Media: Sporting challenge for TV's crown jewels

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Indy Lifestyle Online
A new recommendation to give satellite TV greater access to live sports events could be yet another blow to the BBC's once unrivalled coverage. Can it reverse the decline, asks John Crace

There were always likely to be a few long faces over at the Beeb tomorrow when Brian Barwick, ITV's new head of sport, outlines the commercial channel's spring and summer schedules.

After all, if it isn't bad enough having to listen to one of your main competitors knock spots off your own offerings, then it's just plain insulting for it to be coming from the mouth of the man, who until last November, was your own head of sport.

But those faces will now be positively stony, following last Friday's announcement from the Government's Advisory Group on Listed Events. Far from adding to the list of sporting crown jewels - events of national resonance that are guaranteed live coverage on terrestrial TV, the committee has recommended that satellite TV gets greater access to live events.

Through the division of the crown jewels into an A list, which must be broadcast terrestrially, and a B list, which are only guaranteed highlights on terrestrial TV, the BBC may lose live coverage of home Test matches, some live World Cup football and all of Wimbledon fortnight, bar the finals weekend.

Although Chris Smith, Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, has still to implement these recommendations, there is no reason to imagine that he won't, so the report will have come as a major body blow to the BBC. "There is no doubt that viewers will be concerned that the advisory group recommendations do not give any guarantees that live coverage of Test matches will be seen from the end of this season," said Will Wyatt, chief executive of BBC Broadcast, tersely.

And while it's nice to know that Mr Wyatt is thinking of us viewers, one suspects that his real concerns are closer to home. In short, the BBC has been haemorrhaging its sporting events at an alarming rate in recent years, and last week's announcement could be the kiss of death.

Live action - especially football - has always been the strongest currency of televised sport, and up until the beginning of this decade the BBC always held the upper hand. You name it, they did it. Bigger. Better. Take football. ITV's highlights always seemed second-rate. They were on the Sunday rather than the Saturday for a start.

How things change. The BBC still has Match of the Day - its Saturday night flagship programme of Premier League highlights - but after that things fall away rather. With the only football of real note being live coverage of the European Cup Winners' final and a share of the World Cup with ITV. As well as the World Cup, ITV shares live coverage of the FA Cup - including the final - with Sky, has live Coca-Cola Cup semi- finals, live European Cup matches and highlights of England's World Cup warm-up games.

And it's the same catalogue of disaster for the BBC in other sports. ITV is now in its second year of a five-year deal to cover Formula One motor racing, which was once the BBC's personal property. The BBC has lost the rights to England's rugby union games. Sky shows them live and ITV makes delayed transmissions. Next year's rugby World Cup will be shown exclusively on ITV.

As a result of all this, Grandstand, the BBC's flagship Saturday afternoon programme has for the most part been reduced to a yawnathon, with viewers treated to a tedious smattering of horse-racing and rugby league.

"ITV's success has been achieved by focusing on key areas of key sports," says Barwick. "We recognised that football - especially live football - could draw a huge audience, and we made that one of our top priorities. For instance, last Wednesday's European Cup game between Manchester United and Monaco attracted over 11 million viewers. We've done the same sort of thing with Formula One and rugby union and we're looking to extend out operations into other sports."

There's an irony here. ITV is top dog in three sports, while the BBC is market leader in about 63. And yet as far as the public and the media are concerned, it is ITV that is the clear winner. Not surprisingly, the BBC tries to talk up its coverage of Wimbledon, the summer Olympics - conveniently forgetting its desperately dull winter counterpart - and the British Open golf tournament. Which is all very well, but none of these events - with the possible exception of the summer Olympics - is capable of pulling huge audiences.

Given that the BBC only has a finite pool of funding from licence fees and that there is usually a simple equation between the size of potential audience and the amount a television company will be expected to pay for transmission rights, you might think that the BBC's problem was only losing a battle over cash.

But it is more complex than that. The BBC has a remit to act as a public service broadcaster, which in this case is interpreted as covering as wide a field of sports as possible So the net effect is that a large amount of money gets spread extremely thinly. This has a certain nobility of purpose, but totally contradicts the current market trends which dictates that TV sport should be tightly focused.

It also has to be said that the BBC hasn't always gone out of its way to help itself. It has only just realised that showing Match of the Day at 10.50pm, instead of an hour earlier, is a sure-fire way of dramatically reducing its audience, Likewise, it was streets ahead of the other channels in its tennis coverage, but completely failed to exploit the arrival of two Brits in the world top 20 by securing the rights to the ATP tour events for peanuts.

Furthermore, the BBC doesn't seem to have much faith in itself. Just as Bob Shennan was getting his feet under the desk as the new chief of sport, Sir Paul Fox, BBC TV's former managing director, was busy putting the boot in. "Year zero has arrived," he said. "It is now BBC Sport, a family in genteel decline."

Even so, the outlook isn't utterly bleak over at Shepherd's Bush. While it was Sky in 1992 which was primarily responsible for generating the sea-change in television sports broadcasting by clinching a pounds 191.5m deal to screen 60 live Premier league games a year over a five-year period, the satellite channel still only pulls an audience of a couple of million for a top game, because only about 25 per cent of homes are hooked up to Sky.

And though this still represents decent business for Sky, which charges about pounds 30 per month for a bundle of programmes, including the three sports channels, it is not necessarily such good news for the sports themselves.

Sport wants more than just revenue from TV. It also wants exposure, because otherwise it will end up dying on its feet. Boxing makes the point. Which fight attracted the biggest audience in 1997? Prince Naseem, Evander Holyfield or Lennox Lewis? No. It was the almost unheard of Paul Jones fighting for the Commonwealth middleweight title. The reason? His fight was shown on BBC. What's more, with more than 2.5 million viewers it pulled three times as big an audience as the next most popular fight.

"Boxing is a natural for satellite TV," says Barwick. "There are long lead times and you can create a lot of advance interest. But if boxing was to end up solely on satellite, it would be in danger of becoming a niche sport."

Which is exactly what some insiders predict may happen to cricket if Sky gets its hands on live home Test matches. Because all those who currently watch on terrestrial TV won't immediately rush out and buy a dish and a significant proportion of the audience will be lost. At least in the short term. The gamble for Sky, and indeed sports administrators, is whether satellite can buy up sufficient TV rights to force those reluctant to pay for their pleasures into doing so.

Sky has made its intentions plain from the start, and ITV has signalled its response with its narrow focus on key sports. The BBC has yet to come up with a coherent strategy and it is going to have to think of more challenging ways of filling its schedules than Auntie's Sporting Bloomers, endless quiz shows and On Side, if it wants to retain both its audience and its highly skilled caucus of commentators, presenters and technicians.

Furthermore, both ITV and Sky have weapons in reserve. ITV is launching a new digital channel next year, provisionally called ITV2, in which sport will feature prominently. Sky has the right to charge pay-per-view for some football games, though it hasn't quite had the nerve to enforce this yet. Just what the BBC can come up with may well determine whether it is a sporting spent force.