Media: Will football be brought down in an overcrowded box?: As BSkyB warms up for its second season, Robin Hunt highlights rival attempts to win the armchair fan

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The Independent Online
SUMMER may scarcely have got going, but the winter game returns to our television screens on Saturday. The Charity Shield match between Manchester United and Arsenal marks the start of another long season. But has the removal of live Premier League football from terrestrial television, following last year's pounds 300m BSkyB contract with the Football Association, changed the nature - as well as the cost - of our armchair enjoyment?

Given the fears about the health of the game, it is a paradox that there is more football on television than ever. For those with satellite dishes, Sundays now offer the competing spectacle of a live Premier League match on BSkyB, a First Division match on ITV and - if the new contract is finalised in time - an Italian match on Channel 4.

In pure footballing terms, the Italian option is usually the most entertaining. Mike Miller, Channel 4's head of sport, says: 'We wanted to show the best football anywhere, to give the football fans something for nothing.' He is critical of BSkyB: 'In terms of viewing figures, it is an absolute disaster. How can you call it anything else when it is often watched by fewer than three-quarters of a million? The only success the deal has had is in putting more money in the clubs' pockets.'

All terrestrial broadcasters talk down the Premier League. 'It's not special,' says Bob Burrows, ITV's head of sport. 'Manchester United versus Arsenal might be, but I'm not going to rush home for Oldham versus Wimbledon, live or not.'

One factor is different this year: the World Cup in America will provide the climax to the season - and ITV will be there, despite rumours that it would concede the coverage to the BBC. However, long before that, BBC and ITV will feature live European Cup football, the deciding matches in the World Cup qualifying rounds, live First Division matches and FA Cup and Coca- Cola Cup ties. On BBC, Match of the Day will return on Saturday night with its highlights package.

BSkyB's investment at the start of last season was undoubtedly a blow to the self- esteem of ITV bosses, who had promised to take televised soccer into a new dimension when they began live football four years ago. Burrows says now that if ITV had won the bid it would have been too expensive. Certainly ITV would not have broadcast 101 live games last season, as BSkyB did. 'Their production and presentation has been energetic and lively,' Burrows says, with faint enthusiasm. 'But they have flooded the market, and killed the desire for volume in football. When we did The Match it was 20 live games a year. Now the viewers are sick to death.'

ITV's big strategy is to sign up three of the four English teams in Europe (Manchester United, Aston Villa and Arsenal) for their matches against overseas opposition. 'Europe is now a bit special to us,' Burrows says. The drawback is the risk of early elimination of English teams. Three bad results in September could ruin ITV's autumn coverage, leaving them with only First Division matches and the Coca-Cola semi-finals and final next year.

BSkyB's head of football, Vic Wakeling, disagrees that he is wrecking the domestic league: 'For years people have argued that television was killing the game, but attendances have risen. It was only because grounds were being rebuilt to implement the Taylor Report that they were not higher still. That is because no matter what we do, no matter how many camera angles or dancing girls, the only real place to watch football is in the stadium. When we got the deal, people asked whether we would keep our election promises and visit all the clubs in the Premier League - that was always the complaint against ITV. But we did go to the Middlesbroughs, the Oldhams, and the Wimbledons.'

They did: but despite 1.7 million viewers subscribing (new subscribers to the Sports Channel pay pounds 11.99p per month while existing subscribers pay pounds 7.99), ratings were often below a million. There is no timetable yet for the planned move to a pay-per-view system. Nor did football stimulate the expected expansion in satellite dish sales. From BSkyB's announcement of live football in May 1992 until the end of the season in April, there were 428,000 new sales. This compares with 455,000 new sales from December 1990 to December 1991. A spokesman for G F K Marketing Services, which provided these figures, says: 'You could argue that there hasn't been much growth because of football.' It leaves BSkyB with total dish sales of 2,198,000, with a further 450,000 watching on cable and an estimated 90,000 homes with communal dishes.

Wakeling promises innovation for the coming season. This week's Charity Shield match will feature three 'new' camera positions, with perhaps an end to the extraordinary spectacles of dancing girls, sumo wrestlers and parachutes that enlivened BSkyB's Monday night games.

At the BBC, Brian Barwick, editor of Match of the Day, believes his team is still the best. 'We feel we had a very successful year bringing back Match of the Day - it does have a particular place in the culture.' However, what did not come back was an assured time slot, the kind that could be guaranteed in the days when Saturday nights meant The Generation Game, The Duchess of Duke Street, Kojak, Match of the Day and The Michael Parkinson Show.

'It was a problem,' says Barwick, blaming the screening of several films which had to begin after the 9pm watershed for Match of the Day's irregular starting times. However, the core audience was still around five million, the biggest for any programme shown at that time of night during the normal broadcasting week.

One BBC fear was that BSkyB would cream off the best matches every week - for pounds 300m there have to be some perks. 'You have to be realistic,' says Barwick, 'but we have been amazed at what we have been left with. Three weeks out of four we have had the best games of the weekend.' He concedes that Sky's coverage has been good and innovative, though he questions the necessity of a five-hour programme built around the live matches. 'We haven't stopped still, but we'll always be known as the boring and safe BBC,' he says.

Mike Miller believes that if the market for football is falling off, it is for the recorded highlights of matches. 'Times have changed. People want the excitement of the live game, when they don't know what is going to happen.' But though Channel 4 audiences were good in the first few weeks of Paul Gascoigne's Italian odyssey with Lazio, they fell back in the second half of the season and were often outperformed in a single ITV region where a relevant live First Division match was being played. Miller says the decline was caused by the inevitability of A C Milan's victory in the Serie A, the natural fall in viewing during the spring and summer months and the mounting excitement of our own leagues.

Whoever is right, we shall be watching more and more football over the next few years as satellite develops and its competitors seek exciting live alternatives.

(Photograph omitted)