The Premiership

Saturday, August 18, 2001 by

Sitting on a train, some time after seven o’clock on Saturday evening, I heard for the first time a plea that will echo round the nation’s cellular networks at that time for months to come. “Hi Dad. Can you tape The Premiership?” OK, not quite for the first time. I’d said it myself 10 minutes earlier.

Forget the fourth episode of EastEnders, The Premiership is at the heart of the most hotly-contested scheduling decision in British television history. And forget Steven Spielberg’s Band of Brothers. The Premiership is, according to the back of my envelope, the most expensive weekly programme ever to hit our screens. At £60m a season, that’s roughly £1.3m a show. And that’s just for the rights, never mind the cost of the outside broadcast trucks, the production teams, the studios and Gabby Yorath’s account at Nicky Clarke. And for what? An hour or so of football on a Saturday night.

But these things matter. As a nation we’re passionate about football, increasingly not only about how it’s played but also how it’s presented. Some of us turn to see what Martin Kelner and Giles Smith have to say about the weekend’s sporting viewing, before flicking back to read David Lacey or Henry Winter’s pitchside analysis. It’s a grand tradition, dating back to Clive James slicing up David Vine and Murray Walker in The Observer. And remember the furore when Desmond Lynam quit the BBC? It swept the deaths of hundreds of Indian train passengers off the front pages.

Yeah, Des. It’s not really worked out for him or his employers since he switched channels in 1999, has it? The Des we see on ITV isn’t quite the one we worshipped on the BBC. The quips and asides seem more forced, never more so when he was thrust into fronting those lurid, bombastic trailers for Euro 2000, and the interaction between him and his pundits results these days in inane banter and inexplicable hilarity rather than enlightenment. Love the tie, Ally! Ha ha ha …

So with £180m and the slightly tarnished reputation of a national icon riding on it, The Premiership simply could not be allowed to fail, could it? Oh yes it could.

Our first warning was Coca-Cola’s sponsorship spots. Once the global leader when it came to brash, stars-stripes-and-sentimentality promotion, Euro 96 marked the company’s reinvention with its witty, intuitive, “Eat football, drink Coke” campaign. Funny then, that we’re back on sentimental street, with a series of cameos from the family of Leicester’s Robbie Savage. They’re probably nothing to do with ITV, but it’s a queasy portent. Family entertainment. Human interest. It’s the kind of approach that had NBC’s viewers tearing their hair out during the Olympics.

The Premiership is soundtracked by one of U2′s most underwhelming moments, and the graphics aren’t much to write home about either. Oh look, there’s a circle! And there’s the Arsenal badge in it! Des looks at his watch and crows that seven o’clock is a better time to watch football, inexplicably managing to forget the times he presented football on ITV at 11.30pm last season, having quit the BBC in a strop because they played MOTD at 10.30pm. Hmm.

Middlesbrough vs Arsenal is a logical first choice of match – new boss for the home team, new players for the visitors. The coverage is barely different from MOTD, and commentator Peter Drury doesn’t grate as he often can, suggesting with the sanctimony of Esther Rantzen that Holland’s all-singing fans were a lesson to you “if you threw a chair in Charleroi” during Euro 2000. But 10 minutes of action for the main game just isn’t enough. MOTD‘s first match would typically be given 17-18 minutes. Instead, precious time is devoted to one of ITV’s key innovations, Townsend’s Tactics Truck. “He has to drive it,” predictably quipped Des. It’s clearly inspired by The Analyst feature during C4′s Test match coverage, where Simon Hughes reviews contentious decisions and explains jargon during breaks in the action. But while Hughes, an affable and knowledgeable presenter, fits neatly into the inevitable longeurs of live cricket broadcasts, Townsend does nothing that Ally or Tel couldn’t do back in the studio, save for explaining to a nonplussed Boro defender, Ugo Ehiogu, why his team lost.

Then we get rather hastily-compiled round-up of a couple of matches before a break and seven minutes of Sunderland v Ipswich. This match is followed by a “live” link-up between Des and Sunderland manager Peter Reid, which seems to be done by Lynam, rather than somebody who was actually at the game, simply because they can. Fabrizio Ravanelli’s return to English football at Derby is then featured. Ravanelli is Italian. So what do you think the report showed him doing? Why, eating spaghetti, of course! Because that’s what Italians do, isn’t it? Fortunately for reporter Gabriel Clarke, Ravanelli scored on his debut, but honestly, isn’t this the kind of unimaginative rubbish that Football Focus used to churn out weekly during the ’70s? It’s those dread words, “human interest” again.

The result of the day, Bolton’s 5-0 thrashing of Leicester, Coke boy and all, is quickly and inexcusably glossed over with the goals, and the briefest of chats with Bolton manager Sam Allardyce. Because Liverpool v West Ham is coming up after yet another break, and guess what, last time West Ham won at Anfield, Ally McCoist was a baby! And here’s a picture of him … as a baby! Not only is this a very bad idea, it’s a completely extraneous one. Sorry for sounding po-faced, but if you can’t think of anything clever, then “after the break, Liverpool vs West Ham” will suffice. It’s like before an earlier break, Des told us “still plenty of goals coming up”. Funny, but I don’t remember Des exhorting us to keep watching in quite the same fashion while he presented MOTD. Because then he had the intelligence to realise that people interested in football are not likely to be switching over, and now that there’s ad breaks, there’s still no reason to assume otherwise. It’s odd how little faith ITV have in their product that they keep selling themselves during the show. Waiters in restaurants do not come up to your table and say “lovely dessert coming up” in case they think we’re on the brink of walking out. And it was the same with Des’ introduction to the whole season, informing us that the Premiership is the most exciting league in the world. If that’s the case, why the need to dress it up with gimmicks and hype?

The Liverpool match is commentated on by Clive Tyldesley at his restrained best, recalling the MOTD career that preceded his current job as Manchester United’s chief Euro cheerleader. Des, speaker of national common sense, dismisses the Fowler row as “a nonsense”, but the panel manage to shed little light on the week’s big talking-point, because it’s time for another toy! It’s ProZone! “Nothing to do with what Tel might be on,” predictably quipped Des, and it must be good, because Arsene Wenger says so. Now, the Arsenal manager is a good and intelligent man, but he’d never get a job at Hamley’s. Because ProZone is, simply, pointless. Exactly what can numbers on a screen representing footballers on a pitch show us, that just showing us the footballers on the pitch can’t? Venables uses it to explain that, well, Michael Owen is quite quick. Er, well spotted.

The programme is rounded off with Ally’s top three goals of the day. There have been many worse ideas, and there have been many better, but the spot is undermined by the call for yet more of that ITV-patented forced banter. Thus Tel is obliged to “humorously” scorn McCoist’s selections, but he never suggests a better one of his own. So what’s the point? If you want to disagree about it, fine, but do it properly instead of limpid insults and laboured arguments. It will get better. Judging by the media’s universally hostile reaction, there’s bound to be more than 28 minutes of action in next week’s 75-minute show. Townsend’s Truck will be scrapped and I hope they kept the receipt for ProZone. Terry Venables, once a king of football punditry, might be allowed to speak without having to laugh for 15 seconds. But it’ll still be ITV. And that, I think, is what we don’t like. It’s genetic, developed from years of exposure to Elton Welsby and those progenitors of chortling analysis, Saint and Greavsie. ITV can bring in the BBC’s top presenter, two BBC pundits, three BBC commentators, a BBC series producer and a BBC head of sport, and we can still tell it’s ITV, because they tell us to keep watching because there’s some goals coming up. Yes, Sky’s football coverage is sell, sell, sell, too, but at least telling us who’s playing next Sunday can be excused as some kind of service. Martin Tyler never tells us to keep watching because there could be a goal in a moment. Sky have the faith in the product that ITV, with their 28 minutes of action, seem to lack. And technically they are light years ahead of ITV, and the BBC too.

It’ll be interesting to see if ITV tough it out at 7pm. Ratings will rise – there’s still plenty to do on a Saturday evening in August – but losing to the Lottery is a bad sign. And what happens when, with the demands of Sky and now pay-per-view, the Saturday fixture list is diminished? How will the casual fan take to Middlesbrough vs Leeds as peaktime viewing?

People say there’s too much money in the sport, and that The Premiership is just part of footballing inflation. But unlike those players earning £60,000 a week, Lynam’s team can play as badly as they like but never get dropped. More’s the pity. ITV’s accountants will just be hoping that people, in the words of Des’s new favourite band, stay in to watch the adverts.


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