World Cup 2010: Why It’s Time To Reinvent Televised Football

World Cup 2010: Why It’s Time To Reinvent Televised Football

By on Jul 14, 2010 in International Football, Latest | 14 comments

Last night, Mark Murphy tore into the coverage of the 2010 World Cup in British television. This evening, in the second of our two-parter on British television at the World Cup, Ian King argues that it is time to rip up the rule book and start all over again.

In the multi-media age, it isn’t just the newspapers that are suffering. As more and more people download their favourite television programmes (often illegally), advertising revenues are plummeting and purse-strings are being pulled tighter and tighter. The idea of the shared viewing experience is starting to become a thing of the past, except in one area of broadcasting: sport and, in particular, football. Live sports broadcasts offer something that can’t be downloaded and saved for later. The viewer has to be there at the time, in front of a television screen or a computer monitor. It is (for a commercial broadcaster, at least) the perfect captive audience.

As football has grown in popularity across the globe, television audiences for matches have become almost unparalleled. An estimated seven hundred million people watched the 2010 World Cup final between Spain and the Netherlands last Sunday, including a television audience over twenty million in Britain. Yet, while the number of people was vast by any calculations, the critical reception that the broadcasters in Britain received was tepid, to say the least. In stark contrast to, for example, the United States of America, where the coverage of ESPN, ABC and Univision was met with warm praise, barely a day seemed to go by without the BBC and ITV being attacked somewhere and, fashionable though this has become of late, there can be little question that much of the criticism offered forward over the last few weeks has been justified.

There are numerous reasons why this should be – the banality of the guests, the editorialising of much of what was coming out of the anchors’ mouths and the propensity of the commentators to shout when it is plenty enough to merely talk – but what can the broadcasters actually do about it? After forty years of evolution in the televising of football that has been at best incremental and at worst little more than a procession of gimmicks, perhaps it is time to strip the coverage down and start again. In terms of the actual viewing experience, watching the football on the television should be a more pleasurable experience than it has ever been. We have the benefits of such innovations as multiple camera angles and high definition pictures to name but two, after all. Ironically, though, it is what we see on the pitch that the least can be done about. Matches at major tournaments are usually sent to broadcasters through syndicated feeds (as the FIFA branding all over this year’s World Cup coverage confirmed), but the pictures of the matches themselves aren’t, on the whole, the problem.

Firstly, it is time to put some of the pundits used out to grass. It would probably be unfair to name names at this point, but some of those being used by the BBC and ITV have been sitting on sofas pontificating have been in place for twenty years or more, and it feels as if they have got lazy over this time. Both broadcasters use former players with little managerial experience, and it shows. When Gary Lineker asks, “Well, what would you be saying to them in the dressing room now?”, the answers often bear almost no comparison with what a manager would actually say in such a situation. The fact of the matter is that greater tactical analysis of what is happening on the pitch can be found in newspapers such as The Guardian or on websites such as Zonal Marking than we see on the television.

Dry tactical analysis isn’t what it’s all about, though. When the radio broadcaster Danny Baker briefly appeared in the BBC studio after the first round match between France and Mexico, he offered more refreshing opinion in the space of five minutes than any of the rest of them managed in the whole tournament. That he was wrong (he stated quite boldly that Spain wouldn’t win the World Cup because “the seed of doubt” had been planted in their heads by their opening defeat against Switzerland) didn’t matter in the slightest. Baker offered an alternative to the cosy, all-chums-together atmosphere that the BBC has become over the last few years, and the most frustrating thing about his brief presence in the studio for that that one match (and subsequent absence)  is that he is already employed by the BBC, and was in South Africa for his popular Radio Five show.

It would also be nice to see a little neutrality brought back into coverage of the World Cup. England matches are now almost completely unbearable on the BBC and ITV now, in no small part because the both broadcasters are more or less incapable of even putting up a veneer of impartiality. This doesn’t only alienate the sizeable proportion of the British viewing audience that isn’t English, but also means that less attention than we would like is paid to the opposition. During his post on here last night, Mark Murphy bemoaned a lack of knowledge that was almost worn as a badge of honour by some commentators and analysts during the World Cup. It’s not only disrespectful to whichever team they are displaying their ignorance towards, but towards the audience, in assuming that we don’t care to know anything about the opposition either. Perhaps it’s a hangover from the “new laddism” from the 1990s. Perhaps it’s a deeper-rooted English distrust of anything that betrays any subtle hint of intellectualism. Even if it is neither of these, it helps to make the experience of watching football on the television feel like the equivalent of listening to fingers scratching down a blackboard.

For the semi-final match between the Netherlands and Uruguay, we saw a glimpse of an alternate reality, when Jim Beglin fell ill and Clive Tyldesley had to commentate on the match alone. While many of Tyldesley’s idiosycratic irritants remained intact, however, it was almost a tolerable experience. There was no idiotic “banter”. He had to focus on the match. In other words, he commentated on the football. He was a football commentator. Co-commentators have been with us, in England, at least, since the 1966 World Cup finals, when Walley Barnes partnered Kenneth Wolstenholme on the BBC and the then-Northampton Town manager Dave Bowen sat alongside Hugh Johns on ITV. Not that viewers heard much from them, though. Their input was only very occasional, to the extent that, watching highlights of the matches decades on, it is impossible to even know that they were there. Why not experiment further with getting rid of them? What, exactly, do the likes of Mark Lawrenson, Jim Beglin and Mick McCarthy bring to the table of our overall knowledge of the game? Why are they there? We can ponder this until the cows come home, but the truth of the matter is that in our imagined, new, pared-down football landscape, they could be done away with altogether.

The multiple camera angles, flashy sets and whizzy graphics are one thing, and they’re not going to go away. It is, however, time for a watershed in the broadcasting of football on the television. It is time for the television networks to get back to basics, and give the audience what it wants. The BBC and ITV have been sliding towards the sort of criticism that they have had to endure this summer for a number of years. It has been a slow drip, drip, drip towards banality, but it is not too late to change this for the better. Before the match, we want a little about both teams and an informed discussion of what we, as viewers, should be keeping an eye on. We want commentary that understands the value of space in speech patterns, treats both teams with equal respect and commentators (and, if we have to have them, co-commentators) that sound as if they watches both teams play every match, rather than basking in their own ignorance. And at the end of the match, we want a little analysis and some of the humour and culture that is a part of our experience of football.

Share Button

    14 Comments

  1. I don’t live in the UK however on four occasions during this world cup I got my hands on a broadcast of the games from ITV and BBC and it was frankly appalling.

    It seemed to me that the producers were just going through the motions knowing that people would tune in regardless and that rather than challenge the viewers to think about what was going on, they were happy to put famous faces on the screen to appeal to the lowest common denominator.

    It was in stark contrast to what we get here in Australia, a football market that because of the standing of the game here has to work hard on what they present to the public. The SBS channel were yet again exceptional as they have been since Mexico 1986.

    Each and every presenter, analyst and pundit is intelligent, experienced and the teams are of a diverse background that gives the viewer many differing views on the games and style of the teams.

    They are either former Australian players who have gone onto coaching or have played at some of the best teams in the world such as Lazio, Fiorentina, AC Milan, or they are football fans that have an intelligent view on the game.

    They are led by Les Murray who has been the face of football in Australia since the 70s and is a member of the FIFA Ethics Committee.

    Most importantly though, is that the backgrounds and experiences of the pundits, presenters, analysts and commentators are extremely diverse.

    We have everything from German, Italian, Croatian, Hungarian, Syrian, Lebanese Australian and English heritages, which is only right considering the multi-cultural background of the people who make up our society.

    It’s a shame then that the only differing cultures represented on the English coverage was that by people actually from other countries.

    mintox

    July 15, 2010

  2. But I wonder how many of those 20 million who tuned in really want a deep tactical analysis of the line-ups. The vast majority of the audience, especially for World Cup games, are people with only a passing interest. I have long since given up on listening to the punditry on live games and often skip it on highlights shows as there is little chance of gaining any new insight.

    I don’t know if it’s available as I don’t live in the UK at the moment, but I think an option to mute the commentary and just have the stadium noise should be a standard option on all digital games.

    Tim Vickerman

    July 15, 2010

  3. It used to be an option on the red button, Tim, but it isn’t any more (it was replaced by the option to listen to radio commentary). As I said, I don’t necessarily think that deep tactical analysis is the answer, but I do believe that if they are going to analyse, they need to get it right. The level of surprise at England being so comprehensively undone by Germany was one very good example of the entire World Cup panel being amazed by something that had seemed likely to happen, umm, happening.

    admin

    July 15, 2010

  4. One thing that radio 5 do is split the match between commentators. I presume this is because the job is much more intense as they have to actually describe the action for listeners who can’t see it. Nevertheless, perhaps splitting between two commentators – a half of a half each – might freshen up the experience. It would give each commentator time to actually watch the game, without the pressure of description, and would avoid the tedious repetition of errors made by one for the entire match.

    Cuccir

    July 15, 2010

  5. both broadcasters are more or less incapable of even putting up a veneer of impartiality

    However bad it may be in the UK, it is worse in Spain. One particular example came not during the World Cup, but at the end of the Europa League (ugh) final when the commentators actually sang the Atlético Madrid club song.

    Spanish TV and radio commentary generally aims to cultivate stupidity. I do not exaggerate. One symptom of this is the ¡¡¡¡Gooollll!!! style, in which any goal has to be shrieked about even if it actually went in thirty seconds beforehand, during an ad break. There are also, of course, sidekicks, whose role it is to join in.

    In a bar a couple of nights ago, I was watching Gol TV showing Iniesta’s winner over and again, with recordings of all the commentaries from different radio stations. Did I say “different”? No. In each instance there was a prolonged – very prolonged – shriek of ¡¡¡¡Goooollll!!!! in which all the sidekicks participated, one going so far as to sing the word “gol” repeatedly to the tune of the national anthem. This was, as I said, radio
    commentary. You think listeners might like to know how the goal had been scored, un pocito de descripción? They’ll be lucky.

    I personally think this derives from the inherent stupidity of the Barca v Real culture in which everything is attributed to officals at all levels favouring the party to which one does not adhere. But whatever it is, intelligence in football culture is pretty thin on the ground here, and it certainly doesn’t show its face, or indeed its voice, very much in commentary.

    ejh

    July 15, 2010

  6. Danny Baker has always been class, but it helps that he’s actually a football fan to start with.

    I’d infinitely prefer the option of “no commentary” or just match/stadium sound to the increasingly irrelevant and occassionally soul-destroying banality of the likes of Tyldesley.

    Offering the choice of Chris Moyles (FFS!) just makes it worse!

    Martin

    July 15, 2010

  7. ejh, I wouldn’t mind if our presentation and commentary was that awful if we had won the World Cup like Spain :)

    Martin

    July 15, 2010

  8. The baffling thing where BBC’s football coverage (particularly on TV) is concerned is that watching their broadcast of almost any other sport almost becomes an education as you watch – I love hearing what Michael Johnson has to say during their Athletics coverage, John McEnroe is extremely insightful during Wimbledon fortnight (almost makes Tennis watchable). The only exceptions during the entire TV coverage of the World Cups on either side were Jurgen Klinsmann, Roy Hodgson and when he wasn’t drawn into the Shearer / Hanson festival of banality, Clarence Seedorf. 3 men whose football knowledge goes far beyond the Premier League. I’d much rather have watched Chris Waddle ranting with a bit of passion post match after England’s defeat against Germany than Shearer and Dixon coming up with opinions less insightful than my 2 year old daughter.

    At work I had to stream RTE’s coverage of the tournament due to server issues, but the difference between the Graeme Souness on there and the Graeme Souness who appears on Sky is vast. Quite what the answer is I don’t know, but there is more chance of me walking to the moon than watching any football live on British TV before the European Championships.

    John (Hendon)

    July 15, 2010

  9. Its a pity current Scotland and ex-Dundee United manager Craig Levien turned down the offer of being a BBC pundit because he is excellent when he is a pundit on BBC Scotland. Very insightful, tactical knowledge of both teams and willing to speak his mind and not just go along with Hansen et al. There was one point where Clarence Seedorf contradicted what Alan Hansen had said and Hansen verbally slapped him down for having the temerity to disagree with his all-knowing opinion. Personally I would have told him to fuck off either on or off camera (I seem to remember Gary Liniker bringing the show to a very shap ending after Hansen’s little hissy fit). As for ITV, don’t get me started. Gareth Southgate for me is the best one and is clearly a gentleman, but Andy Townsend is hopeless and Marcel Desailly is on another planet. I remember during half time in the Euro 2008 final him saying that Spain had got their tactics all wrong and that Germany would be happy with what was going on. This was after 45 minutes of keep ball by the Spanish where they had created chance after chance and looked like they could rip the Germans apart at will particularly with a fit Torres in the mood unlike in the World Cup.

    Scott Baikie

    July 15, 2010

  10. Its a pity current Scotland and ex-Dundee United manager Craig Levien turned down the offer of being a BBC pundit because he is excellent when he is a pundit on BBC Scotland. Very insightful, tactical knowledge of both teams and willing to speak his mind and not just go along with Hansen et al. There was one point where Clarence Seedorf contradicted what Alan Hansen had said and Hansen verbally slapped him down for having the temerity to disagree with his all-knowing opinion. Personally I would have told him to fcuk off either on or off camera (I seem to remember Gary Liniker bringing the show to a very sharp ending after Hansen’s little hissy fit). As for ITV, don’t get me started. Gareth Southgate for me is the best one and is clearly a gentleman, but Andy Townsend is hopeless and Marcel Desailly is on another planet. I remember during half time in the Euro 2008 final him saying that Spain had got their tactics all wrong and that Germany would be happy with what was going on. This was after 45 minutes of keep ball by the Spanish where they had created chance after chance and looked like they could rip the Germans apart at will particularly with a fit Torres in the mood unlike in the World Cup.

    Scott Baikie

    July 15, 2010

  11. I agree that we should have a red button option to mute the commentary but would we really want to listen to the constant vuvuzela whine? Although on second thoughts it might be better than the commentary!

    Joe

    July 15, 2010

  12. An interesting stab at change but sadly you don’t actually call out for any real tangible examples of what you’d like changed. Come on, let loose a little….

    For what it’s worth I agree that BBC / MoTD formula has become very tired. Time for Linker et al to be put out to pasture. I’d then go for the “fan” approach that has made the likes of Danny Baker, Adrian Chiles, Frank Skinner so popular down the years. They ask the questions that we fans would ask and in the main with no real fear of incrimination should they choose to criticise Lampard, Rooney etc. You always feel that Gary Lineker is only a TV advert away from meeting this players and that as a result he holds back on what really should be said.

    I’d then look to utlise experts (those in the game) that can add real insight. I liken this to the excellent range of articles in the Guardian that David Pleat writes (or ghost writes). He explains things that as an average fan I cannot see, or that my lack of experience can’t fathom. That’s what I crave at half time.

    I’d also encourage the pundits (however many there are) to be openly controversial if merited. Look at the lively debates you get on the Irish station from time to time.

    Lose the co-commentator and instead allow the commentator of coice to occasionally go back to the studio for comments or insight from the panel. Let’s hear in real time, albeit in short soundbites, what their opinions are.

    I’m not going to go into how we could utilise social media tools (here today, gone tomorrow in some cases), but I’ve really enjoyed watching Question Time of late and also following the debate on twitter at the same time. BBC/ITV could look at those as optional extras.

    Oh and I’d get rid of Alan Green and insist that 606 be run by Baker and Kelly for the foreseeable future.

    Jamie

    July 15, 2010

  13. I think the point about the broad audience is a good one. Football on TV is watched by so many people that Hansen, Townsend and Shearer may well have been shackled for years with a direct remit that they shouldn’t be too technical due to the broad range of viewers. It’s a fanciful notion but I’ve got to cling to it for my own sanity, even if it doesn’t explain the odd appearance to the contrary (O’Neill, Hodgson, etc.) Regardless, nothing excuses the shocking lack of preparation they displayed at times.

    Some good suggestions above – I’d particularly like to see a culling of the cult of the co-commentator. Some games should be billed in the TV listings as “featuring a 90 minute stream-of-consciousness monologue by Mark Bright”. Before the World Cup I rented DVDs of the 70, 74, 78 and 82 finals, and it was truly refreshing to hear the co-commentators about half a dozen times in the entire match.

    The fact Alan Shearer accused Danny Baker of being drunk, simply because he actually had an opinion or two, spoke volumes.

    Ungentlemanly Conduct

    July 15, 2010

  14. Agree with most of your points. One can only hope Newcastle start the season abysmally, Hughton gets booted out and Shearer returns to the only corner of the country which thinks he still has something to offer…

    Ben

    July 15, 2010

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Uppgjörið | Bjarnarblogg - [...] Cynical challenge fannst bresku þulirnir slakir og Two Hundred Percent hakkar þá í sig líka og vill líka breytingar …

Post a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>