Sport on TV: Murdoch's smug smile too much to bear

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The Independent Online
APPARENTLY WE'RE supposed to be happy that the Restrictive Practices Court handed down its judgment this week in favour of the status quo, and we can carry on as we were, in thrall to the Grand High Vizier of the Airwaves. If Rupert the Great had lost, we're told, we'd have ended up paying pounds 600 to watch the coming season's footie. For someone like me, subsisting quite happily on terrestrial at home and satellite down the local pub, it seems ideal. A victory for common sense, then.

So why do I not like that? Why, a week before the season proper kicks off, am I already sick of football on the telly? There's no pleasing some people. I would, I guess, have even more to whinge about had it gone the other way. In the end, I suppose it comes partly down to pure bile: the image of Murdoch permitting himself a smug smile when the news was relayed to him is too much to bear for any sentient being.

It's that overwhelming sensation of powerlessness, the feeling that we are completely at the mercy of the football industrialists. One big Murdoch or lots of tiny Digger Wannabes - it's all the same to the fan in the street. It's the evils of capitalism, mate.

In a week, then, when Arsenal's chairman, David Dein, warned that over- exposure could kill football as a live attraction, how appropriate was it that clogging up the schedules was Monaco v Arsenal in a pre-season dozathon (Channel 5, Monday). And how appropriate that it was such a dead dog of a game (at least the 10 minutes or so I could stand to watch). No doubt muscles were stretched, lungs unclogged and brains put back in gear, but why C5 saw fit to broadcast it is beyond comprehension.

Tuesday night's offering was Celtic v Newcastle, the last few minutes of which promised more in terms of commitment. And indeed, there was a sense of urgency which was lacking both the night before, and on Thursday, when Liverpool's desultory victory over Valerenga was transmitted in the Live and Dangerous night slot.

As has been observed before in this column, the Beeb's best bet in these lean times (lean for them, that is) is to emulate record companies and plunder their back catalogue. This policy has worked wonderfully well so far, spawning such delights as the post-prandial Match of their Day. The latest manifestation is last night's Match Of The Nineties (BBC2), presented by Mark Radcliffe and his sidekick Lard, and following the format of the previous series that dealt with the 1970s and '80s.

Sadly, my preview tape stuck in my machine, but this kind of programme is so much up my street - and is of the type the BBC do so peerlessly - I almost feel like recommending it sight unseen, especially as it is produced by Alan Brown, who was responsible for the wonderful Kicking and Screaming series a couple of years ago.

One or two sports would hardly exist as professional pursuits if it weren't for tobacco, and snooker was always particularly eager to save its soul by selling it.

Along with a tiny handful of other players, Alex Higgins did more than most to help the sport lodge itself in the nation's heart - a fact which the sponsors must have loved, for he was an avid and high-profile champion of their products. In the documentary series Tobacco Wars (BBC1, Monday), the price he has paid was all too apparent, throat cancer having reduced him to a skeletal relic of snooker's golden age.

Shuffling round a table, he plays a frame with the presenter, Michael Buerk, (a 30-a-day man back in the '60s), then talks hoarsely of what it's been like the last couple of years.

"I've had something removed - a gland or something removed," he says. "This" - he fingers his throat - "is like a rock."

We are well used by now to cancerous ex-smokers complaining that it wasn't their fault they became addicted. Higgins, indeed, says he feels "nothing but disgust" for the cigarette companies. But he surely has a special case to plead, given the fact that the sponsors, happy to have him puffing away at every available opportunity (especially during matches), gave him enough free fags virtually to ensure a death sentence.

"They were everywhere but strewn on the floor," he said, bulging-eyed and sunken-cheeked. It was the saddest sight of this and many other sporting weeks.

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