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Is TV coverage of sports of the highest quality? Or do the terrestrial channels need to keep up with their satellite counterparts? John Bensalhia looks at the history of sports on TV and at some of the issues surrounding current coverage

Who needs to go to a big sporting event when you can bring it to the comfort of your own living room? Sport on TV gives you a prize view of the action without anyone getting in the way. And you can have a good value meal and as much booze as you like without getting chucked out for rowdy behaviour – if you indulge in that sort of thing, of course.

Sport on TV is still pulling in the punters in droves. At the time of writing, a peak of 11.8million people tuned in to Andy Murray’s apparently never-ending crusade to reach the Wimbledon quarter-finals. England’s recent World Cup qualifier match, in which they gave Andorra a serious drubbing, got ratings of 9.6million and an audience figure share of 36 per cent. Even the less obvious choices still pull in the viewers. A Champions League game between Chelsea and Liverpool in April 2009 on ITV saw 9.5million tune in.

Grandstand was one of the mainstays of the BBC on Saturdays after starting out in October 1958. It attracted strong viewing figures, and came up against ITV’s rival programme World Of Sport, which ran for 20 years between 1965 and 1985. However, it was a casualty of the increasing reliance on interactive technology and a greater demand for digital TV methods. Grandstand ended in January 2007, two years prematurely before its alleged end in 2009.

Football, in particular, is a key staple of television. It seems not a week goes by without a World Cup, European Championship or FA Cup game gracing our screens. The BBC was the first to be on the ball when it began broadcasting Match Of The Day in August 1964. During its 1970s heyday, the programme would attract regular audiences of 12million. Terrestrial TV was the place to be for those who chose to watch football on TV.

And then the 1980s happened. During the late 1980s, one Rupert Murdoch began his monopoly on televised football for Sky. In 1988 he bid £47million for the rights to First Division football, making this the dawn of a new age of high profile football negotiations for TV. Thus began the start of a battle of acquisitions between Sky and the terrestrial channels, in particular ITV, which on more than one occasion lost out. For example, in 1992, Sky won the rights to broadcast Premier League football games in a £304million five-year deal. The BBC also won the football highlights package, reviving the previously flagging Match Of The Day and leaving ITV out in the cold in the process. The then controller of ITV, Greg Dyke, threatened legal action over these negotiations and allegedly accused the BBC of being the ‘poodle’ of Rupert Murdoch.

The late 1990s and early 2000s saw a further battle between ITV and Sky. In 1999 ITV agreed a £250million four-year deal to show live football games across the channel. However, in 2001, ITV’s teatime premiership programme proved to be a disaster, both among viewers and critics, only netting four million viewers in the process. A rebranded ITV Digital launched the ITV Sports Channel, paying £315million for Nationwide League football games. However, the following year, ITV Digital folded, allowing Sky to buy the rights for both Nationwide and Worthington Cup football for a bargain.

The latest development to unfold in the broadcasting of football is the rise and fall of a company that started out as an Irish Pay TV operator – Setanta. In its heyday, Setanta managed to win the rights to show many football games. In 2006 it secured two of three remaining live TV rights packages of 23 football games per year for four seasons from 2007. The latter year also saw Setanta agreeing a six-year deal with Arsenal Football Club to broadcast a new Arsenal football TV channel.

However, Setanta’s rapid acquisition inevitably meant that it was about to fall on its sword – especially during the rapid turnaround in the economy. The mid-2000s generally saw a boom in the economy, for example, with property buyers. But after the start of the crisis in autumn 2007, a backlash against all this rapid wealth and overspending meant that companies had to give. Setanta went into administration after failing to make payments to various sporting organisations. Analysts have said that Setanta was running at a loss of about £100million a year after missing subscriber targets. The argument is that it tried to grow too fast too quickly and lost control of costs.

But what about the standards that viewers get to see on these programmes? There are now so many programmes that deal with sport. Apart from the sporting events in football, tennis, cricket, rugby and snooker, there are regular programmes such as Top Gear or A Question Of Sport – two examples of long-running programmes that date all the way back to the 1970s (1977 and 1970 respectively).

In short, non-sporting fans get a raw deal, especially during events such as the World Cup, the Olympics or the Rugby Six Nations. For example, the BBC’s obsession with rugby reached something of a peak in February 2008, when on one Saturday it practically showed wall-to-wall sports coverage. The bulk of this 12-hour carnival of sport was taken up by three Six Nations games, which were bookended by Football Focus and Match Of The Day. It received 124 complaints, small fry compared to the amount of people who tuned in – but nevertheless, it is questionable whether the BBC really needed to go overboard with, what you could argue, seems to be its favourite sport. In particular, way too much time is given to pre-match coverage in which nothing much is achieved other than showing lots of gurning fans pulling faces and failing to sing various rugby anthems in tune.

On a more serious note, one valid point is that the terrestrial channels seem to be reducing their coverage of what could be classed as minority sports. Sports such as cycling, show jumping, ice skating, volleyball and badminton are barely seen. Indeed, in early 2008 UK Sport international director John Scott accused the BBC of shirking its duties as a public service broadcaster after it allegedly withdrew production funding from key minority sports games and events. The BBC refuted these allegations by saying that it would give more airtime to minority sports. And yet, ask yourself – where are these minority sports? When they are shown on TV, invariably, they will be pushed to the graveyard slots, normally late at night, when everyone’s gone to bed – as a result, millions of people will arguably lose out on games and sporting events that they might have taken an interest in.

Another bone of contention among the way in which the terrestrial channels broadcast sport is how they arguably favour the English participants at the expense of other players. The recent Wimbledon match in which Andrew Murray claimed victory at about 10.30pm is a good example. All prior TV programmes due to be shown in this timeslot were shunted over to BBC 2 – the only other time this would happen during Wimbledon would be if it were an overrunning final game.

The BBC faced allegations of English rugby bias earlier this year. During a game in which England lost to Wales, commentator Brian Moore chose English player Joe Worsley as man of the match. The post-game analysis also saw Austin Healey, John Inverdale and Jeremy Guscott discuss how England were experiencing a revival, even though the prior game had shown anything but. Writer and broadcaster Peter Stead criticised this, saying that the BBC was taking former player personalities who were failing to display impartiality that the TV channel demands. He said that: “The BBC has gone from having knowledgeable, impartial commentators of the likes of Bill McLaren to ex-players like Eddie Butler and Brian Moore who develop their personalities on TV, so the coverage becomes more about them than the game.”

Another example of this pro-English bias can be seen in 2006, when Jack McConnell, former First Minister for Scotland, accused the BBC and ITV of being too biased in favour of England during the World Cup coverage. He said that: “They seem to forget from time to time that they are meant to represent the whole of the country, not just one part of it. I hope perhaps they will listen to a bit of pressure and be more reasonable with their coverage.”

Still, maybe the BBC did listen, since their last two Sports Personalities of the Year came from Wales (boxer Joe Calzaghe) and Scotland (cyclist Chris Hoy) respectively.

So what will happen with the future of sports TV broadcasting? If you want to follow the stereotypical sci-fi view of holographic 3-D sports, you wouldn’t be far off. BSkyB demonstrated a prototype of broadcasting sports events in 3-D in late 2008. It tested this technology in events such as Ricky Hatton’s boxing win over Juan Lazcano and Liverpool against Marseille in a Champions League game. That’s a definite possibility, as is the growing reliance on even more advertisements as various sponsors pledge their support to sporting events on TV.

Whatever the future, there will always be an appetite for televised sporting events as new generations are introduced to the world of sport, while the older generations can continue to enjoy the coverage either from a pub, social club or the comfort of their own home.

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