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By Tim Williams
The broadcasting veteran sits down with Tim Williams to discuss the Olympics, presenting disasters and the future of live sport.
The Olympics is set to dominate the broadcasting summer but the man who has dominated Olympic broadcasting for the past 20 years will be missing from the screen.
Steve Rider, who enters the room possessing exactly the same authoritative and suave demeanour with which he has entered everyone’s living room over the years, has presented 12 Olympic Games, summer and winter, for the BBC and ITV. However London 2012 will be just the second he has not fronted during his career.
“When we found out the Olympics were coming to London, you always thought it was on the horizon and would be a fantastic way to end a career. And then other opportunities came along.”
Those other opportunities were moving to ITV in 2006 to present his first love, Formula One, as well as Champions League and World Cup football, but it meant an acrimonious split from the BBC, where he had worked as chief anchor-man for over 20 years.
He admits it was a “distinct possibility” seven years ago that he would host the Olympics this summer but says: “I felt I’d run the course of what I was doing with the BBC. Maybe I was a little bit tired of them and they were certainly getting a little bit tired of me. So it was absolutely the right thing to do to move back [to ITV] and get a bit more variety in my career before calling it a day.”
Although he praises his former employers for the “talent and authority” they are bringing to the Olympics, including the use of news presenters to present the coverage (newsreader Mishal Husain will anchor the morning events and Huw Edwards will replace Sue Barker as presenter of the opening and closing ceremonies), a move he backs, Rider foresees major problems arising for the BBC and the
“I would like them to take a step back, review all their contracts and, with their finite amount of money, ask ‘Do we want to show more grassroots events or cherry pick the major events?’”sports it broadcasts.
Cherry-picking is what they’ve done most recently. Gone are the days of Grandstand flicking between the 2.10 at Haydock Park, road cycling and
golf in one programme. Now the budget is spent on major events like Six Nations rugby, Wimbledon, the Open Golf and Formula One.
The deal to bring Formula One to the BBC from ITV, where Rider was host, reportedly cost £50m a year. “ITV went to Bernie with two years left to go on the contract and said if you want to put it back on the market, we’ll step aside. Bernie went off to the BBC and, as I understand it, managed to get about £12m more from the BBC, who were the only players in the market, and as a result, about three years down the road they’re finding this is a ball and chain around their feet. A disproportionate amount of their budget has gone on one sport. As a result they’ve had to take a step back from live golf, take a step back from racing and so.” The Grand National, for example, will be on Channel 4 next year.
So what’s the answer? “The future for the BBC is to do partnership deals. Go to Sky and say ‘right, you do the Open championship for 3 days and we’ll share the coverage with you for the final day.’ It’s maybe the kind of deal that could guarantee the BBC’s long term involvement. It would stretch the budget that little bit further, it would make sure that those blue-chip events and great sporting occasions have at least got some kind of outlet on terrestrial television. It’s something that needs to be done urgently.”
He suggests the rights to different Wimbledon courts could be broken up and shared in a similar way.
Perhaps the highest profile such partnership has been the BBC-Sky Formula One deal, struck last year and expected to save the BBC around £30million a year. Rider, who now presents a show interviewing F1 legends on the satellite broadcaster, believes the deal hasn’t changed much.
“Sky would concede that the BBC took it on to a whole new level that they could only match. What Sky can do is give it far more airtime (they’ve a whole channel dedicated to round-the-clock coverage of race weekends) and resources and look around at how they can make it better.”
On the whole, he believes that Sky has been “a force for good” and cites one of his own old programmes as something the commercial rivals shook up. “We look back on BBC Grandstand with rose-tinted glasses but it was crap. We’d cut away from the F1 after 20 laps to show cricket from Taunton and then back to F1 for the final laps. Sky and ITV got rid of the BBC’s complacency in that sense.”
But nobody’s perfect. Rider was on air for ITV during the infamous moment when the channel cut to an advertisement during extra-time of an FA Cup match between Liverpool and Everton in 2009, missing a crucial goal in the process. Last month a similar incident happened during a Barcelona match when ITV cut to a news presenter preparing for the following programme.
“From the point of view of the broadcaster, who is doing the best job they can, to be suddenly ambushed by what’s happening at a computer 500 miles away is the most frustrating thing. On the Liverpool-Everton game it was a human error. From what I hear, this latest occasion was a computer glitch. I don’t know what ITV do about it. I hesitate to say three strikes and you’re out but it can’t happen again.”
That Rider has remained at the top for so long in such a competitive and ruthless industry is testament to his professionalism and calmness under pressure.
Last year, Channel 4 came under fire after they parachuted Ortis Deley, better known for the Gadget Show and children’s TV, into the lead anchor role for the World Athletics Championships. He was quickly dropped after his error-strewn performance became an online video hit.
“I felt sorry for the guy. It was just a dopey decision by the programme controllers. From a selfish point of view, it really made our profession look quite good because you work alongside people like Clare (Balding) or Des (Lynam) and they make the job look so easy and it’s not. There are questions of tone and timing and the ability to really organise your mind and cope with the tension and nerves and that sort of thing.”
“There’s a feeling among some programme controllers that it’s only sport, any presenter can do live television and if you can do the Gadget Show you can do the Olympics or whatever. And I think it was a bit of a wake-up call for anyone who’s complacent about the challenge of broadcasting live.”
I ask if he was approached to join Channel 4 for their coverage of the Paralympics this summer. “I haven’t been approached and I wouldn’t take it because I think I was lucky enough 30 years ago to be approached as a young presenter and get some good opportunities and now those opportunities deserve to head somewhere else, for the next generation of broadcasters.”
Rider’s rise to presenting his first Olympics was incredibly fortunate. From school he’d worked on the South East London Mercury, the Hayters agency, LBC radio and then Anglia TV, one of the ITV regional franchises. In 1980, ITV, who had the rights to the Moscow Olympics, had an internal argument over which region would handle the coverage. To solve the argument, “the boss said ‘let’s get someone no one has heard of’. Six months later I was out there in Moscow presenting the Olympics.”
Soon after, angling for a move to the BBC, he called his agent who arranged a lunch with the head of sport at the BBC. “We went to Park Lane and my career was sorted before the soup was served.”
He replaced the outgoing Harry Carpenter on flagship shows such as Sportsnight and Grandstand and became face of golf, rugby, rowing, the Olympics and Sports Personality of the Year.
His story is different from the swathes of sports stars who make the move into broadcasting today. He has praise for many: “There are lots of excellent people especially in the BBC athletics and Sky cricket teams. But whereas I could spread myself across a lot of sports, a little bit in each, when (ex-footballer) Gary Lineker tried his hand at golf he didn’t become a bad broadcaster but the public pigeon-holed him as a football presenter and it didn’t work out.”
Another player to try his hand at golf was cricket legend Michael Vaughan, who the BBC, to much criticism, recently used as an interviewer in Augusta for the Masters golf. Rider has stern words for his former employers on the incident.
“It wasn’t [Vaughan’s] fault but he shouldn’t have been there. I felt uncomfortable. I don’t really understand the process by which he arrived there. It was clunky and it was inappropriate. And I felt for him because he is an outstanding broadcaster in cricket. But that role in particular at Augusta is a fairly hard one. It’s not just ‘how do you feel?’ after the 18th. It’s a serious interface for the Augusta National and I think the BBC’s shortcomings in that area will have been noticed.”
He reminisces, to the Oxford Union, about conversations with fellow veteran Des Lynam and how they both believe that the best presenters are the one’s nobody notices. Today, however, they bemoan the interference from non-sport executives into sports shows. “The programme controllers say ‘If we can just bring in that light entertainment element from 7.30 on a Saturday night into a sports programme…’ It’s misguided and I find it a little bit offensive.”
If it’s awards they’re looking for, sporting drama itself is enough. A man who’s won two RTS Presenter of the Year awards, Rider reckons he’s cracked what it takes to win BAFTAs too: “If you want to win a BAFTA make them cry.”
He says his most memorable moment was interviewing Steve Redgrave in Sydney just after he’d won his fifth gold medal. “The cameras zoomed in and there was a tear. We did the same with Matthew (Pinsent) four years later, and when Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button won their first Grand Prix.” All four received BAFTAs.
If he’s winding back a little, Rider’s not finished yet. He still presents Touring Car racing on ITV4, his new Sky Formula One series and his latest major gig was fronting the Rugby World Cup for ITV. Although not on screen, he will be at the Olympics helping out international broadcasters behind the scenes and, along with heptathlete Denise Lewis and sailor Ben Ainslie, is a brand ambassador for logistics provider UPS. He’s going to be busy but perhaps this time he’ll be able to relax and enjoy it more.
If anyone, like Rider in 1980, has been drafted from obscurity to anchor their first Olympics, there’ll be a man with perfectly positioned silver hair wandering around the International Broadcast Centre plenty capable of lending a hand.
This interview was arranged courtesy of The Oxford Union