Like most of us, for me, last night was a first opportunity to sample the delights of Setanta Sports. The newest entrants into the British sports broadcasting landscape have aggressively asserted themselves in the marketplace, having purchased FA Cup, Premier League, Conference and England away match television rights over the last couple of years or so. This aggressiveness has extended itself with the way in which one subscribes to their channel. There is no need for an annual subscription (all you need is a digital box with a card slot), and they charge just £12.99 per month – considerably cheaper than their rivals, Sky Sports.
The opportunity to view them last night came about as the result of a dispute between Setanta and the BBC over highlights rights. It is a convention of British sports broadcasting that, when live rights are sold to a subscription only service, a highlights package will be sold to a terrestrial broadcaster. In the case of England’s away matches, however, something of a free-for-all has come to pass and, on this occasion, Setanta pushed the envelope too far. The BBC offered £250,000 for the rights to the match. Setanta refused their offer and, for a while, it looked as if the match would only be available in any form if you were a subscriber of theirs.
On the surface, this was great news for Setanta – they had exclusive rights to what could turn out to be a critical World Cup qualifier. It soon became apparent, however, that this wasn’t the full story. Going head to head in a PR battle with the BBC is seldom a good idea. The press soon started to turn on Setanta, accusing them of profiteering. In a late change of heart, Setanta decided to show the highlights, free-to-air, at 11.30 last night, allowing us all a brief insight into what actually goes on there. To say that it was illuminating would be something of an understatement.
It started abysmally, with a man wearing a sweater that was slightly too tight giving what was presumably meant to be a rousing speech. Watching it, I started to curl into a ball as if my spine was fusing together. The speech rose to an almost comically cod-Churchillian ending. “For God… for England…….. FOR ST GEORGE”. In the living room of a top floor flat overlooking Brighton town centre, a wine glass narrowly missed the television set and lodged itself in the wall behind it. We don’t need this sort of crap. If anything, the watching public need geeing down rather than geeing up. The viewing experience would be immeasurably improved if broadcasters cut back on this hyperbolic nonsense and credited us with the intelligence to be able to decide for ourselves how we should feel about what we are about to see.
From here on, though, things picked up slightly. Host Angus Scott is an agreeably neutral sort of chap, even when presented with the job of trying to conceal his glee at a result that he already knew, having already presented the live show earlier in the evening. Before he went over to the stadium, though, it was time for a commercial break. Setanta knew that people that wouldn’t ordinarily be watching them would be tuning in, and they were determined to make the most of it. Every commercial break was prefaced with an over-long commercial advertisement for their own service, which started to grate after its first couple of outings. They have an impressive roster of football this season – this much we already know. It was understandable that they would wish to remind us, but they didn’t have to ram it down out throats to the extent that they did.
Finally, we came to the match itself. Setanta Sports haven’t yet found a commentator of their own yet, and are using Jon Champion on loan from ITV. Stripped of ITV Sport’s teeth-clenching tendency to insist upon their comentators editorialising everything, Champion is a perfectly good commentator, plenty capable of summoning up enough excitement at significant moments without over-egging the pudding. He sailed close to the edge at times, but remained just on the right side of tolerable. Considerably worthier of note (and that Champion’s contribution wasn’t particularly noteworthy is a good thing – like referees, good commentators should be little more than part of the background noise) was the performance of his co-commentator, Chris Waddle.
Waddle was magnificently biased. Not in the way that normal commentators are, with their barely suppressed jingoism being held in check by what they presume to be “professionalism”. Waddle was, in his own mind, down on the pitch, kicking every ball. Every Croatian tackle was a foul, an affront against his sensibility. If Waddle had been refereeing this match, England would have won 9-0 and Croatia would have finished the match with five or six players. He managed this is a very engaging way – none of the bellowing of Ian Wright, or the hand-wringing apoplexy of Alan Green. You were, to put it simply, listening to an ex-player watching the match in the way that former players watch the game. It was an intriguing spectacle.
Setanta Sports, then – playing the Johnny Foreigner but still capable of a reasonable broadcast. Criticising them for being bombastic, one can’t help but feel, would be a little like criticising the last night of the proms for being a little jingoistic – perfectly fair, but a little like shooting fish in a barrel. Other than that, there seemed to be no particular reason to find them objectionable, and it’s worth remembering that any moves towards competitive pricing (the current price of a Setanta monthly subscription is something like the cost of a Sky Sports subscription was twelve of thirteen years ago) are very welcome, as is the opportunity to get some “premium” football in without lining Rupert Murdoch’s pocket. One hopes, however, that they will show a little more common sense when it comes to distributing the highlights package next time. They can’t afford bad PR at the moment.