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.