Barker wins the bet, Murdoch the argument

Sport on TV
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The Independent Online
IT MAY have been due to the premature heatwave but sport on television last week seemed to have an air of distorted reality about it. The BBC went evening horse-racing for the first time in living memory, one of the bidders for the new Channel 5 fronted his own documentary on Channel 4, a BBC news programme plugged a live Sky Sports broadcast and a regional ITV production did its best to scupper the network's forthcoming rugby World Cup extravaganza from South Africa.

You would need to be a combination of Jacques Derrida and Bet Lynch to be able to deconstruct what was actually going on but the name of one suspect kept coming up during enquiries - Rupert Murdoch. Leaving aside his poker player's bid for Channel 5, Murdoch's strongest suit is disrupting - sometimes for the better - the cosy certainties of establishment broadcasting.

How else could we explain not just the BBC's welcome decision to cover three races from Ascot's evening meeting (BBC2) on Tuesday, but also to use the 105-minute broadcast as a sort of Open University crash-course into the intricacies of racing? It was plainly a retaliation to Sky's massive coverage of evening racing throughout the summer, which has opened up not just betting shops, but greater access to potential horse-racing supporters.

The BBC's attempts to tap into this market were predictably a little stodgy, with Professor Julian Wilson uncomfortably acknowledging that his natural audience is not a bunch of feckless Old Harrovians with nothing to do but bet from the comfort of the bars of their London clubs. His assistant lecturer, Graham Rock, was obliged to run through that old stand- by, the bookies' coded slang - more colourful than enlightening - while the games mistress Sue Barker was dispatched into the betting ring to demystify the process of getting your money on.

It probably helped Barker that she had a deeper tan than any of the bookies - the only thing they respect as much as "readies" is someone who has obviously been able to afford a bit of "currant bun" in the winter. But she made a decent job both of this feature and the interview with Peter Scudamore about jockeyship, and enhanced her reputation as a considerable asset for BBC Sport.

A woman reporter was also dispatched to seek out the WBC bantamweight boxing champion Naseem Hamed in the BBC's breathless, tabloid news show Here and Now (Wednesday), the point of which seemed unclear, especially when she patronisingly announced that after Hamed's childhood rags "he'd reached the heady heights of Cecil Gee".

But when the details of Hamed's multi-million pound signing by Sky were mentioned, some focus finally appeared, as his first fight on the satellite station (last night) was heavily trailed. So was it just a photo-opportunity manipulated by a public relations person, or an "up- yours" to ITV who had lost their rights on the boxer, or a trade-off with Sky for access to the highlights? If there was anyone in the planning meeting with a hidden camera, let me know.

ITV's consolation for the loss of Hamed is, for the time being at any rate, the Rugby World Cup, but Alistair Hignell's HTV-produced series Rugby Warriors isn't much of a come-on. The impression given is that several dozen camera crews were sent out around the world to film anything they could get on rugby, leaving the question of a narrative until the cutting room.

Unfortunately one was never found, which explains why Hignell had to match the visual clichs - Scottish pipers, Welsh mines, French restaurants - with their verbal equivalents to try to stitch the pieces together. So, rewards were reaped, lands were promised, hillsides were rolling, times were immemorial and hotbeds were of rugby. The overall effect was a bit like having somebody who'd got the wrong photographs back from the chemist being hurriedly obliged to comment upon them. In contrast, the Sky previews of their Courage League championship broadcasts are of an altogether higher standard.

Which brings us to a less obvious undercurrent in Greg Dyke's Fair Game (Channel 4) than the question of Will Carling's captaincy. Dyke is a man who knows the machinery and the costs of television - hence his recruitment, with other "beards", to a bid for Channel 5. So his enjoyably sly demolition of the Rugby Football Union's dying grip on the amateur ethos carried with it a startling picture of a game which Alistair Hignell might describe as "ripe for plucking" by Murdoch's satellite stations.

The petty euphemisms - players having to sneak "reasonable petrol expenses", while the RFU spends £237,000 on "committee expenses" - tells you how vulnerable rugby is to a serious predator like Murdoch. Not only because he's got the cash to buy them out but also because, when he's done it, he'll be able to turn the game, as he has done with other sports, into a damned good television spectacle. So one way to fight him is not with money, but with better coverage of the sports the terrestrials have got left.

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