I’ve been kind of taking my time over making my feelings the FA’s new TV deal for the FA Cup and international matches, because it’s not quite as clear cut as we might expect. Anybody that can remember the debacle that was “The Premiership” will know just how bad ITV can be at broadcasting football – their Champions League shows are like an evening at the opera in comparison. We all remember The Tactics Truck, the numerous commercial breaks and the sight of an enormously uncomfortable looking Des Lynam looking more and more haggard as the ratings plummeted through the floor.
It wasn’t ever thus. When ITV was properly regional, its football coverage often knocked “Match Of The Day” into a cocked hat. They were the first British TV station to use panels of experts, at the 1970 World Cup, and “The Big Match”, LWT’s weekly football show for London, frequently piloted features, interviews and guest presenters that the staid old BBC would never have considered. Out in the provinces, the other ITV companies took an interest in smaller clubs that the BBC didn’t have the time or inclination to cover. In the Midlands, ATV’s “Star Soccer” covered the championship winning Derby, Nottingham Forest and Aston Villa of the late 1970s and early 1980s.
ITV’s regional coverage ended in 1983 with the coming of live TV coverage of Football League matches, and it never really recovered. When they won exclusive live TV rights in the late 1980s, they were widely criticised for focussing solely on the biggest clubs. They seem well-matched to the Champions League – big, blustering, slightly pompous and focussed on size over quality – but their FA Cup coverage was poor and not renewed, and they made a dreadful job of covering the Premiership, as I mentioned above. Their World Cup coverage has been slated at every tournament since about 1986, and their coverage of the Football League was shunted from prime-time on a Sunday afternoon to well after a midnight on a Monday night. Even now, their Sunday morning show, “The Championship”, is shunted from time slot to time slot, and seldom features anybody that (you guessed it) wasn’t in the Premiership until relatively recently. One can anticipate what their FA Cup coverage will be like – wall to wall Manchester United, Liverpool, Arsenal and Chelsea. The BBC were bad enough about that sort of thing, but they did at least occasionally pick the more interesting matches, and their coverage of the first two rounds was, if you ignored the cliches, excellent. I can’t imagine in a way in which ITV will make a better job of it.
The flip-side to this is that Sky Sports have lost the rights to England away matches and the FA Cup. Now, I have to say that I haven’t seen any Setanta Sports coverage, but it has to be said that they are at least a better option financially for the viewer. It’s available on satellite and cable, but more interestingly, also on Freeview, if you have a set top box with a card reader. It may well increase (at the moment, they have live SPL football and some European league football), but at the moment it only costs £10.99 per month, and they’ll also be showing 46 live Premiership matches and 79 Nationwide Conference matches from the start of next season. They’ve stated publicly their belief that Sky has priced a large number of people out of the market – they might just find that they take a sizeable amount of Sky’s audience share with that sort of deal.
The truly curious aspect to the story is the angle that the FA took the deal away from the BBC and Sky on account of critical BBC coverage of England’s performance at the World Cup last summer. Leaving aside the fact that they were utterly deserving of the criticism heaped upon them, I don’t recall much of that criticism coming from the BBC. Compared to Ireland’s RTE, they’re pussycats, as happy to drape themselves in the St George’s flag as ITV would be (presumably you all still remember the toe-curlingly cringe-worthy Ian Wright performance). The idea of the almost creepily sycophantic Garth Crooks saying anything that would offend the FA is so alien to my experience of him that I can scarcely credit this story with any veracity. If there is any truth in it, it’s a dangerous precedent. For the first time, the football authorities would be trying to control the editorial output of the television companies. The fact that ITV and Setanta did outbid them anyway assuages my concerns somewhat, but the rumours are certainly worrying.
The likelihood of television coverage of football actually improving is almost beyond my comprehension. Fifteen years ago, we had the commentary of Barry Davies, Brian Moore and John Motson. Of those three, only Motson soldiers on, and he sounds like a relic from a long lost era. The commentators of today – the likes of Jonathan Pearce and Clive Tyldesley – are television’s equivalent of tabloid journalists, ranting, raving and squawking over the matches we watch in a manner seemingly designed to raise my blood pressure to pulinary thrombosis levels. It would be nice if ITV took a few hints from RTE and got in a few pundits who aren’t afraid to air their views – but in the current climate, I can’t see that happening, somehow.