The Director General of the BBC has paved the way for a shake-up of flagship football show Match of the Day after making a pointed reference to the punditry skills of former England defender Gary Neville on rival broadcaster Sky Sports.
In a speech in London, Lord Hall expressed admiration for the on-camera skills of the former Manchester United player, who has been credited for bringing fresh insight into expert football analysis since joining Sky two years ago.
The Director General’s praise was given in the context of showing that the BBC is willing to learn from the creative successes of its rivals – and to claim that the Corporation deserves credit for maintaining a high bar of quality across the television sector. “The BBC is part of a virtuous circle. We do well. Others have to compete. They raise their game. We respond. Competition spurs us all on. And the creative strength of the whole industry rises, from Downton (Abbey) to Broadchurch, The Inbetweeners to Channel 4 News, Moone Boy to Gary Neville,” he said.
Lord Hall’s lauding of broadcasting rivals, came in an address to the Voice of the Listener & Viewer Conference. The Director General said the BBC needed to cast aside its humility in arguing that the licence fee was good value for money. “We need to be less British about saying what you get for 40p a day,” he said. “We have got to get aggressive about making this case to people.”
MOTD is under pressure to respond to a fast changing market in televised football. Pay television companies BT Sport and Sky have invested vast sums in football rights and made the Premier League a key battlefield in their fight for broadband and TV subscribers. Each of these commercial giants has spent heavily on improving their coverage, expanding studios and hiring recently-retired players as star pundits.
BT Sport, which recently spent £900m for right to broadcast Champions League football, has hired a string of recent England players as expert analysts, including Michael Owen, David James and the current Manchester United defender Rio Ferdinand. Sky brought in former England defender Jamie Carragher to form a punditry double act with Neville this season.
Some fans believe that MOTD, which relies heavily on an established presenting line-up of Gary Lineker, Alan Hansen and Alan Shearer, is at risk of appearing out-of-touch with the fast-moving modern game. Andy Lyons, editor of the When Saturday Comes fanzine, said the long-running show could not afford to be complacent. “The BBC has got a captive audience on a Saturday evening and that’s part of the problem. They’ve not felt such a need to change the format.”
A BBC source said Lord Hall was not trying to put pressure on BBC Sport but merely “tipping his hat” to the Sky Sports presenter.
But within the BBC there is an awareness of the need to refresh. Hansen (who retired from football in 1991) will stand down after next summer’s World Cup and his former Liverpool colleague Mark Lawrenson has, to his chagrin, had a lesser role this season as new pundits, including a more contemporary Liverpool player Danny Murphy, have been given airtime.
Gary Parkinson, editor of fourfourtwo.com, said some of the MOTD presenting team appeared to reject attempts to introduce deeper tactical analysis into the show. “There was almost an anti-intellectualism that grew up around MOTD punditry. It became a sneering 19th hole old boys’ club.”
He detected attempts to modernise the programme this season, with greater use of graphics, but warned that the growth of on-demand television viewing meant that pundits on a highlights show like MOTD were at risk of being ignored anyway. “These days, people often just fast forward through the analysis,” he said.
A BBC spokesperson said: "MOTD continues to evolve and has featured a wide range of studio experts this season. Our pundits consistently lead the way in audience research and we have exciting plans in place for the World Cup and throughout the 2014-15 season. "