Life's A Pitch: BT creates credible sports broadcaster from scratch

The Independent goes behind the scenes

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BT has invested over £1 billion in a bid to succeed where ITV Digital, Setanta and ESPN have failed, in taking on Sky. £738 million has been spent on securing rights to show 38 Premier League matches per season whilst BT Sport will broadcast from a lavish new state-of-the-art studio in the Olympic Park.

Alongside coverage of the top flight in England, BT Sport has also secured the rights to live top tier matches from Serie A in Italy, Ligue 1 in France whilst the acquisition of ESPN’s TV channels business in this country will bring the rights to show live games for popular German Bundesliga.

BT will also broadcast a range of other sports including exclusive coverage of up to 69 live rugby union games from the Aviva Premiership. Sport entertainment shows are also part of the line-up.

BT unveiled Clare Balding as a marquee signing after her exceptional and widely praised broadcasts during the London Olympic and Paralympic Games. The Clare Balding Show is a flagship programme for the pay-TV channel.

Journalist, broadcaster and former Daily Mail columnist Des Kelly fronts a magazine-style football programme, called Life’s A Pitch, which goes out Monday to Thursday live from the biggest studio in the UK located in the former International Broadcast Centre at the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park.

BT Sport invited The Independent to go behind the scenes during the recording of Life’s A Pitch whilst also observing The Clare Balding Show live alongside a studio audience.

It is hard not to be impressed by the huge venue in Stratford. The 33ft high building features a glass floor which replicates a pitch and can be marked with lighting for rugby, tennis and other sports featured on BT’s channels. The technology, which is only 20 per cent the cost of a normal studio floor, was discovered online by BT Sport chief operating officer Jamie Hindhaugh and imported from Germany. He also reveals that a 10-year lease has been acquired which should dispel any myths that BT Sport will disappear after just two or three years.

The broadcaster’s central office houses the staff of four independent production teams who work side-by-side to encourage creativity and openness. BT has renovated the building to house three TV studios, a control centre, 20 edit suites and an audience holding area.

The twentieth Life’s A Pitch show featured former Manchester United striker Andrew Cole, musician Miles Kane and journalists Patrick Collins and Matt Hughes.

“It’s about the stories and debate of the day and how people cover it. Journalists have good access and good information and if you add that to a top striker like Andrew Cole then we get good perspectives. We bring it all together and it should work,” says presenter Des Kelly, describing the show.

“We try to make it journalistic and topical but I don’t want it to be pompous. We do the show in a way where we can make serious points all the way through and have a laugh so you are entertained. We had Harry Redknapp on the first show and as I wanted to do something for a bit of a chuckle we built a car door into his seat. He loved it.

“It’s meant to be a sports entertainment show so it has journalism in it which has to be a core of any show I want to do.”

Kelly was part of BBC1's Inside Sport presenting team, which was hosted by Gabby Logan between 2007 and 2009. He has also made appearances on BBC's Match of the Day 2. Kelly though believes his presenting style is evolving during each show.

“I am learning on the job, there are little things you pick up all the time. The more relaxed you get in the studio, the easier it becomes. Everyone in this massive studio is starting new.”

Kelly still presents The Press Pass on Talksport and regularly features on The Tuesday Club.

“Doing TalkSport is great fun, the Sunday night show The Press Pass is good training for this show. The Tuesday show with Colin Murray is good fun too. It helps to promote the TV show to go on the radio. The two work quite well together,” he says. “But it wasn’t physically possible to continue my Daily Mail column. This [Life’s A Pitch] is my priority and nothing will get in the way of that.”

I ask Kelly, who normally invites a couple of journalists on each show, why football programmes don’t feature more reporters rather than being dominated by former footballers.

“We just need better pundits full stop,” he says. “There are plenty of intelligent footballers who make good pundits, good journalists and good broadcasters. We have people on the show like Pat Nevin, Mark Bright and Jason Roberts who are all excellent in any arena. If a player as a pundit is boring people will let you know.”

Life’s A Pitch's executive producer Mark Aldridge doesn’t think it will be hard to build credibility at BT Sport as the team behind the show have been successful elsewhere.

“There is a lot of established talent at BT Sport plus there is a lot talent behind the camera. There is a wealth of experience within the office. I was really thrilled with the team I was able to assemble because I knew I was bringing in some really big names in terms of producers who have done some big shows. We started looking in July [for the team] and were on air on 5th August.”

Aldridge has hired a diverse team with some members coming from entertainment shows.

“I wanted people to bring some new ideas to it and new approaches but when you are on air for 40 weeks you need people who have done long-running shows before.”

Life’s A Pitch featured Moto GP Carl Fogarty recently whilst legendary Formula One commentator Murray Walker is set to appear in his first TV interview since being diagnosed with cancer. Aldridge is happy to invite guests from various backgrounds in entertainment alongside journalists.

“I think any guest who comes on should be passionate about at least one sport. We had Alan Davies on who is passionate about Arsenal. I want to bring in a broad audience.”

Life’s A Pitch has been well received by those in the media but the show, which is in stark contrast to anything shown on Sky, is for football fans and sport fans too who want a look at the day's major stories with a bit of humour.

“We are on our twentieth show. We’re barely out of the blocks but I am confident we have a nice format,” says Kelly.