It is football that has made Sky such a force and at the forefront of their exhaustive coverage since those earliest days two decades ago has been Andy Gray and Richard Keys. The pressing issue for the broadcaster, as it seeks to broaden its appeal and its subscriber base through the launch of channels such as Sky Atlantic, is how much the views paraded by the pair will damage its image. A channel always associated with blokes is unlikely to be watched by anyone other than blokes.
It was when yet another clip appeared on YouTube yesterday – widely flagged across Twitter – of Gray suggesting that presenter Charlotte Jackson help tuck his shirt into the front of his trousers, that Sky decided to act and Gray was dispatched swiftly. Further evidence of what the company regards as unacceptable behaviour, albeit behaviour that dates back in this instance to last year and must have been widely known about within Sky Sports, meant the end.
During last summer's World Cup, ITV sacked Robbie Earle, one of the station's key pundits, within hours of a ticket scandal breaking, thereby effectively killing the story before it developed legs. Sky may hope that yesterday's action will do likewise, but – not least because Keys remains in situ – that seems improbable.
It was in the early 1990s that Gray and Keys were recruited from a coaching job at Aston Villa and off the TV-am sofa (one of the more toe-curling You-Tube clips doing the rounds is Keys' Partridge-esque exchange with Ulrika Jonsson, then the TV-am weather presenter) respectively by Andy Melvin, a former Scottish Television executive who helped start up the fledgling satellite station's sports department. The current head of Sky Sports, the 40-year-old Barney Francis, arrived two years ago replacing Vic Wakeling, who had been in charge since 1994, bringing with him a steady change of attitude as his forthright statements over the last few days demonstrate.
Punditry was a familiar role for Gray, who had first taken to it while still a player during the 1978 World Cup, and since joining Sky he and Keys have become the heavyweights of the sports broadcasting game. When Sky and other broadcasters jetted off around Europe to cover matches Gray and Keys were always conspicuous by their presence at the front of the plane. "Seat 1A and 1B," was how it was described; the two alpha-males at the head of their pack. But within the industry there is little ready sympathy for the position they find themselves in. "If you live by the sword, you die by the sword," said one insider.
The atmosphere of outside broadcasts fronted by the pair has been compared to that of the dressing room. In other words, the arena in which Gray spent his entire pre-broadcasting career from Dundee United to Aston Villa, Wolves and Everton. Newcomers to the team are "welcomed" via practical jokes. The sort of comments voiced by Keys and Gray are by no means confined to their particular studio – as yesterday's disciplining of Andy Burton demonstrates.
A former female Sky Sports presenter yesterday told The Independent that the "world of sport on television is incredibly male, pale and stale". She described the original comments made by the dated duo as: "Typical, in my experience, of the attitudes towards women that pervade sports TV."
"You have to play the game or get eaten alive," said another woman – again speaking on condition of anonymity – who is a regular on the Premier League television circuit. She describes being on the receiving end of at best patronising attitudes, at worst blatant sexism. "Women aren't allowed in the tunnel," was one greeting at a club. But during her time in the game the number of women involved has increased and attitudes have changed – and the numbers of women watching is rising steadily too, which offers greater appeal to advertisers. But as a Saturday lunchtime in Wolverhampton demonstrated, some remain firmly stuck in the past.
Sky has a bit of breathing space with this weekend belonging to the FA Cup, which is broadcast by ITV – which under a previous director of sport discarded Gabby Logan as its main football presenter – and ESPN. The next Premier League match on Sky which Keys would be expected to front comes on Tuesday with West Bromwich against Wigan.
Last summer, the channel recruited presented Ben Shephard from GMTV and he and Jamie Redknapp, the favourite to fill Gray's role, are tipped as the long-term answer for Sky – although right now they must appeal as the short-term one too.