TV Sport: Bombardment of mediocrity turns television's boom to bust

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The Independent Online

The medium, someone said, is the message. And the message that filters through the medium of television is clear. In ever-increasing numbers, sports fans are pressing the off button. Enough is enough.

The medium, someone said, is the message. And the message that filters through the medium of television is clear. In ever-increasing numbers, sports fans are pressing the off button. Enough is enough.

According to Neil Wilson, of the Daily Mail, who once performed with distinction on these pages, there is startling evidence to suggest that the sports boom on television is over. Last weekend, he reported, viewing figures for the Grand National, one of the BBC's few remaining showpiece events, remained in a downward spiral from the peak audience of 16.7m in 1994: only 1.3m switched on to watch France complete the Six Nations Grand Slam by overwhelming Ireland in Paris: in a World Cup year, football is faring no better on the box. Ratings for Champions' League games have dipped below expectations. The golden egg of Premiership matches on Sky shows cracks.

No wonder. Week in, week out, the armchair audience comes under a bombardment of sports events, many of stultifying mediocrity. The answer is to switch off, and many do. Not so long ago, when asked how he felt about the glut of football on television, a prominent manager replied that it did not occupy much of his time because "there is only so much football I can take". Clearly, he is not alone in this.

Towards the end of last year, after watching Lennox Lewis demolish Hasim Rahman to regain three versions of the heavyweight championship, I fell into conversation with some other grizzled veterans of this dubious trade about developments in the televising of American sport that appeared to carry a warning for broadcasters on this side of the Atlantic. For example, having built its financial model on television money – Fox, ABC, CBS and ESPN will contribute a combined $2.47bn this year, deals that were overpriced when they were made in 1998 – the National Football League expected to hear the networks asking for relief. The collapse of ITV Digital has brought this trend home to us.

Sport as we know it today is television's baby. Television created a new breed of fan, the fan who may seldom see a big game live because of the advance sell-outs. They miss out on the madding crowd, the panorama of the stadium, the bracing spectacle and the bad hot dogs, but they see the game in a dimension not possible from the stands. They see the instant replays, the slow-motion re-runs, split screens, playercams, and other electronic razzle-dazzle that isolate the bad and beautiful from the clamour. But there are dues to be paid. Ideally, an announcing team should have a play-by-play man who can supplement the picture with a clear narrative in unhysterical English, and an analyst who can interpret what is happening in plain English. Both of them would add levity when appropriate, and keep an eye out for the mad doings of people on and off the field. They wouldn't belabour you with statistics and theory, and they would know when to shut up and let the action tell the story. Perhaps we will live to hear it.

In accordance with sponsorship hype, the television mentality bangs the drum for the product by apologising for it and patronising the viewer at every turn, retreating behind jargon, cliché and myth, showing no inclination to conduct a searching interview. Former players in the role of broadcasters see so many "awesome" and "fantastic" things happening in sport that the English language is frequently debased to a duffle bag of clichés and adjectives. Worse, some of the jocks have wrought havoc in the land by spreading the mystique of strategy, game plans, formations and goodness knows what else.

Across the past decade big-time sport has become an explosive growth industry. That's been fine for many investors and performers, but "growth industry" is not a buzz phrase for fun. All it suggests is hard-knuckled grabs for every pound anywhere in the country. Now television may be realising that the bubble has burst. Too much sport, translating into too many dull events, a glut in the marketplace and the challenge of entertainment options. Unquestionably, televised sport is losing its popularity. It is high time the truth was delivered. Truth is a majority have concluded that the experience is overrated.