Sport on American TV: Roger, Seamus, Rick et Al make the game talk

IT'S a widely held belief that the standard of British television (with its Panoramas and its South Bank Shows) knocks into a cocked hat the service provided by American TV (construed as a trite parade of duff gameshows and shopping channels). But is that really the case? Maintaining this position involves narrowing your eyes to avoid Surprise Surprise and anything with Esther Rantzen in it, while simultaneously refusing to reckon with Cheers, Seinfeld, all that fabulous baseball coverage, Roseanne, the basketball and David Letterman. Not to mention those terrific shopping channels.

Still, I watched the World Cup final last Sunday on television in a hotel in Los Angeles and it looks like, with football, British broadcasting may just have the upper hand. Even ITV.

ABC was the place to be, though not until kick-off. Tuning in an hour before, in search of some pre-match build-up, I got an extended news bulletin, followed by an abrupt cut to the stadium where the players were on the pitch and the anthems over. 'The sooner we get this started,' the coverage seemed to be saying, 'the sooner we can get it over with.'

Already in place in the commentary box was Roger Twibell with two sidekicks - Seamus Malin and Rick Davies. Detailed biography on these three was obscure, but in as much as I could gather, Roger used to manage the local Mountain Rangers Under-12 side in Moosejaw, Arkansas, while Seamus and Rick had extensive playing experience at a number of Church of the Father Bat, Ball and Chilli Cook-Out weekends in St Louis during the 1970s. All of them offered useful pointers like: 'Keep in mind, folks - this is a defender.'

Their remarks were designed to keep you right up to the minute with the action while at the same time apologising for the fact that the action wasn't baseball. Still, all credit to them: as the game crept like a badly wounded dog towards extra time and penalties, they chatted on merrily in a manner which made Ron Atkinson look shy and retiring. 'The thing is, Rick . . .' 'That's the point I was trying to make, Seamus . . .' 'As you say, guys . . .'

Sponsors' logos, clocks and gimmicks crowded the screen. At times, it was as if the game were being projected on to Nigel Mansell's boiler-suit. Every 15 minutes, the main logo would switch and Roger would announce, without the faintest trace of irony: 'This section of the game is presented commercial-free by GMC Truck.' Actually, there were whole phases during the deeply unexciting second half when a few fully fledged mid-game commercials would have gone down well.

But there was always Al Trautwig to lighten the boredom. Al is a touchline reporter and then some. Jim Rosenthal has not even dreamed of freedoms like those afforded Al, who appears during the action, full-length in his shirtsleeves, leaning casually against a retaining bar in the photographers' pit. It's Al's function to keep us up to speed with matters medical ('anterior cruciate ligament operations', 'arthroscopic knee surgery' etc) but also to chime in with his own analyses. 'I wonder,' he mused, on the subject of Roberto Baggio, 'if he's not intelligently applying what he has in terms of his leg.' It was something to think about.

Other welcome distractions included live satellite links with central squares in Sao Paulo and Rome - the first stacked with joyous fans, the second stacked with joyous riot police - and, for when the game got particularly tedious, little pre-recorded interviews with players, who popped up in a box at the top of the screen. 'I define myself as quick - one of the quickest,' Romario said, popping into this box a good deal more effectively than he did into the real thing. 'I'm a matador in the box, a killer,' he added, before going on to claim responsibility for the wheel, electricity and sliced bread.

Revealingly, in his signing-off comments, Jim McKay in the ABC studio defined the tournament in terms of negatives. 'It hasn't been a bomb,' he said. 'Visiting fans haven't spread violence from coast to coast.' Subtext: wouldn't it be great if England failed to qualify every time?

And with that, we left as swiftly as we had come, without hanging around for any of that nonsense at the end with the trophy. I hastily retuned to a Spanish-language satellite sports channel where, through a cloud of interference and in a gush of white noise, I glimpsed what may have been Brazil's Dunga receiving what may have been the World Cup from what may have been Al Gore. On reflection, though, there's a good chance this was simply the 'Giltware U Can Trust' slot on one of the more badly distorted shopping channels.

One initiative, and one alone, seemed worth taking up and adapting over here. Gore was in the studio with Jim McKay at half- time and was given space to say, literally, a handful of words. If the Vice-President of the United States gets only two sentences, why should Jimmy Hill get five minutes?