‘There’s trans­for­ma­tion in women’s cov­er­age’

Sunday Trust - - INTERVIEW - Source: the­guardian.com https://www.

Bar­bara Slater joined the BBC in 1983, 10 years af­ter women were al­lowed to play on of­fi­cial foot­ball pitches af­ter a 50-year ban and years be­fore their matches were tele­vised.

More than three decades later and the BBC’s first fe­male head of sport is to an­nounce that the cor­po­ra­tion has won the rights to broad­cast the 2019 Women’s World Cup, hav­ing seen off com­pe­ti­tion which has “never been tougher”.

Much of this is ow­ing to the suc­cess of the Eng­land team, first in the 2012 Olympics when 80,000 peo­ple filled Wem­b­ley for the fi­nal and then in the 2015 World Cup. “The Li­onesses were not just on the back pages but the front pages too,” says Slater. “No one is go­ing to claim that it is yet a level play­ing field [with the men’s game] but if you look at the tra­jec­tory of au­di­ences, it is on a spike.”

Within min­utes of sit­ting down for this in­ter­view Slater, who is re­spon­si­ble for 20,000 hours of BBC sports pro­gram­ming, is flick­ing through charts on her iPad re­veal­ing that the UK au­di­ence for the Women’s World Cup more than dou­bled from 5.1 mil­lion in 2011 to 12.4 mil­lion in 2015.

Although small when com­pared with the men’s com­pe­ti­tion, which at­tracted 41.7 mil­lion view­ers, more peo­ple watched the World Cup in which the home team reached the semi-fi­nal than watched the men’s Open Golf Cham­pi­onship when it was last shown live on the BBC. “And you would def­i­nitely con­sider that a crown jewel event,” Slater says of the golf, which is now shown on satel­lite ri­val Sky.

The com­par­i­son is apt, as the gov­ern­ment is ex­pected to ta­ble an amend­ment to the dig­i­tal econ­omy bill on the is­sue of listed events leg­is­la­tion which en­sures that big na­tional sport­ing events such as Wim­ble­don, the FA Cup and the Rugby World Cup re­main on free-toair tele­vi­sions.

Women’s foot­ball and na­tional sport­ing mo­ments gov­erned by the listed events leg­is­la­tion are in many ways key to un­der­stand­ing how the BBC aims to sur­vive in an in­creas­ingly com­pet­i­tive mar­ket for sports con­tent, par­tic­u­larly at a time of dwin­dling bud­gets. Slater’s sup­port for women’s foot­ball is not just about equal­ity but the eco­nom­ics of broad­cast­ing.

In a cafe near BBC head­quar­ters in Lon­don, Slater laughs when asked whether the BBC can ever win back live Premier League games, ad­mit­ting that the cor­po­ra­tion is go­ing to strug­gle to com­pete with “huge su­per in­fla­tion in sports rights”.

The BBC’s con­tin­ued suc­cess in the area essen­tially con­sists of pro­vid­ing high­lights pack­ages of pop­u­lar sports, more al­ter­na­tive sports and con­tin­ued pro­tec­tion for show­ing ma­jor na­tional sport­ing mo­ments such as Wim­ble­don and other listed events.

As Mathew Hors­man, di­rec­tor of the con­sul­tancy Me­di­a­tique, points out: “Listed events are im­por­tant for the BBC. With­out [them] it would be a pretty dire set up.”

Which is why Slater, head of the de­part­ment since 2009, has writ­ten in sup­port of chang­ing the way listed events are de­fined. The BBC has urged the gov­ern­ment to amend leg­is­la­tion that in­sists qualifying free-to-air broad­cast­ers reach 95% of tele­vi­sion au­di­ences in or­der to be given pri­or­ity to show listed events. Given the num­ber of homes watch­ing on de­vices other than their TV is in­creas­ing, even the BBC is likely to strug­gle to meet the 95% by the end of the cur­rent par­lia­ment.

Un­less the gov­ern­ment re­duces this statis­tic, Slater be­lieves listed events will “die by de­fault” with the ma­jor ones go­ing be­hind pay­walls op­er­ated by ri­vals such as BT and Sky. The BBC would like to see that “ef­fec­tively the reach that you achieve is con­sid­ered”, a state­ment likely to an­noy com­mer­cial ri­vals such as Sky.

If the gov­ern­ment wants ma­jor sports to reach a broad au­di­ence it has to act, she says, cit­ing the fact that 7% of TV cov­er­age of sport shown by tra­di­tional broad­cast­ers at­tracts 60% of the au­di­ence, largely be­cause of listed events.

Women’s foot­ball is a per­fect ex­am­ple of this, she says. When the English team did well in 2015 it at­tracted a new au­di­ence. The statis­tic she re­turns to again and again dur­ing our in­ter­view is that 48% of the 12.4 mil­lion au­di­ence in 2015 had not pre­vi­ously watched any women’s sport.

Each new con­vert to the game “changes the sta­tus quo”, she says. “If you look at the trans­for­ma­tion that has hap­pened in women’s foot­ball I think it’s an em­blem of the way women’s sport has been cov­ered more gen­er­ally.”

Asked about con­tin­ued sex­ism in sport, she says: “I would al­ways go to the pos­i­tive. I would go straight to those gov­ern­ing bod­ies that are do­ing a tremen­dous job in this space, such as the [author­i­ties] ral­ly­ing be­hind women’s foot­ball.”

If pos­i­tiv­ity were an Olympic sport, Slater would be in with a chance to win gold. She rat­tles through a whole list of sports - from cy­cling to the boat race to ten­nis - where women are cheered as much as men.

How about con­tin­ued pay in­equal­ity or even ex­am­ples such as Premier League club West Ham re­fus­ing to pay for the women’s team kit? “There is gen­uinely change in the air on this. Those sorts of things are less tol­er­ated … I am not for a minute pre­tend­ing that we have got a level play­ing field but it shows the mo­men­tum that is be­ing made.”

What about BBC com­men­ta­tor John In­verdale re­fer­ring to Mar­ion Bar­toli as “not a looker” three years ago, when Slater was in charge? “He apol­o­gised at the time. It’s live broad­cast­ing.”

Surely she has suf­fered her­self as a rare se­nior woman in sports broad­cast­ing? “I’ve been in the in­dus­try a long time. It is trans­formed. If you said when I first joined as an as­sis­tant pro­ducer that there would have ever have been a woman in my po­si­tion I would have laughed at you.”

Greg Dyke, former di­rec­tor gen­eral of the BBC who dealt with Slater, is full of praise hav­ing worked op­po­site her when he headed the FA. “Cer­tain peo­ple wouldn’t have liked the idea of hav­ing a women head­ing sport and she has proved them wrong,” he says.

Her fa­ther was a pro­fes­sional foot­baller and Slater ad­mits she was taken more se­ri­ously as a broad­caster be­cause she had “earned in­ter­na­tional stripes” as a gym­nast - she com­peted in the 1976 Olympics some­thing that she does not be­lieve would be nec­es­sary now. “The doors are open now. There isn’t any­thing that would stop some­one with the com­mit­ment, the tal­ent and the hard work get­ting to any po­si­tion. In my view.”

Re­ally? “That doesn’t mean there wouldn’t be hur­dles,” she adds in a voice which still has a trace of her Birm­ing­ham child­hood.

The cam­paign group Women in Sport launched a cam­paign be­fore the In­ter­na­tional Women’s Day that called for more women in board and ex­ec­u­tive po­si­tions in sports’ na­tional gov­ern­ing bod­ies. Slater says women al­ready makes up a third of its new board in sport and a third of its staff. She did once re­port­edly de­scribe Gary Lineker as an ex­am­ple of a great fe­male pre­sen­ter to MPs.

Re­spon­si­ble for mov­ing the BBC de­part­ment to Sal­ford since star­ing the job 2009, Slater is also re­lent­lessly up­beat about the fu­ture of sport on the BBC de­scrib­ing the ros­ter of games as “a pretty im­pres­sive port­fo­lio ... given the su­per in­fla­tion we’ve seen in [sports] rights”. The BBC will show the Olympics and Wim­ble­don un­til 2024, and the World Cup un­til 2022.

From women’s foot­ball to the Olympics, the BBC in­creas­ingly re­alises that it can­not pro­vide blan­ket cov­er­age. Women’s foot­ball is split be­tween the BBC, BT Sport and Bri­tish Eurosport in the UK with sub­scriber-based BT Sport own­ing the rights to show the FA Women’s Su­per League on TV.

The BBC also had to sub­con­tract the rights to the Olympic Games from 2022 on­wards af­ter the US broad­cast­ing gi­ant Dis­cov­ery, owner of Eurosport, signed a £920m ex­clu­sive pan-Euro­pean deal.

“There are many rights we would love to have but can’t af­ford ev­ery­thing and it’s as sim­ple as that. We’ve got to be re­al­is­tic.”

“Part­ner­ships, creative rights deals are the way for­ward. You can’t just put your head in the sand and look back­wards.”

PHO­TO­GRAPH:

Slater is re­al­is­tic about the BBC win­ning back live Premier League games, point­ing to the ‘huge su­per in­fla­tion in sports rights’. Graeme Robert­son for the Guardian

Logo of the 2019 Women’s World Cup

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