LONDON – This year's Paralympics are expected to draw their largest ever live television audience — except in the United States, where events will receive only minimal coverage and won't be screened as they happen, prompting anger from some fans and campaigners.
While viewers in countries including Brazil, China, Britain and Australia will enjoy several hours of coverage per day, U.S. audiences must contend with 5 1/2 hours of programming — some of which will air only after the 11-day competition in London has concluded on Sept. 9.
That has left some equality campaigners complaining that Paralympic athletes, who include military veterans, aren't being treated as the equal of their able-bodied teammates.
Several online petitions are seeking to persuade major U.S. networks to screen Paralympic sports, amid an apparent surge in interest fueled by high profile athletes like South Africa's Oscar Pistorius, a double amputee known as the "Blade Runner" who also competed in the men's 400 meters and 4x400 relay at the Olympics.
The International Paralympic Committee predicts that, adding together viewers on each of the 11 days of competition, the total audience figure for the London Paralympics will reach 4 billion.
It said that four years ago in Beijing, a total cumulated audience of around 3.8 billion in 80 countries watched the 2008 Paralympics — including a total of 1.4 billion viewings in China across 11 days, 670 million in Japan and 439 million in Germany. Calculating figures in that way means individual viewers are counted several times.
The London organizing committee said deals announced so far with about 90 global broadcasters will provide 10 million pounds ($16 million) in revenue, a record for the Paralympics. However, the figure is dwarfed by the scale of broadcasting rights for the Olympics — NBC alone paid $4.38 billion last year to extend its rights to show the Summer and Winter Games through 2020.
Alongside a predicted increase in interest from television audiences, demand for Paralympic tickets has also soared, with a record 2.2 million seats in London sold so far. About 8.8 million tickets were sold during the 17-day London Olympics.
"Our athletes are surprising, exciting and inspiring people and the interest is a reflection of that," said Alexis Schaefer, the commercial and marketing director for the International Paralympic Committee.
In Britain, Channel 4 will show 150 hours of programming, and about 350 hours more online and across three temporary on-demand channels. The Australian Broadcasting Corp. will screen about 100 hours of coverage, showing events live each day on its main channels and offering a highlights show and on-demand Internet service.
However, many of global channels screening the Paralympics, including Japan's NHK, China's CCTV and the Korean Broadcasting Service, are public channels, without the same pressures to secure advertising as commercial networks. Others showing the competition are specialist cable sports channels, such as Brazil's Globo — which has 11 million subscribers — or Italy's Sky Italia, with 5 million paying customers.
NBC, which drew 31 million viewers with its coverage of the London Olympics closing ceremony, said it will screen a 90-minute roundup on Sept. 16 — a week after the Paralympics close. In addition, it will screen four 60-minute highlight programs on the NBC Sports Network — a cable channel it acquired in 2011 with 80 million subscribers.
"Four 60-minute segments and one 90-minute segment is embarrassing," said Damon Herota, an IT consultant in Orlando, Florida, who has organized one of several petitions urging major networks to cover events live.
"The effect on people would be simply amazing and the barriers it would break down between able-bodied Americans and the disabled would be monumental," said Herota, whose petition has so far attracted about 1,300 signatures.
NBC insists its coverage represents a major increase on previous years, up from the single 90-minute program it offered from the Beijing Paralympics. It also points out that the U.S. Olympic Committee, and not the network itself, controls broadcast rights to the Paralympics.
U.S. Olympic Committee spokeswoman Jeannine Hansen said public recognition of the Paralympics was "still in its infancy" in the United States, but added that viewers would have access to a combination of televised highlights and live online streams. She said the committee welcomed the fact NBC was increasing its coverage this year.
Hansen said NBC coverage would be re-aired on the Universal Sports Network and that daily highlight segments would be available on the U.S. Paralympic team's YouTube channel.
The network drew criticism over its decision not to screen some events live during the Olympics, choosing instead to show them on tape-delay in prime time slots. However, NBC still won record audiences.
Schaefer said interest in the Paralympics in the U.S. was slowly increasing.
"If we were not seeing progress in the U.S. than that would be disappointing, but we do see progress," he said. "You always want to have more coverage, and I hope in the future that we will be able to work with NBC on having live coverage on television and on online in the United States. That's the clear goal."
Some equality campaigners hope that increasing television coverage of the Paralympics will help to change attitudes toward all disabled people.
"We hope that the Paralympics is a catalyst to get people thinking and talking about disability and asking why we don't see more disabled people in the media, in politics or in industry, and what we can do about it," said Richard Hawkes, chief executive of British disability charity Scope.
"At a time when we know attitudes to disabled people are getting worse, this kind of visibility can make a real difference."