The Olivier Awards: the winner isn’t BBC Radio 2

Olivier Awards. Photo: Joel Devlin
Matthew Hemley
Matt is news editor for The Stage, having started as the newspaper’s broadcast reporter. He covers all areas of the industry in his role, but has a particular interest in musical theatre. Matt studied acting at Bretton Hall and presents a monthly theatre news round up on BBC London Radio.
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So, here we are, just two months from theatreland’s biggest night of the year, and BBC Radio 2 has dropped a bombshell: it will not this year be airing the Olivier Awards live as it has done since 2010.

This isn’t just bad and disappointing news for the Society of London Theatre, which organises the awards – it’s bad news for listeners to Radio 2 and fans of theatre.

Because, now that the BBC has decided to end its live output, coverage of the ceremony will comprise a highlights package on ITV – shown after the awards themselves – and a highlights package on Radio 2, broadcast a week after the ceremony.

[pullquote]The Olivier Awards is UK-based and features homegrown talent. It deserves to be seen and heard live[/pullquote]

Okay, there will be a live relay of the ceremony in Covent Garden, should fans be keen to sit al fresco and watch the winners revealed. But no public service broadcaster will be bringing the awards to viewers or listeners live, as the ceremony happens.

According to Radio 2, a two-hour highlights package – hosted by Claudia Winkleman – will allow it to “capitalise on the great achievements in British theatre across the last year with the people who made it happen”. I am not sure how a highlights show does that better than a live broadcast, but there you go.

The two-hour show follows the format Radio 2 recently used for the Country Music Awards, with Radio 2 stating that this programme was “exceptionally well received by our listeners”.

That may be so, but the CMA’s are American, and a highlights package probably suits a ceremony that does not come from the UK itself. The Olivier Awards, on the other hand, is UK-based and features homegrown talent. It deserves to be seen and heard live.

Quite why the BBC thinks audiences will want to tune in to hear a highlights show on the radio one week after the event itself – when ITV will have already by then broadcast its own highlights show, and Twitter will have been awash with news of the winners as the ceremony happens – is difficult to get your head round. Still, there’s always the chance that Radio 2’s highlights package will be discovered by people who wouldn’t necessarily have tuned in live, so that’s a bonus.

But I feel for SOLT, I really do. Because last year it looked like the show had made huge progress with its ITV deal and its live coverage on Radio 2 (though the idea of both broadcasting content did sit a bit uncomfortably).

I can’t help thinking the BBC’s TV arm should have snapped up the rights to show the ceremony on TV, and run this alongside its own radio coverage. Perhaps when this didn’t happen, and the BBC found out that ITV was broadcasting the awards too, it felt somewhat bruised. Maybe this has something to do with it withdrawing its live coverage? Perhaps the BBC is feeling a tad bitter?

Whatever the reason for the BBC’s down-scaling, it remains clear that there is a huge appetite for theatre – with SOLT’s own figures this week revealing attendances in 2013 were 14,587,276, up 4% on the year before. That proves that people love the theatre, and that there is most likely an appetite for an awards ceremony that honours the people who work in it.

So now, without Radio 2’s live coverage, we live in hope that ITV will eventually switch to a live broadcast. Fingers crossed.