How to win at TV sports

Peter Salmon brought football back to the BBC. Now he's after the cricket. He tells Ciar Byrne why there's everything still to play for
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The Independent Online

Peter Salmon has "no ambitions - past, present or future" to become the BBC's director general. Despite being cited as Greg Dyke's choice as his replacement, and subsequently being linked to the post of Channel 4 chief executive, Salmon remains firmly ensconced as the head of BBC Sport.

Peter Salmon has "no ambitions - past, present or future" to become the BBC's director general. Despite being cited as Greg Dyke's choice as his replacement, and subsequently being linked to the post of Channel 4 chief executive, Salmon remains firmly ensconced as the head of BBC Sport.

He joined the department four years ago, at the time of the Sydney Olympics, when it was in the doldrums, having lost the Premiership highlights and Formula One to ITV and test match cricket to Channel 4.

While he is not out of the woods yet - losing the Boat Race earlier this year was a "little shock" - Salmon has just presided over "our most ambitious summer yet" comprising the Athens Olympics, Euro 2004, Wimbledon and Sport Relief. Match of the Day is back, as is the lion's share of the FA Cup and every Six Nations rugby international until the end of the decade.

Cricket could also make a return - the England and Wales Cricket Board's contract with Channel 4 runs out at the end of next year and Salmon is currently ploughing through the 60-page tender document for the television rights.

He is insistent that he will only make a bid for the cricket if he believes the BBC can do it justice. "I wouldn't dream of taking on a sport and not being able to cover it really well with enough airtime. If I can't satisfy myself ultimately that I can do that, we won't be taking up the cricket offer," he says.

"We're under some pressure, as clearly viewers would like to see it back on the BBC. They don't like the adverts. Cricket authorities would like a bigger market for their rights. Fine, but can we do it well and can we afford it?"

Besides the cost factor - Salmon has around £350m a year to play with compared to Sky Sports' £720m - there is also scheduling to consider. "When a sport leaves, the BBC moves on and fills in behind it. You do more golf, tennis, athletics, and swimming and, as a consequence, the slots which were available disappear."

Salmon is currently taking stock of the Olympics coverage, which "surpassed all our expectations", but is still subject to a detailed six-month review.

In total 46m viewers tuned in to the Olympics at some point, 14 sports including table tennis and archery reached audiences of more than 4m viewers and, on six consecutive evenings, more than 10m people watched events in Athens on BBC1.

Interactive "red button" technology, allowing viewers to switch between sports, or to watch them simultaneously, moved into the mainstream for the first time with 9.2m users - five million more than the previous high. "It's not just sport. I think the whole of television is going to change because of it. That was a revolution, it wasn't just a step change," says Salmon.

Salmon finds it "fascinating" that slightly more women watched the Olympics than men, tracing the rise of the female sports viewer back to football. "We know the reason the audience was 23.9m at peak for England's Euro 2004 match against Portugal was because women were watching too. It wasn't just the old sports audience."

He admits that it is impossible to deliver 1,200 hours of Olympics coverage on television, and many more hours on the radio and internet, without identifying areas that could be improved. One of the lessons the BBC has learnt is that people want more continuous updates, allowing them to catch up on the latest news and winners. He also admits that the interactive coverage was unsophisticated in Freeview homes. "It was much better in digital satellite homes. I don't think we did enough to present the technology in Freeview homes. It just looked like another channel."

Salmon has publicly defended the presenter Craig Doyle, who has been criticised for being a pretty face who knows little about Olympic sports. "It would be really easy for me to bring on the same band of old lags. They'd all be 82 now, but they're all household names and know their stuff. I have to bring on new talent and that means a bit of risk-taking. You don't always get it right. Craig, just like everyone else, will be the subject of a pretty stringent review."

His next priority is to exploit fully "the best football portfolio we've ever had" - including all England's home games for the next four years and the 2006 World Cup shared with ITV.

"If you think about the dark days when we lost Match of the Day, the larder was pretty empty. But by hook or by crook, just by focusing on what we wanted and not wasting our money on stuff which was peripheral, we've got a great football story." Match of the Day has made a respectable return to the BBC, pulling in an audience of 4m at 10.30pm on Saturday nights, plus an extra couple of million for Match of the Day Two on Sunday nights. There is also a version on Sunday mornings.

"We've revised the offering for Sunday morning to make it more kiddie-friendly. We're inserting more grass-roots participation to get kids caught up in the whole fitness agenda," says Salmon.

He is keen to avoid ITV's mistake of concentrating on the "mega-clubs", instead ensuring that all football supporters are given "a fair crack at the whip". "The grumbles around the ITV coverage were that there wasn't enough football action and that the big three or four clubs dominated every week's programme. That doesn't happen with us."

Football accounts for half of BBC Sport's £250m rights budget, although not half its airtime, as its market value is "still pretty extraordinary". How does this expenditure tally with the BBC's role as a public service broadcaster, which is supposed to provide programmes that the commercial sector fails to deliver?

"The BBC has got to be in football because it's the national sport and the BBC's the national broadcaster," says Salmon. He adds that, unlike Sky and ITV, whose primary responsibilities are to their shareholders, the BBC is also responsible for the health and well-being of the nation. With this in mind, Salmon is stepping up the commitment to women's football in an attempt to engage teenage girls - a group currently turning its back on sport.

He is also planning a series of 12 "sports summits" which will take place around the UK this winter. Sports stars, industry movers and shakers, and members of the public will join the BBC, UK Sport and Sport England to discuss issues including how to get more people involved, tackling the obesity problem, keeping alive a broad range of sports and improving Britain's strength in elite sports.

As controller of BBC1 in a period when the channel suffered from under-funding, Salmon came in for relentless criticism. In contrast, he appears in his element steering BBC Sport. But it is not his only preoccupation. Together with Pat Loughrey, the BBC's director of nations and regions, he is responsible for deciding which services will move to Manchester, earmarked to become the BBC's main production base outside London. It has been suggested that sport could be one of the areas to move, but Salmon says no decisions have been made.

Forthcoming challenges include improving on the success of last year's Six Nations rugby, which pulled in audiences of up to 8m on the back of England's World Cup triumph, developing swimming coverage, and building on Kelly Holmes's success in athletics. The Olympics may be over for another four years, but for Salmon the new season has just begun.