It had been strongly suggested since the end of last year, but yesterday the confirmation came, once and for all. After six years, it’s time to say farewell to The Football League Show. The Football League has signed a new television deal that will take its highlights package back to commercial television, and from the start of next year the three divisions below the Premier League will be shown on Saturday nights on Channel Five, instead, along with highlights from the League Cup and the Football League Trophy. Live coverage will remain, for the time being at the very least, under the lock and encrypted key of Sky Sports.
This is, to a great extent, a leap into the unknown for both of the involved parties. Channel Five, a channel not known for shying away from the lowest common denominator where there’s a chance that a format will bring it anything approaching reasonable ratings, has dipped its toe into football broadcasting before, initially with the occasional international match and late night coverage of the Dutch Eredivisie and MLS during the late 1990s, and more recently – and familiarly, to most supporters – with its Thursday night coverage of Europa League football. Many eyes will be on the quality of their coverage, and daggers will already be drawn in the eyes of critics in the event that they fail to deliver.
For the Football League, the gamble is a slightly different one. Regardless of the flaws inherent in the Football League Show itself, being on the BBC in the first place gave highlights coverage of the three divisions a sense of legitimacy that may slip slightly with being on Five. The refrain of “Thursday night on Channel Five” became a familiar taunt to the supporters of to clubs who missed out on a place in the Champions League and had to settle for the Europa League instead. We can only assume that it will be heard over the course of the last couple of weeks of the Premier League season, hurled dismissively at the players and supporters of clubs who are currently engaged in the desperate scramble to keep their snouts at the Premier League’s golden trough.
We know very little about the details of what form this new highlights package will take at present, other than that it will go out at nine o’clock on Saturday nights and that it will last for ninety minutes. This certainly grants an opportunity for a bigger television audience. The Football League Show was seldom seen much before midnight and always took second place to Match Of The Day, and there might well be an audience that is happier to get its fix of the Football League earlier in the evening. This isn’t, however, guaranteed and previous attempts by broadcasters to bring football to a new, bigger audience have a patchy record. Most notably, when ITV snatched highlights of the Premier League from the BBC in 2001 and shunted them to an early evening slot, it was a decision that would have disastrous consequences for the broadcaster. Audience figures were nowhere near what was hoped for and the presence of sport every Saturday evening also took space from the familiar mix of light entertainment that has long proved to be lucrative for the commercial broadcaster. It was not an experiment that lasted for very long.
Where The Premiership on ITV failed most notably, however, was in its gimmickery, and this was most clearly seen in the bizarrity that was Andy Townsend’s Tactics Truck, which stationed itself outside of a ground every week offering tactical analysis of a match. Channel Five would do well to avoid such attempts to brand the Football League in this way. Innovation for the sake of innovation is more likely than not to end in its new show becoming a laughing stock, and with around seventy clubs’ matches to fit in every Saturday, even with ninety minutes airtime – less, of course, the inevitable advertising breaks – many would welcome less chitter chatter and more actual football. After all, the matches themselves are, it seems reasonable to suggest, the reason why the audience switches on in the first place. The temptation to attach bells and whistles may be a strong one for broadcasters, but it’s one that they’d do well to avoid.
Regular watchers of the Football League Show had been expecting this for some time. Stories had been surfacing in the press that the Football League was not going to renew its contract from the end of last year, and even though no formal announcement was made until yesterday, a mournful montage of highlights from its past gave the game away last Saturday night. It’s difficult not to feel some sympathy with host Manish Bhasin, who managed to get somewhere close to preserving the degree of anonymity that sports show anchors probably should. The stars of any football highlights show should be the matches themselves, and Bhasin was capable at finding the delicate balance between stamping his authority on the show and letting the matches speak for themselves.
The pundits were probably not quite as fortunate in this regard. Whilst Leroy Rosenior was reasonably watchable, Steve Claridge became something of a bete noire for regular viewers of the show. with his stock in trade becoming, as time went on, stating the bleeding obvious to an audience that is considerably more sophisticated and knowledgable than most broadcasters ever give it credit for being. Similarly, whilst “roving reporter” Mark Clemitt was sometimes able to tease a degree of interest out of going “backstage” at a different club every week, it often felt as if the message being portrayed by his reports was usually very tightly controlled by the clubs themselves rather than offering a great deal of outsider’s insight. This over-reliance on talking heads, often at the expense of anything more than a cursory round up of goals from Leagues One and Two, became something of an achilles heel for the programme. Indeed, it did often feel as if the League’s bottom two divisions were something of an afterthought to the Football League Show, to the extent that the programme didn’t even broadcast on international match weekends when there were no Championship matches being played but there was still a full programme of matches being played in Leagues One and Two. For that reason alone, supporters of clubs in the bottom two divisions may be pleased to see the BBC being replaced and someone else being given a chance instead.
For all of this though, there are questions that Channel Five should answer over the course of the summer. At present, Channel Five’s high definition services are only available through Sky and Virgin media packages and not through Freeview. Is this situation, which Five has claimed to “remain committed” to rectifying even though it has twice been down the road of applying for a Freeview licence for its HD service without obtaining one, going to be resolved before the start of the new season? Furthermore, will this programme be available on Channel Five’s catch up service Demand Five, and when? Not everybody will be able to be in front of their television sets at nine o’clock on Saturday evenings, and one of the rarer treats of recent years has been the ability to curl up in front of the television on a Sunday morning with a cup of tea to watch the night before’s Football League Show. Viewers expect these accompaniments these days, and both Channel Five and the Football League can expect considerable criticism should the actual quality of the broadcast itself be more restricted than it was on the BBC. They have the duration of the summer to get it right.
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