Part Fourteen: “I’ve Had Talks”

By Steve Williams

First published April 2008

By the turn of the 21st Century, it was bizarre to think that, less than 20 years previously, most of England’s league clubs were violently against the idea of any television coverage whatsoever. Now, all of them would welcome the cameras to every game they played, while the broadcasters, who previously aired five or six live football matches a season, would now sometimes be televising five or six a week.

Since live league matches first arrived on British screens in 1983, they had increased massively in number, especially those involving teams from the top division. Initially 10 were allowed per season, and by 1988 this had expanded to 21. When the Premier League was formed in 1992 and went off to Sky Sports, there were now 60 live games a season. Of course, this was not including the dozens of other fixtures from the lower divisions, the cups and the European competitions.

For some, however, this still wasn’t enough, and in 1999, the Office of Fair Trading launched a court case against the Premier League. Their argument was that selling the rights to matches in one single package was illegal, tantamount to a cartel, and that the individual clubs should have the right to sell their own games to whoever they fancied and the broadcasters should be allowed to buy what they wanted.

Such an argument was inevitably countered by the Premier League, but perhaps surprisingly neither the clubs nor the broadcasters were in favour either. As far as they were concerned such fragmentation of the market would simply confuse the viewer, who would have to subscribe to numerous packages to see all their teams’ matches, while the individual games themselves only made sense as part of a league. In addition, the smaller clubs were aware of the fact that were this to happen, most broadcasters would chase the big clubs, such as Manchester United, and leave the likes of Coventry and Charlton festering on the shelf.

With this argument in mind, the courts rejected the OFT’s argument and said the existing deals were perfectly adequate in creating competition and provided guaranteed income for clubs, leaving a case referred to by Will Wyatt, the BBC’s Managing Director of Television, as “a massive waste of public money”. Nevertheless, in the next Premier League rights deal to start in 2001, the number of live matches were increased once again, in order to ensure every Premiership team was seen a fair number of times. The number of games on Sky Sports was increased to 66, and there were now an additional 40 available to viewers via pay-per-view.

Pay-per-view football had a brief and rather undistinguished history on British television. Previous ventures in demanding a one-off fee for matches consisted of Sky’s two experiments from the Football League in 1999 and the exploits of u>direct, a company who normally offered pay-per-view films on the Sky Digital platform (although, confusingly, they were completely unrelated to Sky’s own pay-per-view film operation). During the 2000/01 season, they offered a pot pourri of pre-season friendlies and European ties for a tenner a throw, as well as, controversially, England’s World Cup qualifier in Finland in October 2000. Sadly all the publicity u>direct got from this was an item on Watchdog complaining about poor customer service and non-existent pictures, and their enterprise abruptly ended in 2001 when the company went out of business.

Nevertheless, pay-per-view was considered an acceptable way to increase the number of live matches on television while still ensuring they remained scarce enough to be special. The owners of the main package – in this case Sky Sports – would still have first pick of fixtures, and the pay-per-view matches would always be second choice, with the platform therefore being sold as a bonus service for anyone who wanted further coverage. In addition, all clubs could only appear on the platform a maximum of six times.

Viewers could purchase each game for £7.95, but the broadcasters also offered the opportunity to buy a “season ticket” to watch every fixture, which on some platforms was sold for as low as £40 – £1 per game. In a way, it meant most viewers would therefore in essence be subscribing to the service as they would Sky Sports, and the number of active purchasers would forever remain mysteriously vague.

If you didn’t want to shell out for the extra platforms, of course, you could still watch highlights of the Premiership on ITV1. By November 2001, the primetime folly had been forgotten and the highlights show moved to a familiar late night slot. Freed from the pressure to entertain the general audience, it became, in the words of Des Lynam, “what it was always going to be – Match of the Day with adverts”. Indeed, at this hour, ratings would regularly equal and in some cases exceed the average audience it enjoyed at 7pm.

In addition, from the start of its second season, in 2002, the unwieldy Monday night show, recorded in front of a studio audience, was dumped and replaced by a much simpler format in which Matt Smith – now in need of a job after the closure of the ITV Sport Channel, where he had been the main presenter of live games – marshalled a panel of pundits, managers and players in a no-nonsense discussion of the weekend’s events.

Yet although the excesses of the early days of ITV’s Premiership coverage had been toned down, it never really managed to endear itself to the football fan. Somehow the channel, right back to the days of the Sunday afternoon Big Match, had always seemed less interested in the game for its own sake and more interested in the personality side of things. One example of this on The Premiership came when speculation mounted in the press over David Beckham’s potential move away from Manchester United, and ITV trumpeted a massive exclusive – a shot of Beckham on the pitch mouthing “I’ve had talks” to team-mate Gary Neville, which was sold as conclusive proof that he was on his way to Real Madrid, rather than, as could have equally been the case, Beckham simply telling Neville that he was going to do some more adverts. Indeed, after Beckham’s departure, ITV promptly ran the footage again to “prove” they told us first.

Still, at least the channel was on air every week. For the BBC, their new deal meant they enjoyed a substantial amount of live football in the second half of the season, when the FA Cup was in full swing, but less so in the first half with only the odd England match to keep them occupied. Hence, as ITV had done a decade earlier, the Corporation started taking up any opportunity that might arise for live football, buying up European ties and overseas games. These were a bit of a mixed bag, and a goalless UEFA Cup tie between unknown Croatian side Varteks and Aston Villa broadcast on BBC2 in September 2001 must rank as one of the least interesting football matches ever screened. Meanwhile, Ireland’s World Cup qualifier in Iran a few weeks later was a very rare outside broadcast from that country, with Barry Davies commentating solo for the entire 90 minutes – an extremely unusual occurrence in the modern era – and having to do so, not from a commentary box, but sat on the edge of the pitch.

However the BBC’s live matches featuring England and the FA Cup were rather more successful, with the national side’s big games against the likes of Germany, Greece and Turkey pulling in massive audiences. Come the 2002 World Cup, the Corporation confirmed again that they were the favoured choice for the general viewer, as when the BBC and ITV went head to head for the first time as England took on Denmark in the second round, ITV1 pulled in just three and a half million viewers compared to nearly four times that on the Beeb – one of their most crushing victories ever.

For Lynam, after years of anchoring the big events on the BBC in front of almost the entire nation, being on the losing side in the head-to-heads was an unusual experience. He was aware that he was always going to be fighting a losing battle, and was poised to promote ITV’s coverage of the Denmark game by announcing, “Watch it with us – we’ll throw in the tea breaks!”, although his bosses told him not to in case it annoyed the advertisers.

In these instances, ITV would always suggest it was unfair to compare the two channels, because they had to put up with breaks – without explaining why this was never the case with ITV’s other programmes, nor indeed why the gap was, if anything, widening. Poaching the most famous sports presenter in the UK – surely a way to get the casual audience more interested – hadn’t helped either. Indeed, the Evening Standard suggested Lynam’s arrival, alongside some of ITV’s more established pundits, actually turned off the younger audience, saying, “The central trio of Lynam, [Bobby] Robson and [Terry] Venables reminds one of a group of ageing uncles gathered to watch the wedding video of a favourite niece”, as opposed to the younger, fresher BBC team led by Gary Lineker.

This tournament was held in Japan and South Korea, which meant early morning kick-offs and little opportunity to present the coverage live from the grounds, with both channels basing themselves in London. The fact matches were out of primetime meant there was more opportunity for chat and features, and to this end ITV1 pioneered a dual-headed presentation, whereby Lynam and his pundits would introduce the actual matches, and then at full-time hand over to Gabby Logan and another set of pundits on the other side of the studio for some risible “lighter side of the World Cup” features, including lookalikes, cock-ups and, on one occasion, pie-tasting. Clearly this was supposed to produce some Fantasy Football-esque humour, although Barry Venison and Gary Neville were hardly Skinner and Baddiel and the forced wackiness left most viewers irritated rather than amused.

One further “innovation” by ITV at the tournament was the hiring of Paul Gascoigne as a pundit, which the commercial channel felt would generate a bit of publicity. They made him the central figure of their promotional campaign, with his face adorning the backs of buses across England. Sadly, many years of drinking and partying had taken their toll, and as Lynam said, “Gazza was wracked with nerves and found it difficult to speak on camera. He was also trying too hard, and making notes during the match which he then had difficulty in reading.” Indeed many viewers found his hesitant performances uncomfortable to watch, and in the end ITV decided to remove Gascoigne from the pundit’s chair and instead use him in a series of pre-recorded features.

If the channel had been in the ascendancy in recent years, the honeymoon was over by 2002. With the ITV Sport Channel closed down, the only live football the broadcaster now had was from the Champions League. The games in that competition previously broadcast on the Sport Channel were now spread around ITV1, ITV2 and, remarkably, the ITV News Channel – the only other platform the network had available. Although the Premier League coverage was now enjoying something akin to critical acclaim, for £20 million a season, ITV were expecting a little more than four million viewers a week.

As Lynam said, “One kept hearing from the commercial arm that the programme wasn’t ‘washing its face. I was fairly sure that when the highlights contract came round again, ITV would go through the motions of bidding and then be delighted when they lost.” Sure enough, come 2003, that was precisely what happened, and the BBC bought back the highlights rights, starting the season after next, for less than ITV had paid three years previously. Match of the Day was back again.

It was always likely to be the case that the next round of auctions for football coverage were going to be less lucrative than the crazy week in 2000. For a start, there were substantially fewer bidders, with ITV Digital no longer existing and the cable companies seemingly perennially in financial disarray. What did shoot up, however, was the number of matches on offer – from 2004-05, there would now be 138 live Premier League games on television.

Even the Premier League admitted there were now rather more live games on television than they would have liked, but with the European Union sniffing around the TV contracts they felt it important to offer as much as possible to avoid accusations of anti-competitive behaviour. The matches would now be sold in a number of packages, branded “gold”, “silver” and “bronze”, with a set number of games in each. It was suggested that would create more competition in the bidding process and, for a while, it was thought a terrestrial broadcaster might be able to screen some games. However, the smallest and cheapest package on offer consisted of 28 matches, which was way too many for a terrestrial channel to be able to fit in the schedules, so invariably Sky Sports were the only realistic bidders and bagged the lot.

This deal was met with some opposition from the EU, who felt it barely created the competition they desired and gave Sky even more of a monopoly. Hence it was decided Sky would sub-licence eight of their matches to a terrestrial broadcaster and invited bids. A few months later, however, the network announced nobody had met their reserve price and so they were no longer for sale. This was perhaps surprising, with most media commentators expecting ITV to go all out to get more football on the channel, but it served to illustrate how the broadcaster had now realised only truly exceptional games – clearly not likely to be among the eight fixtures offered – could pull in a big enough audience to justify the financial outlay.

Hence the BBC were the major terrestrial player once more. Despite their failure on ITV, the return of the Premiership highlights was a great fillip, as it brought with it top-class football every week of the season. In addition, they also renewed their FA Cup and England contract on more favourable terms, with England home matches now exclusively live on the BBC, with Sky only having highlights. This wasn’t much of a hardship for the satellite channel, though – there weren’t really enough of them to generate huge numbers of subscribers on their own, so they were of much more value to the Beeb.

With their new deal, Sky also bagged rights to “near live” coverage of the Premier League – not that this initially meant much to the broadcaster who started planning for the four live matches a weekend the new expanded package offered them. However a closer look at the contract revealed what these “near live” rights actually meant. They were allowed to broadcast one of the Saturday 3pm kick-offs in its entirety at 8.30pm, followed after 10pm by 55 minutes of highlights of all other matches. This meant that on Saturdays, whereas previously you’d have to wait until Match of the Day to see your team if their game wasn’t live, you could now see it first on Sky, and in much greater depth. From being an afterthought, it was realised this could actually be a major selling point

Going under the name of Football First, Sky made use of their interactive capabilities to offer viewers the choice of all of that day’s matches at the touch of a button, rather than forcing them to sit through the rest for their team to show up. As Sky’s Andy Melvin pointed out, “If you were a Charlton fan you used to be grateful for two minutes on Match of the Day. Now you can switch on Football First and get 55 minutes.” For some fans, this was excellent news, with Sir Paul Fox, former Head of BBC Sport, writing in The Daily Telegraph, “What is the point of Match of the Day? Recorded highlights, however well presented, are now of historical interest only.”

However, rumours of the death of the highlights were somewhat exaggerated. Sure, if you were only interested in your team alone, Football First was a great idea. But if you wanted to see all the day’s goals and talking points in one package without having to sit through nearly an hour (or in Sky’s terminology, a “super-edit”) of a dour mid-table scrap, Match of the Day was by far the best option. Indeed, for all Sir Paul may have suggested about highlights being archaic, less than 300,000 people deserted it for Football First, with Match of the Day still enjoying on average around four million viewers a week – less than previously, maybe, but pretty sturdy compared to the general decline in audiences on terrestrial telly given the rise of multichannel.

Besides, Match of the Day did provide a better service for fans than ever before. Previously the Saturday night highlights had consisted of two or three games shown in depth and then just the goals from the rest. Now for the first time the BBC sent a commentator to every fixture, promising at least five minutes of action. In addition, there was now a regular Sunday show on BBC2 with full highlights of that day’s games, introduced by a new face to the BBC’s sports output, Adrian Chiles.

Chiles was best known for his work on business show Working Lunch, but he was a huge football fan and brought a great deal of humour to the coverage, with his deadpan approach making for a marked contrast with Gabby Logan’s rather desperate attempts to amuse over on ITV. However Chiles also had a strong journalistic background and continually pressed his guests to explain why players and managers were doing such a thing, helped immeasurably in the first season by the regular presence of Gordon Strachan. The former Southampton manager had the knack of being able to explain quite complicated tactical information in an accessible way, and as his post-match interviews had proven, he too didn’t take it too seriously either. Sadly, Strachan only stayed for one season before moving back into full-time management with Celtic.

So in 2004, normal service had been resumed and, as was the case a decade previously, the BBC and Sky had most football sewn up, while ITV were left with the dregs. It was no surprise, then, that Lynam decided the time was right to call it a day and retire from full-time sports broadcasting, quitting ITV after the final of the 2004 European Championships. As he said, “Five years with ITV, having originally only agreed a three-year deal, was just about right. I didn’t want to outstay my welcome.”

Yet it wasn’t long before Lynam found himself working in sports television again, for an entirely new company – and, like the man himself, the newcomer came from across the Irish Sea …

<Part Thirteen