The Broadcasting Past is a Foreign Country

by | May 7, 2020

…they do things different there. The recent cessation of football has taken a lot of us into the game’s archives, and for Dave Hearn, the style of the broadcasting has turned out as interesting as the football itself. This set him thinking about changes in our relationship with the media and technology. You can find Dave on Twitter here.

“A traditional dive there by Klinsmann. This is what Terry Yorath was talking about, the collapsible Klinsmann.”

This is a line taken from the BBC Wales coverage of the Euro ’92 qualifier between Wales and Germany from 1991, which Wales won 1-0. It is a throwaway comment made by a co-commentator over the award of what they perceive to be a soft free kick. Klinsmann, having been fouled after receiving the ball and attempting to quickly spin away from his marker, goes down in theatrical fashion. It is hard not to notice how out of place the comment feels when compared to what we expect to hear today. Whilst we see a replay, the German team take the free kick and the incident is forgotten.

I watched further games from around this time – France 3-1 Spain (1990), Red Star Belgrade 2-2 Bayern Munich  (1991), Sheffield Wednesday 1-6 Leeds United (1992), AC Milan 4-0 Barcelona (1994) – and the standard of football was high. The games were entertaining. But paying attention to the broadcasts themselves became an interesting exercise in its own right. It was increasingly difficult to avoid noticing how much influence television has acquired since these games were originally broadcast. It became almost impossible to make comparisons between what televised football felt like then and how it feels now.

The debate around video technology, for example, is particularly pertinent when watching these games. The idea that any of them would’ve been improved by poring over replays in order to analyse refereeing decisions or debate a marginal offside calls never enters the equation. At no point did I ruminate over the absence of a sense of injustice manufactured via a minor infringement being shown for the ninth time, and from an improbable angle. I didn’t miss the prompts to have a bet on the outcome. Nor was there a moment when what I really wanted was a reminder of the financial implications of what was unfolding on the field. These considerations simply didn’t exist.

TV companies have spent huge amounts of time and money creating an environment where their demands are taken into consideration long before anything else. The conversation around finances and the use of video technology is all consuming but this is a deliberate construct, a direct consequence of TV companies holding such a dominant position within the game. Their interests are discussed first. The overwhelming majority of debates that take place in the broadcast media are coloured by the reality that those involved are reliant on platforms owned by companies who have a vested interest in keeping the parameters as narrow as possible.

The discussion around what to do with the football season during a global pandemic, for example, is based almost entirely around the financial implications. It would be naive to suggest the financial aspects are not worthy of consideration but the idea that football could, or should, be played whilst the safety of players, supporters and officials cannot be guaranteed is as offensive as it is illogical. But it is worth remembering who is pushing for it.

The past few weeks offered a block of time in which to think about creating workable solutions to long-standing issues. Is the relationship between football and television a completely healthy one? Is it right that so many clubs appear to be almost completely dependent on broadcasting revenue to survive? If VAR is here to stay then how can it be more effectively implemented? Is the relationship between football and gambling in need of much more scrutiny? The issues of finance, gambling and technology, and how and where they work within modern football, would exist without television playing such a dominant role within the sport but it is worth considering the scale of its influence. Failing to consider some of these issues now feels like another missed opportunity.

At a time when big business is pushing for people to make a speedy return to normality, irrespective of legitimate concerns over health and safety, it is reassuring to look back on football played in the period immediately before television became such a dominant force and remember that so much of the noise that surrounds modern football is entirely superficial. Football doesn’t have to be this way. The fact that top level football is perfectly capable of operating without television having such a prominent and powerful hold over it is something we don’t remind ourselves of often enough.