C4's remit

Be prepared to come down with a bump. By the end of this weekend, it'll all be over.

Arif Durrani: Paralympics is the bullseye of C4's remit
Arif Durrani: Paralympics is the bullseye of C4's remit

London 2012 and our incredible summer of sport will soon be consigned to history, passed down to half-disbelieving generations to come.

"When our time came - Britain we did it right," was how Lord Coe summed up the Olympics last month. But when the Paralympics end on Sunday, many will attest we haven’t just ‘done’ it right, but elevated it beyond anywhere it’s ever been before.

The appetite for the London 2012 Paralympics Games has surpassed all expectations, the extent of which has yet to be widely understood. There is a common misconception throughout the media that in Beijing 1.8 million tickets were sold to the Games in 2008. In fact, fewer than 100,000 tickets were ever bought, the vast majority attended for free.

In London, all 2.5 million tickets for the 2012 Paralympics have sold out – a genuine world first. The additional 10,000 daily tickets made available by Locog this week have been selling out within minutes.

Outside the Olympic Park, many more people have been glued to their television sets, vindicating Channel 4’s audacious decision to offer £9m for 150 hours of coverage, believed to be three times the amount offered by the BBC.

More than 11 million tuned in to its opening ceremony, and thrilling individual performances from Team GB’s Ellie Simmonds, Heather Frederiksen and David Weir, among others, have helped secure daily highs of more than three million viewers.

The blockbuster audiences are expected to continue, as South Africa’s Oscar Pistorius prepares for his 100m sprint showdown against America's Jerome Singleton and Team GB’s Jonnie Peacock tomorrow (6 September).

The broadcaster's irreverent highlights programme, ‘The Last Leg with Adam Hills’ has had a successful run too, with more than a million of us staying-up well past 10pm for its digest. Excited Channel 4 insiders talk of record highs of 10% share – and more than 40% gains versus the previous 12 month average.

Channel 4's marketing director, Dan Brooke, tells me the appetite for the Games has been "incredible" and admits the broadcaster is experiencing its "wildest dreams scenario", producing daily ratings and share of audiences that sit among its highest of the last decade.

It’s the kind of momentum that suggests the birth of a new chapter for the Paralympics. And how appropriate it is Channel 4, our long-troubled 30 year-old broadcaster, that has been the curator to this new found awakening.

Born in the volatile decade that spanned the Falklands War, the miners’ strike and the HIV epidemic, C4 has always had a sense of mission in challenging taboos and promoting diversity.

Yet, when the last Paralympics was drawing to a close four years ago, the future of C4 appeared to be in doubt, with regulator Ofcom among those expressing concern about its viability as a public service broadcaster facing a £100m funding gap by 2012. Additional state funding via top-slicing of the TV licence-fee was touted as one possible alternative.

The debate only shifted with the arrival of David Abraham in 2010, the C4 chief executive who's made no bones about his belief the broadcaster is at its strongest when at it's most independent. He also pledged to build on a tradition of "giving a voice to the outsider".

And the authenticity with which the broadcaster has attempted to change attitudes towards disability has played a major part in this summer’s success. From its raucous, Public Enemy-enthused ad campaign, to its insightful commentary and eclectic presenting line-up, C4's intentions have never been in doubt.

"The Paralympics is the bullseye of Channel 4’s remit," is how Brooke describes it, adding that "all the stars are currently aligned."

In terms of Games legacy, the marketing director is in no doubt as to the broadcaster's ambition: "The biggest result for us would be a step-change shift in public attitudes to disability, that is the big prize," he says.  

"If audiences feel that our coverage has reflected the diversity of Britain, and humanity, in an innovative and fresh way, and made the world a bit of a better place, then that would be wonderful."

And it's hard to argue with that.

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