Football’s Failed Experiments: ITV & “The Premiership”

It’s funny how quickly you forget. From 1993 to 2007, it was actually called “The Premiership.” For its first season, back in the days when there was an illusion of some sort of administrative oversight, it was called “The FA Premier League.” Yeah, that didn’t last long – one season, to be precise – before the first of three sponsors came in under its weirdly glossy new name until, fourteen years later, they reverted back to “Premier League” again, dropping the sponsors altogether in 2016. It doesn’t fit the brand, and the Premier League considers itself a premium sport, the Apple or the BMW of this particular market. There may well be advertising everywhere else, but not in the name of the Premier League itself. That is sacred. For now.

Perhaps it’s the fact that it both begins and end with a “P”, giving it an illusion of movement, or something. Perhaps I’m talking out of my arse. But the “Premiership” was very different to “the Premier League”, and nowhere was this more readily evident than when ITV had a go at showing the highlights package at the start of this century. It feels as though the place the BBC had as the partner for highlights in the original Sky Sports bid of 1992 was, at the time, a sop to traditionalists. A link with the past, with the return of the top flight league football on Match Of The Day. Something we can take as the flimsiest of silver linings as the land grab took place before our eyes. (And no, I don’t think we protested enough.)

And the BBC were good. They had Des Lynam, entering his imperial stage. They had John Motson and Barry Davies at the microphone and a host of others on back-up duties. They had Alan Hansen before he became a caricature of himself and a young Gary Lineker for analysis. Match Of The Day during the 1990s was a polished product, dated by dint of being a highlights show, but consistently executed and the right balance between having properly featured matches with extended highlights, decent analysis, and a degree of entertainment. It wasn’t perfect. Nothing ever is. But it hit the middle-ground naturally in its stride.

So of course they were outbid for the contract by ITV in 2001. They were blown out of the water by them. ITV bid £183m for the rights to broadcast Premier League highlights for three years from the start of the 2001/02 season, £60m more than the BBC. This came, of course, at a time when it was felt that a bubble was growing. When the bubble burst the following year, it took ITV Digital with it and plunged a number of Football League clubs into financial crisis. But ITV’s Premier League bid was coming a year earlier, at a time of fever in the market. No little of it, as you can see, from ITV itself. At £1.3m per show it was a considerable investment, but ITV made some of it back two months before the start of the season when a three-year show sponsorship deal was agreed with a soft drinks manufacturer worth £50m.

ITV still, though, surely had to prove themselves to a sceptical public, a proportion of whom were giving them the side-eye as a result of them having had the temerity to take the rights away from Match Of The Day in the first place. It was an emotional argument rather than a logical one (and wasn’t diminished for being so), but it felt as though ITV were going to need to pull a rabbit from the hat. They had one ready-made. Des Lynam had jumped ship two years earlier and was available for hosting. Elsewhere, commentary would be led by Clive Tyldesley, Peter Drury Guy Mowbray and Jon Champion, with analysis from Andy Townsend and others. I mean, U2 would be providing the title music, for God’s sake.

More controversially than anything else, though, The Premiership was to be broadcast at seven o’clock on a Saturday evening. This was a radical repositioning of football at the heart of what is traditionally a light entertainment schedule. The Saturday night schedule, although looking a little faded at the edges, was still At Thing in 2001, and there was no way of knowing whether this would or could be successful or not. ITV were buoyant, though. At a launch event at the start of August, ITV’s head of programmes, described it as “a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to change the shape of Saturday night TV.” On Saturday 18th August 2001, the opening day of the 2001/02 Premier League season, The Premiership lumbered to life.

It’s a beautiful day, now football’s here again.

The launch was both commercially and aesthetically a disaster. The first episode was seen by an audience of 4.3m viewers, 2.5m less than the reality TV star special episode of The Weakest Link that it was up against on BBC1 and 1m below the break-even figure that the company had set for it. The following weak, the audience dropped to 3.1m, pushed up to 4.5m by a late showing. It’s predecessor in the same slot, Blind Date, would regularly attract audiences of more than 7m people. It was savaged in the media, with one newspaper establishing that its seventy minutes contained just twenty-eight minutes of actual football highlights, against fifty-eight on Match Of The Day (this was increased for the second show), gimmicks, and second-rate analysis.

Pro-zone technology was used in the first episode, as described by the Guardian at the time as, “a piece of digital electrickery that turns players into small blobs on a blue screen pitch”, but it had to be sacrificed at the altar of increasing the amount of highlights being crammed into the show. Perhaps better remembered (and definitely more ridiculed) was the Tactics Truck, a trailer with banks of television screens inside it that would pitch up at a match, allowing Andy Townsend to state the obvious to a camera with replays of the match before collaring interviewing a player and telling him exactly where he’d been going wrong that afternoon.  The Premiership Parliament, later titled The Premiership on Monday, was presented by Ally McCoist and Gabby Logan, were shown on Monday nights with a “parliament” consisting twenty fans, one from each club.

Under pressure from advertisers, the critical pre-Christmas period coming up, with ITV Digital losing £20m a month and embarrassed by the failure of the show in this time slot, at the start of October that, from the 17th November, The Premiership would be shuffled back to a 10.30pm spot. The Premier League had failed this audition against the  with its audience having averaged at around 4.4m people, and the late night repeat was pushed back to the following Sunday morning at 9.25. ITV’s controller of sport at the time had in August said, “We believe we’ve got it right, that people want to watch the highlights at 7pm and there are no plans to change it.” ITV’s controller of sport at the time was Brian Barwick, who left the company in November 2004 to become the chief executive of the Football Association. The Premiership saw out the remainder of its contract until May 2004, before the BBC returned.

We’re critical of a world run by focus groups, these days, but The Premiership went a stage further to this, trying to second-guess what the audience wanted innovate for a non-existent market rather taking the considerably more straightforward route of just showing the football and maybe talking about it for a bit. It failed as a sports programme because it there wasn’t enough sport in it, but it also failed as anything like a replacement for the Saturday night light entertainment schedule. Who is the football audience? A decent proportion might have been on their way home at seven in the evening on a Saturday in winter, or perhaps they were just about to go out. It also feels that ITV failed to understand that highlights weren’t the sure thing that they had been in the past. The real action was likely to take place live on Sky Sports, and football supporters had already made this leap, too.

FIfteen years on from the end of The Premiership, Match Of The Day remains in good health. The Saturday night broadcast, Sunday morning repeat, and Sunday night’s Match Of The Day 2 are reported to have a combined audience of nearly seven million, not a bad figure when we consider the extent to which television audiences are atrophying in just about every other single area. If anything, the proliferation of live televised matches over both Saturdays and Sundays might even have helped Match Of The Day out. Rather than definitely not having the most attractive game of the weekend, it is now likely that they will have one on most weekends, and the BBC has played its social media hand cleverly. It may not be particularly their influence, but social media watching of MOTD on a Saturday night has become part of the culture of the game, in its own idiosyncratic way.

Back at the start of this century, though, the media landscape was very different to today. Hubris was the order of the day at the turn of the century, and it was genuinely believed that Premier  League highlights could win – or come close to winning – a battle that it could never win. Those who needed their football fix – of those who could afford it – had their Sky Sports subscriptions or, in a handful of cases, their ITV Digital boxes. At the time, the Saturday night television ritual was BBC1 vs ITV, it was the legacy of Bruce Forsyth, Morecambe & Wise, The Generation Game and Blind Date. Saturday night does retain its place as the beating heart of the British television schedule. The Premiership simply shouldn’t have been there in the first place.

That they then presented a programme that was torn to pieces by critics and largely unpopular with fans only really added insult to injury. People who didn’t watch football in 2001 didn’t watch it because it was on too late. Small wonder the Premier League moved its presentation in such a very different direction in the years that followed their dalliance with all of this. Their brand was strong enough to withstand any significant damage – though there are still plenty of people who call the Premier League “the Premiership” to this day – but it didn’t do them any good, either. Match Of The Day remains criticised from all sides as ever, a good signifier of the extent of its middle of the roadness.

The Premiership, though, belongs to a different era, one in which the size of television audiences mattered beyond any other considerations. These days, the number of subscription fees is what really counts. The BBC’s current TV deal costs £211.5m, hardly a huge increase on the £183m that ITV paid eighteen years ago. ITV didn’t even bid, last time around. The Premiership belongs in the past now. We certainly don’t need that sort of thing any more.