Televised Football In The Regions: London – The Big Match

by | Oct 17, 2017

With a plethora of television channels just a click of the remote control away, it can feel difficult to be able to remember a time when, in media terms, we didn’t get what we want, when we want it. Anybody over the age of forty, however, will readily be able to remember a time when there were three television channels on the United Kingdom, none of which began showing programmes until half past nine in the morning and all of which closed down for the day not long after midnight.

Football has mirrored the world of media in this respect. After a couple of flirtations in the early 1960s, there was no live club football shown in England apart from the FA Cup final and major European trophy finals until the end of 1983, a situation that largely came about because of the intransigence of football clubs, who were terrified of the effects that televising matches might have on attendance figures, and in turn the governing bodies that represented them. As such, genuine innovations in terms of football broadcasting were few and far between. There was, however, one programme that broke the mode, coming to be seen with the benefit of hindsight as the predecessor of televised football coverage as we know it today. That programme was The Big Match.

The show that would go so far towards pushing the televised coverage of football in this country into the late twentieth century came about in no small part because of the piecemeal nervy manner in which commercial television came into being in the first place. When the government authorised the first commercial television network in the early 1950s, it was decided that this should be done by establishing a network of regional companies across the country in order to prevent any one commercial company coming to monopolise the new broadcaster. Indeed, this concern was so pervasive that the companies in the more populous areas were considered at risk of dominating the others that the first regions were divided between two companies, one broadcasting during the week, and the other at weekends.

The contracts that run an independent television franchise were fixed term, and renewal in 1967 was part of a broad shake-up of the entire network. A whole new region for Yorkshire was created and, perhaps more significantly, split franchises outside of London were on the way out. For most of the existing contractors, this wasn’t a major issue. ATV, who’d held the weekend contract for both London and weekday contract for the Midlands, became the seven day contractor for the Midlands. Granada, the weekday contract holder for the north of England, became the seven day contractor for the north-west.

But somebody was going to miss out. The commissioners of the Independent Television Authority had been wowed by a consortium led by the late David Frost into giving the weekend London franchise to a company called the London Television Consortium. The London weekday franchise holders, Rediffusion, and the Midlands and North weekend franchise holders, ABC, were forced into a shotgun marriage to form a new company called Thames Television. The new London company, meanwhile, changed its name to London Weekend Television and started putting its mind to how it could come good on the promises of innovation that it had made to the ITA.

Sport was a key to success for LWT. With the audience ratings big hitters Crossroads and Coronation Street not on their schedule, they were tasked with the job of creating a new weekend identity for ITV. John Bromley had surprised the BBC four years earlier when, whilst working for ABC, he’d introduced World Of Sport to the nation in response to Grandstand. Bromley became the ITV network’s Head of Sport, with LWT in turn hiring Jimmy Hill to be their Head of Sport. Hill was certainly an innovator, as Coventry City supporters during the 1960s could attest, and he was joined by a former BBC Radio commentator, Brian Moore, who would serve as both their anchor and their commentator.

The new company started broadcasting in August 1968 and immediately hit problems. Barely twenty seconds into their first programme, technicians angry at reduced contractual terms after the closing of Rediffusion, whose studios were being used by LWT until their own were ready, pulled the plug on broadcasting. The industrial action quickly spread across the entire network, severely restricting ITV’s output for almost five weeks. The Football League’s fixture planners had been kind to The Big Match, with a North London Derby between Spurs and Arsenal being scheduled for the first show, but the ensuing industrial action made this an impossibility, so the first two episodes of the show featured highlights of the 1968 European Cup final and the 1968 League Cup final respectively. The first normal edition of the show, shown in the twenty-fourth of August 1968, featured a draw, between newly-promoted Queens Park Rangers and the defending champions, Manchester City.

Match Of The Day had been introduced four years earlier, but had hardly been a centre of innovation since then. Opening with the host and commentator – usually, but not always, Kenneth Wolstenholme – at the ground, it featured extended highlights of one match, a look at the rest of the previous day’s results and tables, and that was it. The Big Match saw this gap in the market and exploited it. Brian Moore hosted from a studio and commentated on the featured match, usually a London club’s home match, with Jimmy Hill providing analysis – albeit in a very rudimentary form compared with what we’re familiar with today – on the match’s talking points. Players were invited in for interview. After Bromley purchased the first contraption capable of doing so in an analogue age, slow motion replays were introduced. The programme, which was considerably more light-hearted than its BBC counterpart, was broadcast early on Sunday afternoons, and from November 1969 it went out in colour.

In just about every respect, Match Of The Day suddenly looked very staid by comparison. It began with a piece of military music called “Drum Majorette”, whilst The Big Match opened with an electric guitar, horn and keyboard piece of acid lounge music called The Young Scene, written by the now legendary Keith Mansfield. Moore and Hill dressed as epitomes of late 1960s London chic. Kenneth Wolstenholme was usually wearing an overcoat to protect him from the elements. The BBC acted, first by introducing more matches – regional ones at first, though this was quickly dropped – and then, in 1971, by introducing new – and still familiar – title music and a studio. But ITV had shocked the broadcasting world in 1970, when for the first (and, as things turned out, only) time, they won a bigger audience share than the BBC for the World Cup finals, in no small part on account of John Bromley’s further innovation, bringing in a panel of experts to argue about what they’d seen. Further cementing the reputation of The Big Match, Brian Moore anchored – he wouldn’t commentate on a World Cup final until 1986 – with Hill as one of the pundits.

Things weren’t entirely rosy behind the scenes, though. Industrial action remained a risk – for example, most of the matches recorded between November 1970 and February 1971 were recorded in black and white rather than colour, on account of another technicians strike – but the much bigger concern was the state of London Weekend Television itself. With heavy start-up costs already proving a burden beyond expectation, the company found that its weekend viewing schedule of highbrow programming – which included entire operas and heavyweight documentaries – were not what audiences wanted. They left for the BBC in droves and this, coupled with advertising revenues collapsing as the wider economy shrank, led to alarm across the network, with some of the other companies refusing to even show LWT’s programming at all. Eventually, Frost and the others were forced out by Rupert Murdoch, although the regulators were less than happy with a newspaper proprietor owning a television station as well, and would later force his hand by threatening to strip the company of its franchise unless he sold his shareholding in the company. Murdoch in turn left in 1971.

A shock was awaiting The Big Match in the summer of 1973 when Hill jumped ship to join the BBC, but by this time The Big Match was settled into an agreeable groove. Brian Moore’s commentary had been a little shrieky during his early years as a television commentator – an error of judgement that he later acknowledged – but by the middle of the 1970s he had become one of the game’s most authoritative voices, known nationwide for his annual FA Cup final commentary and his anchoring of ITV’s World Cup coverage. On top of this, The Big Match was also finding its way across the whole nation. Each ITV company had its own local show every Sunday, but Outside Broadcast units were expensive and smaller companies were often stretched, particularly by a requirement to show live horse racing on Saturday afternoons. When they couldn’t broadcast their own highlights package, The Big Match could be parachuted in instead.

By the end of the 1970s, however, LWT had its identity in the form of the distinctive South Bank Studios, and The Big Match had its identity as the slightly lower brow cousin of Match Of The Day. As with the BBC, their contract with the Football League required them to show a mixture of matches from all four divisions and a variety of clubs, but this was a small price to pay, relative to being able to bring regular televised football. But change was in the air, and at the end of 1978 a news story broke that shocked the country. The catalyst for this change came with the appointment of Michael Grade as the company’s Director of Programmes early in 1978. Grade and, as a keen football supporter himself, trained his sights on how he might come to radicalise ITV’s football coverage further. In doing so, he would create a monster that would come to dictate a huge amount of what we understand about football and its relationship with television. The monster was the importance of exclusivity.

It was on the 7th of November 1978 that the story broke. “Snatch Of The Day” was at hand. Grade had been meeting with the Football League over the course of the previous few weeks and had agreed something that would be considered quite routine these days. It was announced that ITV had secretly offered the Football League £5 million – an absolute fortune at the time, more than three times what the BBC and ITV were paying between them at the time – for the exclusive rights to highlights of all Football League matches for the next three years. It caused absolute uproar, of course. Questions were asked in the House of Commons. How could a thing like this happen to the BBC? In the end, the BBC complained to the Office of Fair Trading, who found in their favour and forced the cancellation of the contract. The deal was off.

For ITV, the blow of missing out on this was softened somewhat when the next television contract came up, and it was agreed that the BBC and ITV should broadcast on Saturday nights and Sunday afternoons on a rota, one season on, one season off. In August 1980 this came to pass, with ITV’s regional football shows on late on Saturday nights and Match Of The Day going out – albeit at a later time than most ITV companies did – on Sunday afternoons. Yet even this silver lining had holes in it. Increasing hooliganism, an increasing belief that the quality of play wasn’t as entertaining as it had been and a growing general sense of malaise within the game meant that the ITV companies didn’t benefit from it a great deal. Audiences were low, and the biggest losers were LWT themselves, for whom Saturday night advertising revenue was critical and who had to take a hit when advertising rates slumped.

The writing, however, was by this time well and truly in the wall for The Big Match in the way that it was known at the time. Live televised football was coming to our screens and this arrived in October 1983, with ITV using the name The Big Match Live for its coverage of the match between Tottenham Hotspur and Nottingham Forest, the first Football League match to have been shown live on the television in the UK in twenty-three years. The name The Big Match would later be contracted to The Match for live matches when ITV did get exclusive rights to live matches and highlights in 1988, with LWT’s occasional local highlights packages going out under the name of The London Match. ITV, this time under the influence of Greg Dyke, would also play a role in English football’s next big reinvention. Dyke would lead negotiations with clubs to establish the Premier League in 1992, but this time ITV were blown out of the water for live coverage by Sky Sports and  for highlights by the BBC. The last live, top flight match to be shown on ITV was between Liverpool and Manchester United in May 1992.

It’s unlikely that live league football will ever return to Free-To-Air television. It’s now almost a quarter of a century since football married subscription television, and the marriage has remained strong, in spite of falling audiences over the last few years or so. On top of this deregulation and mergers have meant the end of regionalised commercial television in this country and ITV has contracted as advertising revenues and audience share have shrunk with the new and more diverse media landscape. This, coupled with the soaring market value of televised football rights, has ensured that a realistic offer to the Premier League from a company not funded to at least some extent by subscription fees is almost certainly now a thing of the past.

To get to where we are today from a world in which the Burnley owner Bob Lord banned television cameras from Turf Moor until 1968 because of his fears over the deleterious effects of televising matches, however, took a long time and a lot of foresight. Perhaps it’s no more than wishful thinking to believe that things might have turned out somewhat differently, to hold the opinion that the televising of football might have been more closely aligned with what supporters want than with viewing figures whilst simultaneously squeezing as much money as possible from us. But the establishment of football on the television required innovative steps to be taken in order to happen, and London Weekend Television took that gamble in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The often forced-looking “banter” between guests hasn’t dated well, and it’s true to say that, in the early years at least, Jimmy Hill’s analysis was little more than telling us what any half-informed supporter would already know whilst Brian Moore’s commentaries had a tendency to become ear-splitting at moments of high excitement.

However, it is not difficult to see just how inventive The Big Match must have seemed when it was first broadcast. At a stroke, it made Match Of The Day – which had only been on air for four years itself at the point of its introduction – seem staid and pallid, and within three years the BBC had brought their own show up to date in a bid to stay in touch with their commercial rivals. And, whilst this was a format that was designed for a programme that was only supposed to be for the London area, its basics were introduced in such a way that they soon became familiar across the whole country. Subsequent attempts at innovation from ITV – perhaps most notably the debacle that was “The Premiership”, which is discussed elsewhere in this issue – didn’t work out so well for the network, but in 1968 The Big Match was the modernised format that televised football desperately needed. London Weekend Television have been held up as an object lesson in how to not launch a new television company. At least in terms of their sports coverage, there can be little question that they got it right, and in a way that is still recognised almost half a century on.

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.