Televised Football In The Regions: Wales & The West

by | Dec 11, 2017

It was always likely that the spread of regional television into Wales would bring challenges that the industry’s regulators would find difficult to manage. Television transmitters, after all, will only respect national borders to the extent that those who determine their positions and strength of their transmissions allow them to and, as with any other area of commercial broadcasting, there will always be competing interests between financial imperatives, political will, and the interests of viewers. In addition to this, the geography and landscape of Wales itself made reaching every community difficult. Hills and mountains are not natural bedfellows of the television transmitter. But over the course of sixty years, and not without substantial financial and political ructions, Wales now has the television service that it deserves, along with a regular football programme which should serve as a template of how to broadcast the game on a tight budget.

For its first two and a half decades, commercial television in Wales was solely shared with the West of England. To the extent to which there could be a geographical split, the easiest way for the regulators to do it was to set up a service for the South of Wales and the West of England first, and Television Wales & West (TWW) went on air in January 1958. The north of the region, however, was more of a challenge. Throughout ITV’s nascent years, North Wales was served by the  North of England weekday and weekend franchise holders, Granada and ABC, but this was problematic in itself. After all, the north of the country was the location of the majority of Welsh speakers, and these might not be best served by occasional Welsh language programmes being produced by broadcasters based in England. Under pressure from businesses and politicians alike a new franchise was eventually launched to cover the area that TWW couldn’t get to, but there were conditions. The new company would be required to offer viewers essentially the same service as the rest of the UK, but would have to produce ten hours a week of Welsh language outside of that produced by other contractors.

It would be tough, but the challenge was accepted by a company called Wales (West & North) Television (WWN), which went on air for the first time in September 1962. Almost immediately, however, this new company ran into serious problems. Two of the three transmitters that WWN had been promised were seriously delayed in their completion and this, coupled with the costs of producing ten hours a week of broadcasting in Welsh, meant that the company’s finances were ruined almost from the get-go. In 1964, Granada stopped producing any more Welsh language programming and this turned out to signal the death knell for WWN. In January 1964, after just fifteen months on air, the company collapsed and its contract was taken over by their southern neighbours.

Regional football highlights finally arrived on TWW in November 1965 under slightly unusual circumstances. The company didn’t consider itself to have the resources to offer a regular highlights package, but it did negotiate its own deal with the Football Association to show FA Cup matches from the region. So it was that the first match shown for Wales & the West alone turned out to be an FA Cup First Round double-header made up of a match between Bath City and Newport County and a match between Swindon Town and Merthyr Tydfil. Hosted by ATV’s moonlighting Hugh Johns and with commentary coming from Peter Lloyd, Norman Rees and Max Rawlings. Their coverage for the 1965/66 season ended the following February with Cardiff City’s elimination from the FA Cup at Southport. The following season, only two matches were shown, from the Third and Fourth Round of the competition. From March 1967, TWW began showing ATV’s Star Soccer on a weekly basis.

Storm clouds, however, were brewing again. TWW went into the renewal process for ITV contracts in 1967 feeling confident. After all, it’s programming was highly regarded, and the company might even have considered itself to have done the Independent Television Authority (ITA) a favour by taking over the relatively unprofitable WWN franchise in 1964. There was, however, a shock in store for them. No official reason was ever given for the company losing its franchise, but it is commonly assented that two significant factors came into play. Firstly, TWW’s corporate headquarters were based in London rather than in, say, Bristol or Cardiff, and this mattered to the ITA. Secondly, one of the new companies competing for their franchise put forward a very strong bid indeed. TWW lost out to a new company going by the name of Harlech Television.

What happened next was one of the most peculiar sequence of events in the entire history of broadcasting in the United Kingdom. The decision to replace TWW may have been harsh, or even unfair, but the company would end its time as a broadcasting coming close to justifying it by throwing an extended hissy fit. Nothing that the ITA offered would to do – offering to order Harlech to buy TWW’s studios and take on all the TWW staff, and to let TWW buy 40% of Harlech’s stock to guarantee profitability – would pacify them, and in the spring of 1968 they abruptly sold the last five months of their contract to their successors and quit. On their last night, they broke all protocols of the time, ending their final programme suddenly and going off-air without a close-down message or the national anthem. The new company were plainly not ready to go on air yet, but they did so under the somewhat cumbersome name of Independent Television Service for Wales and the West until Harlech’s contract began at the end of July 1968.

Named for its founder Lord Harlech rather than the hymn that takes its name, the new company took its obligations to its local football clubs rather more seriously than its predecessor had, but Harlech – a name change to HTV would follow upon a launch of a colour service and a new onscreen identity in 1970 – the same problem as several other ITV regions had at the time. The company’s local football teams were Bristol City, Bristol Rovers, Swindon Town, Swansea Town, Cardiff City, Wrexham and Newport County, with the first three covered by HTV West and the latter four by HTV Wales as the new company arranged itself as a dual-franchise, but none of these clubs were in the First Division of the Football League and they were all unlikely to draw in large audiences of floating viewers in a region in which rugby remained king.

Still, though, at least semi-regular coverage of Football League matches began across Wales and the West of England in November 1968 with a match between Cardiff City and Sheffield United. By February of the following year the name Soccer Special had been agreed as a regular name for the company’s local coverage, which would be broadcast once or twice a month, with LWT’s The Big Match and rugby union coverage filling the gaps when they were unable to cover a local match. The biggest footballing event of the season for the region, however, was shown across the whole of the ITV network, when Swindon Town beat Arsenal at Wembley to lift the League Cup. The match was, of course, covered by LWT and was Brian Moore’s first Wembley cup final in the commentary box for the company, which Swindon won in extra-time thanks to two goals from Don Rogers. Swindon also ended the season by getting promoted into the Second Division for only the second time in their history, and the following season finished in fifth place in the Second Division, only three points off getting a place in the top flight.

Throughout this era, HTW West’s voice and face of football was Roger Malone. The West of England football correspondent for the Daily Telegraph, Malone had been born in Egypt and arrived at HTV having worked as a continuity announcer for TWW. A native Bristolian and a supporter of Bristol City, Malone suffered the slings and arrows of being a supporter of arguably the region’s biggest club for many years. His contemporary for HTV Wales, who joined the company in the middle of the 1970s and continued to commentate on football for ITV in Wales until well into this century and regularly covered rugby until well into this century. Graham Miller would join the company towards the end of the decade to work as both anchor and occasionally commentary duties whilst, following the shake-up in the Midlands of 1981 which resolved with ATV being reconstituted as Central, Hugh Johns, who’d begun his commentary career with TWW during the 1960s before going on to become one of the most distinctive voices in British football, returned to HTV, where he would remain until his retirement in 1996.

HTV’s local coverage, however, remained patchy. In 1976 the region finally found itself with a team in the top flight after Bristol City were promoted. They would go on to stay there, albeit by the skin of their teeth at times, until 1980, and the company’s policy of buying in The Big Match from LWT paid dividends in August of the 1976/77 season when London cameras recorded them winning one-nil at Highbury against Arsenal, a win that marked a run of three wins in four matches to start their top-flight lives. Ashton Gate would come to be a regular venue for HTV’s cameras over the remainder of their stay in the top flight, including one of City’s most famous results of their brief stay at this level, a one-nil win against Liverpool a couple of weeks before Christmas in 1978.

As the decade ended and the new one began. City’s spell in the top flight came to an end, but they were placed in 1981 by John Toshack’s Swansea City team, whose ascent from the lower divisions ended with Toshack’s team finishing the 1981/82 season in sixth place in the First Division before getting relegated back at the end of the following season.  The Soccer Special brand had, by this time, largely outlived its usefulness and the last few seasons of regionalised HTV football went under the name of Soccer Time. The final episode of this came in May 1983 as ITV wrapped up their regional highlights once and for all, and featured a one-all draw between Bristol Rovers and Cardiff City as Cardiff celebrated promotion back to the Second Division after just a season away.

The beginning of the 1980s brought about a major change in the broadcasting landscape for Wales, though. A conversation had been taking place over a second commercial channel since not long after ITV went on the air in the 1950s, and over the years voices in favour of a Welsh language channel for Wales became increasingly strident. The set-up throughout the 1960s and 1970s seemed unsatisfactory for all. Both HTV and BBC Wales had to provide fixed amounts of Welsh language programming, but this was considered tokenism by Welsh language advocates, whilst English speakers found some of their programmes shunted to graveyard shifts on the schedules or simply not shown at all in order to accommodate them. Both main political parties included a pledge for a fourth, Welsh language, channel in their 1979 general election manifestos, but upon winning the vote the Conservative home secretary William Whitelaw sought to u-turn on the decision.

All hell broke loose in Wales. Some refused to continue to pay their television licenses. Television transmitters in Welsh-speaking areas were sabotaged and damaged. There were demonstrations at the studios of both BBC Wales and HTV. Gwynfor Evans, The leader of Plaid Cymru, the Welsh nationalist political party, threatened to go on hunger strike. The government eventually retreated, and in November 1982 S4C went on air for the first time, with both the BBC and HTV moving all of their Welsh language programming over to the new channel. Six years later, the channel launched a flagship sports programme, Sgorio. With the television rights for Welsh clubs playing in the English league system swallowed up by bigger players, the new company bought up highlights coverage of La Liga and Serie A, quickly building itself a cult following as viewers strained to see continental football that had previously been unavailable to them.

Back on ITV, meanwhile, regional football coverage of sorts returned in 1992 following the breakaway of the Premier League and the acquisition of Football League rights by the commercial channel. These were waters into which HTV would occasionally dip their toes – the first live match that they produced and recorded was a Bristol derby in December 1992, though they had by this point already picked up several matches broadcast by other ITV companies – but coverage was again patchy. The first season of this coverage did, however, end with one of its clubs at Wembley. In a curious mirror of their first season on air, the recipients of the attention were Swindon Town, who were promoted to the Premier League after beating Leicester City in a match shown live across the entire ITV network. Under the name of The West Match (Soccer Sunday in Wales, although the matches shown were usually the same), this arrangement remained in place until the end of the 1996/97 season, with a brief return during the 2001/2002 season. By this time, however, the entire concept of regional ITV broadcasting was just about dead, and the HTV name disappeared from screens forever in October 2002.

None of these changes, however, affected S4C. Sgorio continued throughout the 1990s, in 1997 bringing a Classico match between Barcelona and Real Madrid live to Welsh viewers. The Football Association of Wales, believing itself to be subject of an existential threat from FIFA in no small part because of its lack of a domestic league, formed the League of Wales (now the Welsh Premier League) in 1991, and in 2003 S4C picked up the rights to show highlights from the league. In 2010, the highlights show made way as the broadcasters picked up the rights to show one live match per week, an arrangement that remains in place to this day.

The digital revolution has arguably benefited channel more than most as well, with  digital satellite allowing an interactive option for English-language commentary, for those who would prefer that. In strictly commercial terms, S4C remains a relatively small fish in a large and expanding ocean, but to frame the success of the channel in those terms is to fundamentally miss the point of its existence. S4C remains a public service broadcaster, fulfilling a role at the very heart of Welsh language culture. And while Sgorio has had its problems in the past – one 2010 edition of the programme made national headlines across the UK after picking up an audience of less than 2,500 people, which, to those who calculate such numbers, effectively means zero – but it heads into 2018 set to celebrate its thirtieth anniversary on air, a longer period of time than any sports show on HTV ever lasted.

There’s a complete episode of Soccer Special from September 1974, featuring a match between Bristol Rovers and Aston Villa, right here

There are brief highlights of the December 1978 match between Bristol City and Liverpool right here

There’s a short promo for Sgorio from around 2010 right here

None of this would have been possible without the absolute treasure trove that is this glorious history of football broadcasting on ITV. Show them some love by wading into their vast wealth of information.