We move on this evening to the final part of the history of the British television coverage of the World Cup finals, which takes us from FIFA’s revolutionary idea to hold the tournament in a non-traditional football environment to the introduction of High Definition broadcasting four years ago. On the pitch, however, the football frequently flattered to deceive and the broadcasters were left to try and make up the slack with more and more desperate marketing gimmicks. The 1990s saw television go from being a sport watched, broadly, by a hardcore into a mass commercial entertainment medium, with predictably mixed results.
Was the 1990 World Cup the summit of what television broadcasters in Britain could expect? The football may have been less than inspiring at times, but the outstanding camera work of the Italian broadcasters gave the tournament a number of iconic images and a better than expected England performance saw audience figures rise to a level not seen for over two decades and, in its own way, kick-started the renaissance of the game in a country that had spent much of the previous decade getting kicked from pillar to post. With the Premier League getting into full swing, the 1994 World Cup might prove to be an even greater success on the box than the one held four years previously.
Any hopes that the television audiences in Britain would match those of 1990 were slight from the start. The 1994 World Cup was to be held in the United States of America, meaning that many matches would kick off at times that were inconvenient for European television audiences. The major nail in the coffin came, however, with the elimination of the home nations prior to the competition. The major losers with Ronald Koeman’s free kick against England in Rotterdam in October 1993 was the British media. Operations were considerably scaled back, with ITV in particular coming in for considerable criticism over keeping their hosts and analysts in what they called the “Dallas Bunker”, the lack of windows in which led many to believe that said bunker was more likely to be in London that the United States of America.
ITV’s coverage was hosted by the near universally unpopular Matthew Lorenzo and Elton Welsby, and the title music included the fairly abysmal “Gloryland”, the official theme to the 1994 World Cup finals which was recorded for the tournament by Daryl Hall and The Sound Of Blackness. To call it bombastic would be something of an understatement. The American television system didn’t exactly help matters, either, with a 425-line NTSC line that wasn’t up to the definition standard that had become normalised in Europe. The kick-off times again didn’t help either, with some matches kicking off at twelve noon in the American heat.
On the BBC, however, the debate was a subtly different one. They at least sent a staff out to the finals and much of the debate over was over whether John Motson or Barry Davies would commentate on the final itself. Motson had covered the previous three finals, but Davies got the nod in 1994. It must have been, therefore, something of a disappointment for him when the match, played between Brazil and Italy, turned out to be as much of a disappointment as the one played four years previously between Argentina and West Germany had been. For their title music, they chose Leonard Bernstein’s “America”, from the musical “West Side Story”.
Four years on, England had almost reached the final of a European Championships and the Premier League inspired renaissance was starting to swing into life. On top of all of this, the 1998 World Cup finals would be held in France. After four tournaments with twenty-four nations, FIFA expanded the 1998 competition to thirty-two nations, a decision which gave the competition a little more balance, if it was criticised for expanding the competition to become too big. The BBC seemed to wish to make the most of what felt like an increasing level of self-reference in the final. Sitting around as if in a cafe, chummily discussing this and that over a glass of red wine, the BBC went for “Pavane” by Gabriel Fauré, which proved a surprise hit in the charts and reached number twenty. They were outdone this time, however, by ITV’s “Rendez-Vous” by Jean-Michel Jarre and Apollo 440, which fused high energy dance music with Jarre’s near-ambient keyboard skills and made number twelve in the charts.
The 2002 World Cup finals went, for the first time, to a joint bid, from Japan and South Korea. Doubts about the tournament wouldn’t leave much of a legacy may have had something behind them with the benefit of hindsight, but the notion that the people of Japan and South Korea wouldn’t somehow be interested in a World Cup tournament were utterly unfounded. Again, with kick-off times nine hours ahead of Europe, matches were played almost uniformly during the day with evening matches kicking off at around ten o’clock in the morning. This had an affect on television audiences at home and meant that a good number of pubs opened as early at seven o’clock in the morning. The BBC won eighty percent of the audience share for the final, with over eleven million people watching the closing stages there, compared to just two and a half million on ITV. The BBC chose a remix of “Tarantula” by Faithless as their title music, while ITV used “One Fine Day” by Opera Babes.
The last World Cup, finally saw the tournament back in Europe, in Germany, and was the first to be broadcast in High Definition. Both ITV and the BBC, however, came in for significant criticism for what was perceived as jingoistic broadcasting, with stories from other nations entering the tournament frequently being eschewed in favour of what could loosely be defined as “human interest” stories about the media circus surrounding the England team with the BBC, having, somewhat ironically, having chosen The Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again” for its pre-tournament trailers. In some respects, the 2006 tournament continued the increasing tradition of the World Cup finals only being truly tolerable by sitting in a darkened room with the sound off on the television. The BBC, for the third European tournament in a row, decided to go classical for the tournament with ‘Sports Prepare’ by the composer Carl Davis, which was largely based upon “See the Conquering Hero Comes” by Handel. ITV, however, with a choice that seemed to sum up the decline of their football coverage over the previous decade and a half, went for a pretty atrocious cover version of David Bowie’s “Heroes”, performed by lumpen indie rockers Kasabian.
And that’s about your lot. We will, of course, be shining the spotlight on the broadcasters again this summer. Just to finish off, here is a compilation of opening titles from World Cup finals between 1978 and 2006.