Viewers looking at the television schedules for last night may have noticed a gap in the football coverage. For the first time in more than two decades, there were no highlights from the FA Cup First Round on the television on the Saturday night after the matches were played, and viewers were forced to wait until this morning to catch up with what happened yesterday afternoon instead. It is a decision that says a lot about the over-stretched resources of our broadcasters, as well as fall from grace that the world’s oldest football competition has suffered in recent years.
In terms of the television coverage of football in Britain, few other broadcasters are attacked for their output to the same extent that ITV is, and this criticism is not always fair. This company does, however, have a unique way of acting in a way that seems tailor made to anger ordinary football supporters. It is well known that commercial imperatives dictate the way in which its television coverage – consider, for example, its decision not to broadcast the final of Euro 2008 after none of the home nations reached the finals of that competition – but for many the First Round Proper of the FA Cup is sacrosanct, a unique day in the sun for smaller clubs, which has now been relegated to the relative graveyard shift of a Sunday morning.
None of this is to say that there was no football on ITV last night. Having broadcast the international friendly match between England and Spain live at tea time, ITV showed highlights of this (largely as dull as ditchwater) match later in the evening as well. Of course, whether the match between England and Spain was entertaining or not is hardly the issue at hand, here. After all, the television schedules would have been decided prior to kick-off at Wembley yesterday. That the commercial broadcaster decided to show the same match twice and push back highlights from the FA Cup to this morning may, however, say something about their priorities and, perhaps more troublingly, about the priorities of football in the twenty-first century.
It frequently feels as if there is no place for the smaller clubs in the football media landscape of the twenty-first century. That the First Round of the FA Cup should have been jettisoned in favour of an international friendly match – a match which had no relevance to anything, other than being a bit of practice and an exhibition – speaks volumes about the gap between the rich and the poor in modern English football. There was plenty of entertainment to be had in the FA Cup yesterday, not to mention that this was competitive football with something very tangible at stake for those taking part, but without the gloss of star names, it can only be presumed that it wasn’t considered a big enough draw to warrant the sort of audience that television advertisers would demand.
Considering that the England match was played at tea-time on a Saturday afternoon, though, we may well pause to consider what the motive behind repeating the match in the evening might have been. After all, the live broadcast was hardly at a time that could be described as inconvenient for those that wished to watch it and, of course, the international break ensured that there were no Premier League or Championship matches clogging up the schedules elsewhere. Even if there wasn’t necessarily the space in the schedules to show both programmes last night, the question of whether there was a vast audience that wished to watch the England match for a second time is probably a valid one.
Under normal circumstances, the cries of critics to return the competition to the BBC would normally start to grow, but the media landscape has changed vastly over the last couple of years and the cuts at the BBC have been perhaps more keenly felt in their sports coverage than anything else and it has begun to feel of late as if the will of the corporation to compete on sports rights has been sapped. The FA Cup has slipped further and further down the pecking order in recent years in terms of value to broadcasters, and the internal upheaval at the BBC has made them less likely to bid for terrestrial rights in the near future. The current television contract for the FA Cup runs to the end of the 2013/14 season, so if this is the way that things are to be, it is likely that they will stay like this for a couple of years to come yet.
This morning – at the exact time of writing – the highlights from yesterday’s FA Cup First Round matches were broadcast, and it is perhaps worth taking a moment to bear in mind that ITV’s resources have been similarly stretched by cost-cutting in recent years. This means that their resources are stretched for the often expensive business of covering sport for a television audience. It’s probably also worth mentioning that at least they are on at all – there was a time when we would have had to wait a long time for anything like extended highlights from the early rounds of the this competition. Ultimately, though, it is also worth pointing out that it is down to supporters to turn out to matches and watch the programmes that are on, if they want the FA Cup to return to anything like the prominence that it once held.
You can follow Twohundredpercent on Twitter by clicking here.