Last night, Mark Murphy tore into the coverage of the 2010 World Cup in British television. This evening, in the second of our two-parter on British television at the World Cup, Ian King argues that it is time to rip up the rule book and start all over again.
In the multi-media age, it isn’t just the newspapers that are suffering. As more and more people download their favourite television programmes (often illegally), advertising revenues are plummeting and purse-strings are being pulled tighter and tighter. The idea of the shared viewing experience is starting to become a thing of the past, except in one area of broadcasting: sport and, in particular, football. Live sports broadcasts offer something that can’t be downloaded and saved for later. The viewer has to be there at the time, in front of a television screen or a computer monitor. It is (for a commercial broadcaster, at least) the perfect captive audience.
As football has grown in popularity across the globe, television audiences for matches have become almost unparalleled. An estimated seven hundred million people watched the 2010 World Cup final between Spain and the Netherlands last Sunday, including a television audience over twenty million in Britain. Yet, while the number of people was vast by any calculations, the critical reception that the broadcasters in Britain received was tepid, to say the least. In stark contrast to, for example, the United States of America, where the coverage of ESPN, ABC and Univision was met with warm praise, barely a day seemed to go by without the BBC and ITV being attacked somewhere and, fashionable though this has become of late, there can be little question that much of the criticism offered forward over the last few weeks has been justified.
There are numerous reasons why this should be – the banality of the guests, the editorialising of much of what was coming out of the anchors’ mouths and the propensity of the commentators to shout when it is plenty enough to merely talk – but what can the broadcasters actually do about it? After forty years of evolution in the televising of football that has been at best incremental and at worst little more than a procession of gimmicks, perhaps it is time to strip the coverage down and start again. In terms of the actual viewing experience, watching the football on the television should be a more pleasurable experience than it has ever been. We have the benefits of such innovations as multiple camera angles and high definition pictures to name but two, after all. Ironically, though, it is what we see on the pitch that the least can be done about. Matches at major tournaments are usually sent to broadcasters through syndicated feeds (as the FIFA branding all over this year’s World Cup coverage confirmed), but the pictures of the matches themselves aren’t, on the whole, the problem.
Firstly, it is time to put some of the pundits used out to grass. It would probably be unfair to name names at this point, but some of those being used by the BBC and ITV have been sitting on sofas pontificating have been in place for twenty years or more, and it feels as if they have got lazy over this time. Both broadcasters use former players with little managerial experience, and it shows. When Gary Lineker asks, “Well, what would you be saying to them in the dressing room now?”, the answers often bear almost no comparison with what a manager would actually say in such a situation. The fact of the matter is that greater tactical analysis of what is happening on the pitch can be found in newspapers such as The Guardian or on websites such as Zonal Marking than we see on the television.
Dry tactical analysis isn’t what it’s all about, though. When the radio broadcaster Danny Baker briefly appeared in the BBC studio after the first round match between France and Mexico, he offered more refreshing opinion in the space of five minutes than any of the rest of them managed in the whole tournament. That he was wrong (he stated quite boldly that Spain wouldn’t win the World Cup because “the seed of doubt” had been planted in their heads by their opening defeat against Switzerland) didn’t matter in the slightest. Baker offered an alternative to the cosy, all-chums-together atmosphere that the BBC has become over the last few years, and the most frustrating thing about his brief presence in the studio for that that one match (and subsequent absence) is that he is already employed by the BBC, and was in South Africa for his popular Radio Five show.
It would also be nice to see a little neutrality brought back into coverage of the World Cup. England matches are now almost completely unbearable on the BBC and ITV now, in no small part because the both broadcasters are more or less incapable of even putting up a veneer of impartiality. This doesn’t only alienate the sizeable proportion of the British viewing audience that isn’t English, but also means that less attention than we would like is paid to the opposition. During his post on here last night, Mark Murphy bemoaned a lack of knowledge that was almost worn as a badge of honour by some commentators and analysts during the World Cup. It’s not only disrespectful to whichever team they are displaying their ignorance towards, but towards the audience, in assuming that we don’t care to know anything about the opposition either. Perhaps it’s a hangover from the “new laddism” from the 1990s. Perhaps it’s a deeper-rooted English distrust of anything that betrays any subtle hint of intellectualism. Even if it is neither of these, it helps to make the experience of watching football on the television feel like the equivalent of listening to fingers scratching down a blackboard.
For the semi-final match between the Netherlands and Uruguay, we saw a glimpse of an alternate reality, when Jim Beglin fell ill and Clive Tyldesley had to commentate on the match alone. While many of Tyldesley’s idiosycratic irritants remained intact, however, it was almost a tolerable experience. There was no idiotic “banter”. He had to focus on the match. In other words, he commentated on the football. He was a football commentator. Co-commentators have been with us, in England, at least, since the 1966 World Cup finals, when Walley Barnes partnered Kenneth Wolstenholme on the BBC and the then-Northampton Town manager Dave Bowen sat alongside Hugh Johns on ITV. Not that viewers heard much from them, though. Their input was only very occasional, to the extent that, watching highlights of the matches decades on, it is impossible to even know that they were there. Why not experiment further with getting rid of them? What, exactly, do the likes of Mark Lawrenson, Jim Beglin and Mick McCarthy bring to the table of our overall knowledge of the game? Why are they there? We can ponder this until the cows come home, but the truth of the matter is that in our imagined, new, pared-down football landscape, they could be done away with altogether.
The multiple camera angles, flashy sets and whizzy graphics are one thing, and they’re not going to go away. It is, however, time for a watershed in the broadcasting of football on the television. It is time for the television networks to get back to basics, and give the audience what it wants. The BBC and ITV have been sliding towards the sort of criticism that they have had to endure this summer for a number of years. It has been a slow drip, drip, drip towards banality, but it is not too late to change this for the better. Before the match, we want a little about both teams and an informed discussion of what we, as viewers, should be keeping an eye on. We want commentary that understands the value of space in speech patterns, treats both teams with equal respect and commentators (and, if we have to have them, co-commentators) that sound as if they watches both teams play every match, rather than basking in their own ignorance. And at the end of the match, we want a little analysis and some of the humour and culture that is a part of our experience of football.