ITV’s FA Cup Disgrace

By on Feb 5, 2009 in Latest | 7 comments

It’s Wednesday night, and a taut Merseyside derby between Everton and Liverpool is deadlocked at 0-0. With three minutes to play in extra time and the possibility of the first ever competitive penalty shoot-out between the teams looming large, ITV suddenly and inexplicably cuts to an advert break. Down here on the south coast, the advert break merrily plays a BT Broadband the tagline of which is “There’s nothing worse than losing your connection”, before cutting suddenly back to… Everton players celebrating the only goal of the match. At full time, the screen cuts to the familiar ITV1 ident, which sits on the screen, ominously silently, for a couple of minutes, before cutting to a surprisingly low resolution VT clock. A minute or so later they’re back, and Steve Ryder is offering his apologies to those of us that missed the goal.

Who, then, is to blame for what can only rationally be described as a monumental balls up? The answer, as so often seems to be the case with these things, seems to be “the system”. It is too soon to say what exactly happened, but it is not too early to make an educated guess. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the bits between the programmes on the television these days are largely automated. In the trade, it’s known as “broadcast and transmission operations”, and ITV1 awarded a six year contract to manage it for them to a company called Technicolor Network Services at the end of 2006. Because the system is partly automated, there can be complications when programmes  overrun, but there is obviously a manual over-ride at the company’s control centres, where these operations are managed from.

Each ITV region used to cover its own presentation and advertising, but that is no longer the case. ITV now has two regional control centres – one in Leeds and one in London – and what seems to have happened is that following a malfunction of some sort (possibly a failure to over-ride a pre-progammed advertisement break, possibly someone hitting a wrong button, possibly a computer failure, we don’t know), the whole nation switched to an advertisement break. The Leeds regional control centre managed to cut back to the match a few seconds before the goal, but the London regional centre didn’t, and they cut back just as the celebrations were kicking in. It’s important to point out that this was almost certainly a technical error rather than a commercial decision of any sort, but this will be but mere crumbs of comfort to a television audience that had sat through a hundred and eighteen minutes of largely uninspiring football only to miss the major moment of drama of the evening.

If the blame lies anywhere, it lies within the culture of cost-cutting which has run riot through the British media over the last couple of decades or so. Indeed, some would see it as an apt and timely metaphor for the intrusion of commercialism into football even if, in this case, they would be wrong to do so. The most likely explanation is that it was “just one of those things”. This explanation won’t, however, stop the groundswell of criticism of ITV’s coverage of the FA Cup this season. This blog has, broadly speaking, been supportive of their coverage of the competition this season. Their online coverage of the preliminary and qualifying rounds was excellent. When they were criticised over the picture quality at the Histon vs Leeds United match in the Second Round, this site found mitigating reasons brought about by appalling weather conditions. When, in the Fourth Round, a terrible camera angle was used for the Portsmouth vs Swansea City match, this site stopped short of criticising ITV in the knowledge that outside broadcast units are always in short supply and there is an element of calculated gamble in choosing which matches to send the enormous resources required to cover the matches that are to be shown in detail. Incidents like that which came to pass this evening, however, add grist to the mill of those that would seek to remove the contract from ITV and place it back into the (often too smug and almost self-righteous) hands of the BBC. At the moment, ITV is not helping its own case.

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  1. ITV have got form for this. They threw to an ad break in the last 3 laps of the 2005 San Marino GP, with Michael Schumacher climbing all over the back of Fernando Alonso. Mitigating circumstances can easily be found, of course, but it is unavoidable to have to criticise the director at the time for delaying on of the channel’s (contractually stipulated) five commercial breaks because Jenson Button had inherited the lead during the last round of pit stops. No-one in their right mind believed Button was about to win the race except, possibly, the man in charge of throwing to the commercials.

    However, a Grand Prix motor race and a football match are different things. Fundamentally because of the set parameters of time. Quite what ITV were expecting is something of a mystery to me, because this boob is absolutely unforgivable.

    ITV’s coverage of sporting events is not something I want to turn my nose up at. They broadcast a number of things which would otherwise disappear from terrestrial broadcasts for good. They are also starting to show signs that they realise what a treasure trove their investment in regional sport coverage over the last 30 years represents as an archive. However, I can’t help but feel that, if you put their coverage of a sport and the BBC’s next to one another, it just seems a bit substandard. But people will be much more willing to indulge this if the channel can avoid giving themselves sticks with which people can beat their back.

    dotmund

    February 5, 2009

  2. If BBC’s coverage is smug, at least it is competent, and most importantly, you get to see all the goals. And I for one would gladly sit through Alan Hanson if it meant not seeing any adverts for an hour and a half.

    Matt Boothman

    February 5, 2009

  3. It is not at all too soon to work out what happened to cause this commercial break to have occoured. I have worked in transmission suite in various different companies and have used the same system that Technicolour use. This System is called Pharos. It is a very good system and is probably the best at what it does. It is obvious what happened:-

    The error was a human error. The Pharos automation system has a manual override to allow the transmission controller to have total control over what is being transmitted. This would have had to have been used in this situation as the game went into extra time. However, it was obvious that the Transmission controller forgot to turn this off and Pharos decided to play the comercial break that would have occoured if the game was to end at 90 minutes. A transmission controller works 12 hours shifts on alternating day and night patterns. He was probably knackered!

    You can see how the transmission controller was trying to recover. He was pressing the “next” button in Pharos to quickly get through the playlist so that it went back to the football in a mad panic. Because Pharos pulls video and audio material from a server it has to cue up the next item and you cannot just simply skip like you skip songs on a cd or ipod. It takes a few seconds to get from each item to the next as the system thinks. Thus the 5-10 second bursts of each commercial.

    I don’t agree with how cost cutting is the ultimate cause. Automated transimission systems is the only way to go to be able to cope with the modern stresses of TV these days. And to behonest it isn’t really an element of cost cutting. You still need the same amount of staff to run it and is just as expencive to run. This might not have happened if an automated system was not in place. But if this was the case there would be plenty of other mistakes in all 24hours of the day. If you think back to 10 years ago there were plenty of moments where there were technical drop outs. Thats why the girl playing noughts and crosses with a clown is so iconic. Probably a good trade off if you ask me…..

    Junkin

    February 5, 2009

  4. Apart from pointing out that “the whole nation” did not switch to an ad-break, as STV have decided not to show ANY of the FA Cup, STV were showing Foyles War last night…

    ITV England’s coverage has been better than expected, considering that their coverage of sport, full stop, has been ropey for the best part of the last decade and a half. Im sure that at least some of the contributors to the BBC’s “have your say” site who derided ITV getting their hands on the FA Cup again as the end of civilisation, must be ready for a rethink

    Having said that, they should leave the whole “FA Cup, the nation’s favourite football competition” stuff to the BBC, bit patronising that.

    Allan

    February 5, 2009

  5. For the record – I used to work at Technicolor but don’t any longer so I have no axe to grind here.

    The London network operations centre for ITV has no Pharos automation for the record. So you might want to think about killing this post. Have you ever heard the expression “defamation”.

    The functional description of the issue as the automation running off to the break because of human error is almost certainly correct.

    However, the senior officer for TNS responsible for technology and operations decisions is the culprit who needs to be hung out to dry!!!! Ooooo he is from Down Under BTW.

    Junkin wrong

    February 6, 2009

  6. Well, thank you for clearing that up. If you’d like to follow up what part of this:

    “What seems to have happened is that following a malfunction of some sort (possibly a failure to over-ride a pre-programmed advertisement break, possibly someone hitting a wrong button, possibly a computer failure, we don’t know)”

    amounts to “defamation”, considering that you say yourself that “The functional description of the issue as the automation running off to the break because of human error is almost certainly correct”, I’d be glad to consider it.

    I did point out several times in the above piece that it was speculation. Ultimately, and I thought that I made this pretty clear, the ultimate responsibility for this lies with ITV for outsourcing, just as it would have laid with ITV had they not outsourced it and it had been the result of an error made by ITV member of staff.

    admin

    February 6, 2009

  7. “Automated transimission systems is the only way to go to be able to cope with the modern stresses of TV these days”
    Ah but I too have worked in ITV – and in this very field – for many years and can say there wouldn’t be half the “stresses” this writer mentions if they had not scrapped manual operations at each ITV region.

    I am writing this on 13 June 2010 – yes, just after another identical and almighty cock up during a major football match. Funny how things come round again isn’t it?

    Quite clearly computerised systems cannot beat humans. I am now waiting for the same to happen during the Queen’s Christmas Speech though now they’ve abolished internment in the Tower and grisly punishments I doubt if it too will come to much.

    Big Cheese

    June 13, 2010

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