The World Cup on UK TV, Part Two: The White Heat of Technology

by | May 20, 2018

During the winter of 1965 Bryan Cowgill, the BBC’s Head of Sport, travelled to the United States of America on holiday. Whilst there, he happened to watch an American football game being played on the television and was astonished to see that CBS, the company producing the broadcast, were able to stop and show important passages of play within seconds of them first having occurred during live broadcasts of games. The machine, it turned out, was completely new technology still in its prototype stage, but nevertheless he managed to negotiate a loan of the machine for the duration of that summer’s World Cup finals in England.

When the machine was first used, during England’s opening goalless draw against Uruguay at Wembley in the opening match of the tournament, it was reported that viewers were so surprised by seeing this that the BBC itself received complaints that the match could not possibly have been shown live. Cowgill, when later asked what this technology was called by his own production department, had no name for it and came up with the name “Action Replay” on the spot. By 1966, the pace of change in television broadcasting was changing more quickly than even the industry itself could keep up with.

The 1966 World Cup finals had been awarded to England in 1960, narrowly seeing off a bid from West Germany, partly because it was believed that the UK’s role in broadcasting innovation and technology would allow for better media coverage of the competition, and partly to coincide with the one hundredth anniversary of the Football Association, which had passed in 1963. And the times were definitely a-changing. Harold Wilson’s “white heat of technology” speech had come a couple of years earlier. The Telecom Tower in London had been completed in the same year. The GPO had been one of the driving forces behind Telstar, the first satellite. Modernity was in vogue.

Colour television wouldn’t launch in the UK until 1967, meaning that England’s World Cup would be the last held in black and white, and the BBC and ITV pooled their resources in order to give the tournament the most comprehensive that the tournament had ever seen. Full camera crews and commentary teams were sent to every match. The BBC’s team consisted of Kenneth Wolstenholme, David Coleman (who also doubled up as the BBC’s main presenter), Walley Barnes (also a co-commentator for the final), with Frank Bough, Jimmy Hill, Johnny Haynes, Tommy Docherty, Danny Blanchflower and Ron Greenwood as summarisers. ITV’s commentary team, meanwhile, consisted of Hugh Johns, Gerry Loftus, Barry Davies and John Camkin.

This doesn’t mean that it would be considered comprehensive so were it to be repeated now, of course. Many matches were played simultaneously, meaning that just thirteen were shown live in their entirety, but the innovation of the action replay machine extended elsewhere, too. A weekly highlights show, World Cup Match of The Week, was produced to be shown on every Sunday afternoon during the tournament whilst, at half-time during matches being shown live on the television, goals from any other matches being played elsewhere at the same time could now also be shown. The day of the final itself was an opportunity for the BBC to flex its muscles. British television had started its transition from 405 line screens to a higher resolution 625 lines two years earlier, but BBC2 had only been available in the higher resolution format. The BBC ensured that the 1966 World Cup final was shown on both BBC1 and BBC2 in, by the standards of the time, both standard and high definition.

If the aim was to get bums on seats, there’s no question whatsoever that it worked. The combined television audience in the UK that watched the 1966 World Cup final was recorded as being 32.3m people, which remains, astonishingly, the record audience for a television broadcast in this country, two hundred thousand more people even than watched the funeral of Princess Diana in 1997. The day itself was a tale of two commentators, one of whose final payoff lines would enter into the general lexicon of our language. It’s no overstatement to suggest that this was a match that was high in drama, with a last minute West German equaliser to send the match into extra-time, a third English goal that quite likely didn’t cross the whole of the line, and a fourth goal that was scored as supporters started to run onto the pitch in celebration of the imminent full-time whistle.

In the ITV commentary position was Hugh Johns. Johns was a relative rookie, who’d recently been plucked from regional Welsh company TWW to commentate for the London weekend franchise holders ATV. Johns would later describe his commentary on Geoff Hurst’s decisive fourth England goal – “Here’s Hurst, he might make it three. He has! He has … so that’s it. That is IT!” – as “a bit flat.” Wolstenholme, on the other hand, found inspiration from somewhere at that pivotal moment and his line, “There’s… some people are on the pitch…  they think it’s all over… it is now, it’s four!” would pass into our shared cultural heritage, even coming to form the name of a TV sports quiz show in the 1990s. Wolstenholme, for his part, claimed that this line was not pre-prepared, which is substantiated through his delivery of it, although the BBC was also accused of adding the line to the commentary after the event, with the evidence of this being a recording of Johns’ ITV commentary with the “they think it’s all over” line pointedly absent.

Still, the BBC claimed victory in the ratings war on finals day, with 58% of the audience share. With the final itself having taken place somewhat late – the 1966 World Cup final was played on the 30th of July – there was a crest of a wave to be ridden and ITV welcomed the following season by giving its regional Sunday afternoon programmes a lick of paint, whilst Wolstenholme welcomed viewers to the first Match of The Day of the 1966/67 season – a match between West Ham United and Chelsea, played just three weeks after Bobby Moore had lifted the trophy at Wembley – with the words, “We hope that you’ll go along to watch your local team as well as watching Match Of The Day and, in reply to your many requests, yes, I will explain the more technical points of the game as we go along.”

By the time of the next World Cup, to be held in Mexico in 1970, broadcasting had moved on again, this time into the brave new world of colour. The 1968 FA Cup final between West Bromwich Albion and Everton had been the first football match in the UK to be broadcast in colour. Furthermore, the BBC had greater competition in the arena of sports broadcasting. ITV had gone through another round of fresh licences and one of the new contract-holders, London Weekend, had brought a completely new team to their weekend football coverage, launching a new show, The Big Match, which brought together a team of director John Bromley, host and commentator Brian Moore, and analyst Jimmy Hill for the first time. Their fresh thinking would inform a battle that would come to last for the next three decades.

There was little question that the 1970 World Cup finals were taking place in a very different environment to previous ones. The 1969/70 season had seen average audiences for Saturday night’s Match of The Day topping ten million people for the first time, whilst that year’s FA Cup final – which was brought forward to the end of April in order to allow the England team more pre-tournament preparation and acclimatisation time for the tournament – went to a replay which drew a television audience of 28.5m people, second only to the 1966 World Cup final in the all-time record television audience list for sporting events.

But the 1970 World Cup finals went ahead against an increasingly fractious atmosphere in the formerly staid world of sports broadcasting. An attempt by the BBC to secure exclusive interview rights at Wembley for the 1969 FA Cup final between Manchester City and Leicester City had been undermined by ITV subterfuge and almost came to physical blows, whilst in January 1970 the FA summoned both broadcasters to a dressing down concerning the editorialising of refereeing decisions, which the FA felt was starting to negatively impact upon their attempts to maintain discipline within the game. And on top of all of that, just a few weeks before the tournament began ITV stepped up their lobbying towards trying to make the BBC alternate its roster of summer sporting events with them. With BBC1, BBC2 and ITV being the only available broadcasters, there were concerns that major sporting events of all hues being shown simultaneously on two channels was a bad deal for viewers, but with the war of words escalating into the public realm by the spring of 1970, there were also others who argued that neither side came out of such arguments particularly well.

It is through this prism – the BBC, aggressively defending their role as public service broadcasters in the face of advertising obsessed rivals, and ITV, brash and inventive, fighting what they considered to be a monopoly for the state broadcasters which put them at a distinct disadvantage – that television coverage of the 1970 World Cup finals is best viewed. Mexico had, as Chile had eight years earlier, seen off a bid from Argentina in order to stage the competition, but there were technical challenges ahead for the hosts. This was the first World Cup finals that would be shown live on satellite in Europe from another continent. On top of that, Mexico used a 525-line television resolution, which was different to anything used in Europe. Matches being shown live had to be converted and re-encoded, which affected the picture quality. And on top of all of that, this was the first World Cup finals for which kick-off times were adjusted to suit overseas television audiences. A lot of kick-off times were moved to midday local time, meaning that they kicked off in sweltering heat, which in turn affected the pace of games being shown.

The weeks before the tournament became a frenzy. The England national team hit the number one spot in the music charts with their first single, “Back Home”, and were featured heavily on BBC1’s Top Of The Pops. Both channels reviewed the 1966 finals as part of their previews. The BBC, with three highlights programmes per day planned – one for early in the morning, one for lunchtime, and one for the early evening – were accused over overkill. Once the tournament began, though, discussion focused as much upon what was being shown before and after the matches as during them. The BBC had chosen a larger, revolving panel of pundits for their coverage, but ITV went with just four – Malcolm Allison, Pat Crerand, Bob McNab and Derek Dougan, alongside Brian Clough and Jimmy Hill, with John Bromley preferring to keep Hill and Brian Moore together, meaning that Moore would stay in London whilst Hugh Johns would be their lead commentator in Mexico.

Bromley’s approach worked. The pugnacious attitude of their panel – doubtlessly helped by the late start times of matches coupled with unfettered access to the minibar in the hotel in which they were staying, though when a somewhat lubricated Allison commented that “Why are we technically better in Europe? Because we play against peasants, teams who play in primitive ways!”, he was almost removed from the panel altogether – made for lively debate no matter who was playing, and whilst claims that ITV “won” the ratings war were somewhat overstated, they did reach very close to parity with the BBC for the first time. England’s elimination from the tournament at the quarter-final stage at the hands of West Germany poured some degree of cold water on the latter stages of the tournament from the point of view of audience viewing figures, but by the end of the tournament both sides could claim victory of sorts in this newly combative media environment.

The new decade began, then, with the battle lines well and truly drawn. After having worked together on previous tournaments through necessity, the 1970 World Cup finals demonstrated that the growth in new technology that had required them to do so had now become so commonplace that they didn’t need to any more. The 1970 World Cup finals would, however, perhaps mark the last point at which the coverage of major tournaments would diverge to the extent to which it did. Such controversialism could only provide a temporary fix to the question of how to increase viewing figures for ITV. But the BBC had to modernise as well – and it did, with Match of The Day getting a major makeover in 1971 which included new title music, which is still used to this day – and it turned out that the two networks’ coverage would come to converge increasingly throughout the decade. There would be fresh challenges ahead for both broadcasters during the World Cups of the 1970s and 1980s, but some of those challenges would be foisted upon them by an England team which would spend much of the following decade refusing to follow any script likely to benefit the broadcasters in any way.