20 June 2024

… and the award for car-crash Olympic flame live TV coverage goes to … : 2024 : La Premiere, French Guyana

 1995. The evening weatherwoman was standing in front of a wall map of the nation, reading the forecast for tomorrow’s conditions. In her hand were symbols for rain, sunshine and cloud that she went to place on relevant locations on the map. The icons remained there for no more than a few seconds before tumbling noisily to the floor. She bent down to pick them up and attempted once again to attach them to the map … with the same outcome. She soldiered on bravely until her script was completed in front of a wholly symbol-free map, then turned towards the camera with a weary farewell gaze that communicated: ‘why do I have to work with this rubbish technology?’

Was this ‘malfunction’ happening every evening on the Kenya government’s national television channel? I recognised her supposedly magnetic symbols from having watched nightly ITV regional weather forecasts during my childhood in Britain. Perhaps her masters had purchased a ‘job lot’ of second-hand apparatus from a classified advert in the back pages of ‘Broadcast’ magazine placed by one of those lazy UK commercial television stations that had eventually had their ‘licence to print money’ removed by the regulator. Wincey Willis, all is forgiven.

2014. I was lodging in a small town in southern Spain over the New Year. Just before midnight on 31 December, I impetuously took a ten-minute walk from the rented apartment to the main square to observe how the noisy Spanish were celebrating the impending change of calendar. There I found … they weren’t. Christmas decorations strung across the streets were fully illuminated, but not a soul was to be seen. In the town square, you would have heard a pin drop. It was eerie in a community of 15,000 to encounter deafening silence on entirely vehicle-free, human-free streets. Did the Spanish’s ‘reluctance’ to exert themselves (long daily siestas, shops closed during summer afternoons, holidays lasting weeks) extend to New Year’s Eve celebrations? I returned home, mystified.

There, switching on Spanish television, I caught a typically abysmal live variety show welcoming the New Year by parading a succession of uninspiring musicians and poorly choreographed dancers in front of a studio audience. Like so much of Spain’s TV, this circus was fronted by a male presenter whose suit seams were suffering immense stress and a young woman dressed like a high-class prostitute who would obligingly laugh loudly at her co-host’s every witticism. At twelve o’clock, the two of them indulged in Spain’s tradition of gulping down one grape at each of the twelve strokes of the midnight bell. For this, you can buy tiny cans of precisely twelve grapes in Spanish supermarkets.

Naturally, both presenters found utterly hilarious their inability to successfully complete this annual task, sat on their over-high bar stools. Then, amongst all the fake joviality, it became evident that the woman had wet herself and it was visibly trickling down her inside legs below an over-short, sparkly dress. What impact did this have on proceedings? None whatsoever. Everyone involved carried on as if nothing at all had happened. It was yet another of those television moments when you begin to question whether you really did see something THAT ‘abnormal’ on your TV. ‘Entertainment’ arrives in strange forms in Spain (The Inquisitions?) so, for all I know, she was probably invited back the following year.

2024. I have been lucky enough to be in France witnessing the run-up to the Paris Olympic Games. On 9 May, as the Olympic flame arrived in Marseille by boat from Greece, the French state broadcaster launched an online television channel dedicated solely to the impending event. Presently, the flame is passing through 68 of France’s 96 geographical ‘departments’, in each of which it is carried through streets of six or seven towns/villages consecutively by a relay of local volunteers walking/jogging around 200 metres each. In total, by the time the Games commence in July, the flame will have been carried during 68 days by 10,000 individuals through 450 of France’s 35,000 ‘communities.’

The new TV channel (confusingly named ‘Paris 24’ like longstanding news station ‘France 24’) offers around eight hours per day of live coverage of the torch as it wends its way up hills and down dales through France. The dominant visuals derive from Ronin Steadicam cameras held by two videographers sat facing backwards on the rear of peddle-powered tricycles, filming the torchbearer running towards them. This is supplemented by two scooter riders with lightweight cameras attached to their handlebars, a roving reporter interviewing people with another Steadicam, and two overhead drones. The vision mixer seems to be in situ (in a van behind the torchbearer?) and has a fondness for abrupt cutaways from the torchbearer, often of no more than a few seconds, as if directing an urgent pop music video. A bored male voiceover reads a script extolling the history of the town/village and the name, age and occupation of each volunteer carrier.

The results are often scrappy but make intriguing viewing. The satellite link occasionally fails, cameras temporarily lose their signals under bridges, inside buildings and when scooter riders collide with obstacles. There seems to be no ‘talkback’ facility, requiring camera operators to occasionally communicate using hand signals in front of their lenses. This coverage initially appeared somewhat amateurish, but quickly became addictive for this armchair viewer. What better way to visit so much of France’s rich land than the view from the back of a slow-moving tricycle? I have already accompanied the flame’s journey to mountain peaks above clouds, to caves of prehistoric art, across magnificently modern bridges, on kayaks down fast-flowing rivers and through historical theme parks. Watching the way France has beautifully maintained and restored its phenomenal history helps you understand why the majority of the French take their annual holiday within their country. There is so much to experience here!

Simultaneously, the sheer humanity on view has proven heartwarming in these ‘challenging’ times. Volunteers chosen to carry the flame have been of all ages, visually diverse and many with disabilities they have overcome to participate. One very elderly man with an arm in a sling shuffled along the route more than walked, taking an age to complete 200 metres, but was patiently accommodated. One torchbearer fell to his knees en route and proposed to his girlfriend as he passed her amongst bystanders. The crowds that have attended each stage of the torch’s journey have been huge and enthusiastic, particularly the hordes of children given the day off school to display the results of their Olympic Games art projects. There have regularly been very moving, spontaneous little moments that pre-scripted, sanitised television can never achieve.

On 9 June, the flame skipped out of mainland France for the first time to travel through the department of French Guyana in South America. I was very much looking forward to watching a travelogue through this little-known, far-flung outpost … until it emerged that, instead of coverage being mixed on-the-ground as usual by ‘France TV’ staff, responsibility had been inexplicably handed to the organisation’s local television station ‘Guyane La Première’. Instead of the focus remaining on the journey of the torch, the dozens of torchbearers and the communities passed, its station management turned this potentially historic outside broadcast into a studio-based programme. Had they not read the memo from head office? Had they not watched online the coverage of the torch journey to date? Or had they merely decided to do what the hell they wanted regardless? The outcome was predictably disastrous.

The TV station’s morning broadcasts omitted any live coverage of the flame arriving by boat in the village of Camopi at 0620 and its 1km journey through the town. The usual cameras and drones were on-site but their raw videography was edited down to an inadequate two-minute roundup repeatedly broadcast later in the day. The thrill of continuous live coverage had been completely lost. When the morning studio programme eventually started, it was led by a well-dressed man and woman (Nikerson Perdius and Geniale Attoumani) sat side-by-side at a desk covered in sheets of paper scripts. They appeared so under-confident that the man constantly shuffled their papers while the woman rung her hands. Occasionally, their eyes would meet with a look of ‘what the hell should we do next’. Instead of simply giving us the live feed of the flame, they viewed their role as interviewing their equally nervous two non-Olympic sportsman studio guests who used the airtime to complain about the lack of professional quality sports facilities locally. The studio presentation continued in this style for 90 minutes, repeatedly reading out the times and locations of the torch’s journey as if it were a radio show, but failing to show us more than sporadic visuals of the flame.

Unbelievably, after a break, the same two presenters returned for a further three-hour studio-based show that still failed to provide much live coverage. The flame’s 800-metre journey at 1110 around the huge high-tech satellite launching pad ‘space station’ at Kourou should have provided a great opportunity to appreciate Guyana’s technological significance. Instead, we saw almost nothing of the event because the presenters decided, at that critical moment, inexplicably to reshow the edited package of the flame’s early morning arrival at Camopi. I was moved to repeatedly shout at the television: “what the hell is the editor doing?” Much more important to the station were more endless studio chats with another set of non-Olympic sports guests. Just as bizarre were the live vox-pops with people on the streets who had observed the flame’s progress … instead of allowing us viewers to watch the flame’s progress first-hand.

Surely, the station’s afternoon coverage could not be worse? Don’t underestimate. Whereas the early shift presenters were under-confident, the afternoon team (Tamo Brasse and Charly Torres) appeared supremely over-confident, particularly in their own self-importance, one inexplicably wearing a ‘Tram Tours, Lisboa, Portugal’ tee-shirt. For 140 minutes, they talked and talked and talked with their sporting studio guests. The station’s on-the-ground contributors providing live commentary on the flame’s passage proved professional but were far too infrequently used. By now, my wife was also shouting at the television for the hosts to shut up because, once again, they seemed to imagine they were on the radio and left no space unfilled by their voices, instead of allowing us view the live images and accompanying ambient sound. Ironically, whilst they chatted interminably, a large-screen TV was visible on the wall behind them in the studio, displaying the live feed of the torch’s progress … a visual they and their editor were preventing us from viewing.

In the evening, when the flame made its final journey of the day through the capital Cayenne, these same presenters returned for a further one-hour show. Now with two on-the-ground live reporters, this should have been a more satisfying viewing experience .. but wasn’t. The only reason they talked less animatedly and, instead, mumbled to each other was the absence of studio guests or their possible exhaustion. Suddenly, just when it seemed possible that we might view some uninterrupted live local coverage, the station inexplicably cut to a live feed of the European Athletics Championships women’s 100m semifinal from Italy in which French athlete Gemima Joseph was competing. By now, we were both screaming at the television: “the Olympic flame happens once in a lifetime in Guyana!”. (Incidentally, Britain’s Dina Asher-Smith won and Joseph came second.)

Could it get worse? Yes. The station was now interrupting its live coverage with pre-recorded packages, each lasting several minutes, about preparations for the Olympic flame’s arrival that had already been broadcast within the station’s two daily local news bulletins on previous days. Why choose this ‘filler’ when there is a once-a-century live event happening in your backyard? The icing on the cake for this unmitigated television disaster happened just as the flame was about to arrive at its final destination in the capital Cayenne where, at 1920, it would light the Olympic cauldron in front of a huge crowd. Twenty minutes before that, the two presenters folded their arms and, looking pleased with their performances, bade their audience a final farewell … BEFORE the flame had reached the crowning glory of its journey. Live coverage terminated. We screamed our heads off.

Had these presenters viewed the event as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to show off their chat skills beyond French Guyana on a television channel watched across mainland France? Were their efforts a pitch for some kind of longform chat show? Their station’s mediocre efforts were an insult to the many local volunteers carrying the torch, to the communities in Guyana it passed through, and to the hundreds of Olympic Games staff on the ground who enabled the torch to pass through the landscape. While the broadcasters had sat self-absorbed in their cosy TV studio, the hard work of on-the-ground videographers had been marginalised and mostly discarded. I tuned in wanting to actually see French Guyana and what I got instead were ‘talking heads’ in a studio. It was a disgraceful betrayal of everything the Olympics stands for.

Did nobody from state TV’s Paris HQ phone up and demand to know what the hell their employees in Guyana were doing? We will never know. Will heads roll? Unlikely because employment in France’s public sector is mostly a ‘job for life’. You would have to murder a client to be sacked. Watching television in mainland France, its output is filled with ‘the great and the good’ talking endlessly on studio panel discussion shows about anything and everything. It’s essentially cheap ‘talk radio’ programming parading as ‘television’.

Whenever ‘the system’ screws up in France, there are never apologies, never sanctions. Any problem is passed down to the user, the consumer, the citizen to suffer the consequences. The day after the Guyana station’s contemptuous Olympic flame coverage, ‘France TV’ HQ in Paris suddenly blocked online viewers from watching that local station’s live output. The many Guyanese living in France are now denied the ability to keep up with news from ‘home’, paying the price for their public servants’ failures.

Should you think my criticism is unfair on tiny French Guyana (population 295,385) for its efforts, six days later I watched the Olympic flame pass through Caribbean island Guadeloupe (population 378,561) where coverage by its own outpost of the state television station ‘La Premiere’ proved absolutely excellent. Somebody there had evidently read and understood the memo.

[Sadly, links here to 'France TV' content may not work outside France.]

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