The comments of the host of The Football League Show, Manish Bhasin, over the whereabouts of his show in the BBC schedules over the festive break have been causing social media no little disquiet over the last couple of days or so. This morning, though, a chink of light was granted into a possible reason behind why Bhasin was being so forthright on the subject, with rumours starting to appear in the press suggesting that the corporation is not going to renew its option on the programme come the end of this season. If this rumour has any substance behind it, it marks the end of a brief golden era for television coverage of the Football League in recent years, but it also shines a light on what appear to be the priorities of the BBC’s sport department as the reality of the savage cuts that it has to make begin to sink in.
There was no little anger amongst viewers when the show failed to make a place in the schedules on Boxing Day, despite a full programme of matches having been played. The Football League Show has had its fair share of critics since first coming on air in August 2009, but if we detach ourselves from the small matters of Steve Claridge and its atrocious opening title sequence, it has done a reasonable job, over the last two and a half years or so, of condensing a full day’s action from three divisions into one programme every week. Talk began when the programme failed to appear on Boxing Day, and Bhasin’s comments on the subject on Twitter on Boxing Day – “it’s a budget decision i’m afraid…But all the goals will be online on the BBC Football website..” – hinted at a broader problem with the programme’s ongoing viability.
It has taken just three days from this to stories in the press starting to circulate suggesting that the programme will not be renewed once its contract comes up for renewal in the summer. The Mirror reported this morning that an insider had stated to them that “it is coming to the end of a three-year contract and it will not be renewed”, and within a couple of hours this was also being reported elsewhere, which suggests that there is more to this than idle tabloid tittle-tattle in a lull between the Boxing Day and New Years Day fixture programmes. The BBC, according to The Mirror, would “not discuss contractual issues” in relation to this programme. In the absence of a firm statement one way or the other, though, it seems likely that, if nothing else, speculation will grow that this programme is no longer cost-effective for the BBC for produce.
The BBC’s response to the cuts to its budget has come in the form of a report called Delivering Quality First, which has already caused no little consternation amongst critics. Amongst the plans to come in for criticism were those to scrap the BBC 6 Music and Asian Network radio channels (which were subsequently scaled back), and it has also been suggested that the arts and culture end of its television operation, BBC4, will be lost in cut-backs. That BBC4 may have fight for its survival while its youth orientated sister station BBC3, is likely to suffer budget cuts and no more may give something of an indication as to the future priorities of the corporation, and this was also reflected in plans to take an axe to its local radio coverage last year. There has been little indication, critics have argued, of how the BBC would deliver quality first by, say, getting rid of BBC4 while retaining BBC3.
While The Football League Show is far from perfect, it is not unreasonable to suggest that it performs a far more valuable service for the Football League than Match Of The Day does for the Premier League. In recent years, Match Of The Day has started to feel increasingly like an irrelevance. Supporters of Premier League clubs are now likely to have already seen their team’s action by the time that the programme comes around late on a Saturday night, whether through live coverage during the day from Sky and ESPN, illegal streams from abroad or Sky Sports’ Football First, which is broadcast earlier on Saturday evenings. As time has gone on, the programme has come to show matches in less and less detail and there is a growing perception that it is now little more than a vehicle for very well paid pundits such as Alan Shearer and Alan Hansen to wax lyrical (or, in the case of the match between Wigan Athletic and Liverpool last week, not so lyrical – at least in the case of Hansen) as they see fit.
In spite of The Mirror’s insinuation, there has been no indication that Match Of The Day will be culled, and it would make little sense for the corporation to get rid of a programme that remains an institution – albeit an increasingly creaky one – and which would, in the event of The Football League Show vanishing from our screens, be its only regular football coverage alongside the curiously durable Football Focus. Where, though, would the Football League get the same sort of coverage elsewhere? In terms of Free To Air broadcasters, it seems unlikely that any other channel would provide the same service. Channel Four and Five seem to have little interest in the game other than Five’s Europa League coverage, whilst ITV remain perceived as the poor relation of the BBC in terms of their football coverage – those that are overly critical of The Football League Show may wish to consider ITV’s largely unloved predecessor to it, The Championship.
In the case of BBC 6 Music and others, the corporation had to reconsider after protests from viewers. It remains to be seen whether the supporters of the clubs of The Football League Show have enough affection for the show to protest against any plans that the corporation may have not to renew its contract come the summer, but it is certainly worth considering that The Football League Show demonstrates the BBC at somewhere near its best, providing public service broadcasting of a league that means a lot to a lot of people, but doesn’t receive as much attention as it should in the media in a broad sense. Its loss would be a great one to the plurality of television football coverage in this country, and would be made all the more galling should highly paid ex-pros continue to sit on a sofa once or twice a week, saying little of any consequence. Unfairly maligned though it often is, it sometimes feels as if the BBC can be approaching its own worst enemy.
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