Part Thirteen: “We’ve Got All the Football”

By Steve Williams

First published March 2008

What was the most significant football event of June 2000? The European Championships would probably have been in with a shout, but in terms of TV football, dealings were going on behind the scenes that would have huge implications, not just for the broadcasters, but also for many clubs and players. Indeed, Greg Dyke, newly installed as Director General of the BBC, referred to this period as “a week of madness where ridiculous prices were paid which I doubt will ever be paid for football rights again”.

The reason for this was the increasing number of new broadcasters coming into the market, almost all of whom seemed to consider live sport as the ideal opportunity to grab viewers and, more importantly, customers – with the success of Sky Sports, and by extension, Sky as a whole, being the obvious example. By 2000, there were plenty of channels hoping to enjoy a slice of the cake. For a start, the umpteen UK cable companies had, after endless mergers, finally consolidated into two major players, NTL and Telewest, both of which were seemingly large enough to try and challenge Sky’s dominance of the pay TV market.

Also new on the scene was ONDigital, the company bringing digital terrestrial television to the UK. The consortium’s major shareholders were Carlton and Granada, so there was a heavy ITV presence in the new operation, and by the turn of the millennium they had already made inroads into football coverage. This was because the Champions League had been extended still further, with 32 teams entering the group stage, including three English representatives, and therefore stretching it over two nights, with half the games now played on Tuesdays and half on the familiar Wednesday.

It was clearly too much for one channel to cover, so ITV continued to show the Wednesday games live, while the Tuesday matches were screened on a new sports channel on ONDigital. ITV Sport produced the coverage on both, and ITV continued to show highlights of the Tuesday games – which at least provided more work for the underemployed Bob Wilson.

Whether by accident or design, in June 2000 the broadcasting rights for the three main footballing contracts all came up for renewal at the same time – the Premier League, the FA Cup and England, and the Football League and League Cup. The stage was now set for a titanic battle between the broadcasters to try and grab as much as they possibly could, and it looked like everyone was punching above their weight.

There was the BBC, who had undergone a traumatic few years being seemingly priced out of the market on almost every sporting event. The previous Director General, John Birt, had decided to bid low in many rights deals, feeling that with a finite budget the licence fee was better spent on dramas and news (which few other organisations wanted to do) than sport, which could be left to the market. However Greg Dyke was now in charge, who as a previous Chairman of ITV Sport knew the value of sports rights to a broadcaster. He felt that, for many, sport without adverts was the reason they paid the licence fee, and they resented it not being there, so he was desperate to get the national game back live on the national broadcaster.

Then there was ITV, who for the past few years had been in the ascendancy, and were eager to continue pulling in the huge audiences their advertisers couldn’t get enough of. Sky Sports were still a giant in sports broadcasting and had plenty of cash to splash ensuring that those after pay TV went to them first. Then there were the new boys, ONDigital, NTL and Telewest, all of whom were after killer content to convince customers to opt for digital cable or terrestrial over satellite.

First to be announced were the rights to show the Football League, and the first shock came when Sky Sports lost the contract in favour of ONDigital. They’d paid £315 million for the privilege of showing live games from all three divisions of the Football League and the League Cup on their subscription channels, while ITV itself got the rights to highlights and a handful of live games.

Then it was time to decide on the FA Cup and England. The new Chief Executive of the Football Association, Adam Crozier, hadn’t thought much of the previous contract where all the big games were on Sky, with its smaller audiences, and only second-choice live matches and highlights on ITV, who had not exhibited much enthusiasm in their coverage – highlights of England matches often being screened around midnight. Crozier felt it was important for the profile of both the national team and the FA Cup to have a prominent position on terrestrial television, and so opted for a deal whereby the BBC and Sky would share the rights, with the BBC having first pick of the matches in each round of the FA Cup, and England’s competitive home matches being screened on both channels simultaneously. Before the deal was officially announced, Crozier phoned the BBC to tell them they’d won, to great excitement at the Corporation who had top-class live football back on their screens. They were also confident they’d hang on to the Premier League highlights, having put in a competitive bid of £40 million a season which was considered to have beaten ITV’s offer.

Unfortunately for the BBC, Crozier also telephoned ITV to tell them they’d lost. The next day, when the Premier League bids were submitted, the BBC found ITV’s bid had suddenly shot up to £60 million – clearly bolstered by the cash that had become free from their unsuccessful FA deal. ITV therefore won the rights, and much to the BBC’s embarrassment this deal was announced to the press first, and the news of the loss of the weekly Match of the Day completely overshadowed the positive news about their impressive FA deal.

When it came to rights to live Premier League matches, however, there were no such problems. Sky Sports were desperate to hold on to the foundations their entire empire appeared to be built on and paid an incredible £1.1 billion for 66 live games a year. There was another part of the auction, though, with a further 40 games – chosen from what was left after Sky had first dibs – to be broadcast early on Sunday afternoons on pay-per-view services. These were snapped up by NTL but, a few weeks later, the cable firm realised they couldn’t afford them and gave them back, with the rights then going to a consortium of Sky, the cable companies and ONDigital who would screen them on all digital platforms.

None of the new deals would kick in until the start of the 2001/02 season, so there was a year of frantic speculation as to what would happen and who would go where. In the meantime, ONDigital underwent a transformation. The digiboxes weren’t flying out of the shops as fast as they’d hoped, certainly compared to Sky’s rival service. It was therefore decided to rebrand the service, and the obvious solution was to take advantage of their shareholders’ biggest asset – the ITV brand. Hence ONDigital became ITV Digital, with the commercial channel’s name to the fore – indeed, the company even sent out stickers to subscribers to cover up the ONDigital branding on their set-top boxes and remote controls. To coincide, the newly acquired Football League coverage would sit alongside the Champions League on a new channel – the ITV Sport Channel.

There was one particular advantage of this new set-up. Sky Sports was available on the ITV Digital platform, but the ITV Sport Channel was not available on the Sky Digital platform. It was available on NTL, but if you weren’t in a cabled-up area and wanted to see every football match on TV, you’d have to plump for ITV Digital. ITV said that, in time, it could be made accessible to Sky but, “They will have to pay a commercial price. They will have to come to us. We’re not going to give it away.” This meant ITV Digital were able to promote their services with the tagline “We’ve got all the football”, hoping to convince satellite customers to swap their dishes for an aerial.

The ITV Sport Channel made its debut at 5.30pm on Saturday 11 August 2001 with a live first division match between Manchester City and Watford. The show was fronted by the presenter formerly known as Gabby Yorath and now, after her recent wedding, Gabby Logan. Logan had been a part of the ITV team for three years at this point, which was probably long enough for the novelty of a woman discussing football to have worn off. She was definitely a perfectly professional host, with plenty of enthusiasm for the job, and certainly stood out given her ITV colleagues, Des Lynam and Bob Wilson, were almost twice her age.

ITV’s Head of Sport Brian Barwick referred to the new sports channel as “football-rich”, and indeed although tennis, snooker, cycling and numerous other sports filled the odd gap, soccer dominated the schedules. The main attractions were the 80 live matches from the Football League, as well as a further 40 available as pay-per-view games. The three divisions also all enjoyed their own weekly highlights programmes. Although Logan and the rest of the ITV big hitters – including commentators Clive Tyldesley and Ron Atkinson – were wheeled out for the launch, the rest of the games were covered by a dedicated team for the channel headed by host Matt Smith, freshly poached as an up-and-coming presenter from the BBC.

Initially, things went well. The first problem came with the times of the games. Invariably the kick-off times had to work around Premier League matches, which were clearly the bigger draw, and now there were two live fixtures from the top flight every Sunday, the only slot available was the early evening. However, the 6.15pm starts were slammed by fans across the country whose options for getting home after the game were extremely limited.

The early evening kick-off also saw the matches compete against the Sunday night TV favourites, and in all but the most football-obsessed households, Coronation Street versus Coventry City was always going to end one way. The problem was that, as exciting and as passionate as the Football League was, there were virtually no fixtures that meant much to the casual audience. Sky Sports’ ratings already suffered when, for contractual reasons, they were obliged to screen matches featuring some of the Premier League’s lesser lights rather than the big guns. Now ITV Sport were trying to build a network on matches a level down from that.

On the Thursday of its first week, the channel broadcast a third division match between Rushden and Diamonds and Lincoln City, which was watched by fewer people than were actually at the game. But what did they expect? The only ones interested in seeing this encounter on television were a couple of hundred Lincoln fans who couldn’t get time off work to go. Matt Smith and his team did their best to hype it up but were battling against massive indifference.

It soon became clear the Football League was simply not a big enough draw to sustain a channel, let alone an entire digital service. Most fans were happy enough with the odd highlights package to keep them up to date with the lower leagues. The same was also true of its other football rights – the newly-rebranded ITV1 had first choice of every round in the Champions League, while the League Cup came a poor third behind the Premier League and FA Cup in fans’ interests, and indeed ITV1 showed the best semi-final and the final of that competition on analogue too.

In the end, the ITV Sport Channel failed due to all of its football rights being of extremely limited interest. Perhaps the only people who needed to subscribe were fans of the three English clubs in the Champions League, Manchester United, Arsenal and Liverpool (although half of their games were on ITV1 anyway), and those of the top three or four teams in the first division who could count on appearing a decent number of times to justify the subscription. That was clearly not a wide enough audience to build a channel on.

There were other flaws in the whole ITV Digital set-up, with technical reasons meaning many potential customers simply could not receive a watchable picture, and poor security leading to widespread piracy. Hence when the time came to put together the budget for year two, ITV Digital took a look at the figures and realised they couldn’t afford to pay the Football League. They approached them and asked if they would be willing to accept a cut in their fee, but many clubs had already factored the TV money into their budgets and therefore refused. Hence there was no other option for ITV Digital but to go into administration. The ITV Sport Channel staggered on until May and then, immediately after their final game of the season, the second division play-off final on 11 May, the plug was pulled and the channel ceased broadcasting – along with almost all of the other channels on the platform.

With the end of the service came the end of the eventful ITV career of Bob Wilson. For this season, he’d been anchoring ITV Digital’s coverage of the pay-per-view Premier League games, but now they would no longer be shown on the platform. He was in fact offered a new contract for a further year, but realised he’d spend most of it twiddling his thumbs, so decided to quietly retire. It says much for how far the man’s profile had fallen in the previous three years that barely anyone noticed.

Yet the biggest losers in all the collapse of ITV Digital were, of course, the league clubs themselves, as they were now without a television deal. The rights were readvertised and, invariably, only one channel had the required time and space for live games – Sky Sports, who landed the contract for a bargain price. Those clubs who had made the most of the ITV money now found themselves having to make savage budget cuts and work out which players to release.

For ITV, this was the second big embarrassment of the season, as their Premier League purchase had not proven to be the coup they were anticipating. Given the amount of cash the channel had lavished on the deal – the largest sum ever spent on highlights – it was clear they would have to deliver huge audiences. This meant the familiar late night slot was seemingly not an option. Instead it was decided to look at primetime. David Liddiment, ITV’s Director of Programmes, was very excited, looking forward to, “football and Blind Date, a magic early evening popular television formula. We’ll clean up.”

For a while, a 6pm start was considered favourite. As Des Lynam said, “that way, the matches would seem almost live. More people might not actually know the results or might avoid them, making the product that much more exciting.” It would also be out of the way in good time to avoid alienating those who had no interest in the sport. Yet contractually this was not possible, so instead ITV1 took the plunge and opted for a slot slap bang in the middle of the evening – 7pm.

The weekend on ITV1 now started at Saturday lunchtime with Gabby Logan fronting On the Ball, which had the bonus of Premiership goals and live updates from the big games. Then later came The Goal Rush, a results service fronted by Angus Scott. This was a blatant copy of the popular Soccer Saturday format on Sky Sports, and ran throughout the afternoon on the ITV Sport Channel with ITV1 joining the show for the final moments of the matches. Finally at 7pm came the big one, The Premiership, screening hastily-edited highlights of the day’s matches, with a repeat around midnight.

But that wasn’t all. ITV’s contract also allowed for a second programme on Monday nights, which would give terrestrial viewers the first chance to see action from the Sunday and Monday matches. Yet this wasn’t just a highlights show. Gabby Logan presented the programme in front of a studio audience, with a fan from every club in the league forming what was known as the “Premiership Parliament” and being canvassed for opinions. There would also be appearances from the ITV pundits and current and former players who would talk football in between another outing for the weekend’s goals and features, such as Brack Chat, where commentator Peter Brackley added a supposedly humorous voice-over to footage.

This rather irritating show did not enjoy much of a fanbase, with most people finding the emphasis on jokes and chat instead of action annoying, but at 11pm very few noticed. Many more, however, noticed the Saturday night programme.

Des Lynam said, “During the years, I had always thought that if ITV got hold of a sport, they ended up simply trying too hard to make the coverage ‘different’. I constantly reminded my colleagues that Match of the Day wasn’t broken and they shouldn’t try to fix it.” However Lynam’s protestations were ignored, and when the series launched a number of new ideas were included, with the action being interspersed with features, including Andy Townsend lecturing a player on what they’d done wrong and Terry Venables battling with a computer program called Prozone that produced endless statistics and diagrams. The viewers hated it.

Fortunately, all these fripperies were junked soon after, but by that point the damage had been done. The first episode of The Premiership got under four million viewers, and the second slumped still further to just 3.2 million – contributing to ITV’s worst performing Saturday night for years. Had the football bubble burst?

Seemingly not. In the third week, The Premiership wasn’t broadcast due to international matches, and in its place BBC1 broadcast live coverage of England’s World Cup qualifier in Germany, which famously ended 5-1 to the visitors, and was watched by millions. But while most of these viewers were eager to see the national side pull off a thrilling victory against one of their biggest rivals on a Saturday night, they were less likely to tune in to see Middlesbrough draw 0-0 with Southampton, especially when they already knew the result.

Some of Lynam’s old friends at the BBC were offering him bets that The Premiership would be shifted out of its primetime slot sooner rather than later, which Lynam accepted, assuming ITV would at least keep it there until the end of the season to avoid embarrassment. He was then most surprised to be summoned in for a meeting with David Liddiment where he was informed it was being shoved to 10.30pm in November – the same slot Match of the Day had successfully occupied for decades. This was despite Lynam’s protestations that by doing this, “You’ll make page four of Broadcast – I’ll be on the front page of the tabloids”, and indeed he was.

On the terrestrial channels, football had been turned on its head. After Lynam had quit the BBC to cut down his hours and concentrate on live football, he found himself spending most weeks stuck in the London Studios fronting highlights around midnight. Meanwhile his replacement, Gary Lineker, mostly eschewed Television Centre and instead travelled around linking numerous live matches involving England and the FA Cup.

Yet for all the chaos in the world of free TV, Sky Sports had seen off the young upstarts in the pay TV marketplace and found themselves enjoying much the same dominance. But this wasn’t going to last, and this time it wasn’t just the other broadcasters who were keeping an eye on them …

<Part Twelve