Greg Dyke on Broadcasting

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Only six years after the "gentlemen" who run cricket promised the Government that at least half England's Test matches would stay on terrestrial television if cricket was removed from the Government's list of protected sporting events, they've sold the lot to BSkyB.

Only six years after the "gentlemen" who run cricket promised the Government that at least half England's Test matches would stay on terrestrial television if cricket was removed from the Government's list of protected sporting events, they've sold the lot to BSkyB.

Of course, the England and Wales Cricket Board faced a classic dilemma when making the decision. The up side of going with BSkyB was that it would rake in an extra £20m a year for cricket. The down side was that not only did it mean going back on what the Board had promised the Government, it also almost certainly meant a further decline in interest in cricket in the UK.

In the end, money talked, but no one should underestimate the impact the decision is likely to have. It will mean that more than half of the country's homes will, for the first time, not be able to receive live Test cricket. But it's worse than that; it's also likely to mean that fewer people will watch cricket overall - even in the homes that can receive BSkyB.

You can see the likely impact the move will have on cricket by looking at the viewing figures for other sports. Some years back, the English Rugby Football Union decided to sell all its internationals at Twickenham to BSkyB while the rest of the home countries sold their matches to the BBC. This meant that, one year, the England vs Wales rugby international was shown on BSkyB, while the next year, when it was played at Cardiff, it was on BBC1.

The audience figures tell all. When the match was on Sky the audience was a few hundred thousand; when it was on the BBC it was 20 times larger at seven million.

And rugby isn't an isolated case. The golf industry certainly blames the lack of new people taking up the game in recent years on the fact that most golf tournaments are now broadcast on one of the Sky Sports channels and not on terrestrial television. What this has meant is that while the ardent golf fans still watch, not many others do.

The truth is that when most sports events are broadcast on terrestrial television they become just that - events. That is just not the case when they are on BSkyB, even though the actual coverage is as good and often better than on the terrestrial channels. What many sports organisations have learnt over the years is that, without terrestrial television coverage, interest in the sport declines - soccer aside.

But while this latest deal might not turn out to be a good one for the long-term future of cricket, it certainly is a coup for James Murdoch and BSkyB. Back when the fledgling Sky first started, one of its early boosts in subscriber numbers came when it bought the exclusive rights to the cricket World Cup. With the growth in subscriber numbers now slowing and people turning in vast numbers to Freeview for multi-channel digital television, BSkyB needed something new to sell. Faced with either paying for BSkyB or not seeing live cricket at all, some cricket lovers are bound to sign up.

However, the deal raises the whole question of "listed events" legislation all over again. The Test matches were originally on the list of sporting events that successive governments said must be shown on terrestrial television, along with the Olympics, the soccer World Cup finals, Wimbledon and others.

But back in 1998, after a long campaign by the cricket authorities, the then Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, Chris Smith, agreed that the Test matches should not, any longer, be included in the list. He did this having had assurances from the Cricket Board that they would not sell more than half of the Test matches to BSkyB. Six years later, they have sold the lot.

What this is almost certain to mean is that the fledgling campaign by BSkyB and Fifa to change the listed events rules for the 2010 football World Cup, so that some of the games can be shown exclusively on BSkyB, is probably dead in the water. Which Government minister will trust a sporting body now?

Christmas is not business as usual

One of the great myths of television is that every year ITV and the BBC battle it out to win the Christmas ratings war. It's simply not true. In fact, for many years ITV has been quite happy to let the BBC win for the very simple reason that there's very little advertising revenue available over the immediate Christmas period.

Mind you, there's losing and losing. Back in the early Nineties when I was chief executive at London Weekend Television, I was responsible for the worst Christmas Day schedule ever on ITV. The year was 1993, and the 1990 Broadcasting Act passed by the Tory government had just come into effect. For the first time, ITV was being told to behave like a proper business, so we did just that. We spent virtually no money on the Christmas Day schedule. Instead, we played our most popular programmes in the run-up to Christmas or in the New Year when we could take some real money.

So for two hours in peak time on Christmas night, we played a movie about baseball called Field of Dreams. And at 10pm we ran another movie called Dead on Arrival - a particularly appropriate title.

Just as we expected, ITV was murdered in the ratings: we lost five to one. What we hadn't expected was the reaction of the new regulator, the Independent Television Commission. They savaged us because they said we were failing the public. No one really wants ITV to behave like a proper business - especially not the regulator.