TV's power behind the screens

How the insatiable demands of television have eroded tradition at the expense of spectators across the sporting spectrum
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Football Guy Hodgson

Football is the jewel in televised sport and as such it has tended to be treasured rather than tampered with. Fixtures may bear no relation to the Saturday-Tuesday-Wednesday format of former years but, beyond that, the rules have remained largely out of reach of TV executives.

Indeed, if the small box has had an effect on the regulators, it has been in an abstract rather than a concrete sense. Ideas have been floated such as larger goals and games of four quarters rather than two halves, but the energy behind these proposals has come from within football rather than from outside.

Fifa, world football's governing body, with an eye to the massive market in the United States, has seriously wondered about the entertainment value of its product, and such innovations as the new back-pass and offside laws have been made with half an eye on how the game would be perceived in living rooms. Yet no one has suggested that television lobbied for these changes.

The main difference to the man in the stand - apart from the infuriating TV lackey on the sidelines holding up kick-offs - has been when matches are being played and at what time. Few non-armchair watchers appreciate the 4pm Sunday kick-offs and you can barely get a printable word from Blackburn Rovers and Manchester City supporters about the 8pm start for their Boxing Day meeting.

Those times are unsociable, and Fifa's frequent willingness to flick channels at television's behest was potentially dangerous during the last World Cup. Having footballers play in Florida's midday heat last year to catch Europe's evening audience could have had consequences beyond dehydration and sun-stroke.

The decision of Uefa, European football's governing body, to spread European games from the traditional Wednesday has also had a knock-on effect. Everton, whose Cup-Winners' Cup matches were on Thursday nights, did not play a game at Goodison Park on a Saturday from 9 September to 25 November. Seven home matches were played during that period.

A less tangible change is the effect television has on support. Youngsters now have more opportunity to watch Manchester United, Liverpool and Newcastle United in their homes than they have of seeing local heroes in the flesh. The umbilical cord between clubs and their communities is being broken.

Motor racing David Tremayne

Motor racing was once a sport that was occasionally televised. Now it is more a televised sport that is motorised. Television is everything where return per dollar invested is the bottom line for the sponsors who pour in millions every season.

Under the auspices of Bernie Ecclestone, the vice president of marketing for the governing body, the FIA, and president of Foca, which allocates world television rights, Formula One blossomed dramatically and team owners grew rich. Ecclestone made little secret of the fact that trackside spectators were small beer compared to skyrocketing global viewing figures.

Then the tragic San Marino Grand Prix last year, when Ayrton Senna suffered his fatal crash, forced a greater consciousness of motor sport's image. At the Monaco Grand Prix which followed, the FIA president, Max Mosley, acted quickly to stem mounting dismay among normally placid sponsors, and announced a range of far-reaching changes.

In a forthcoming book, Echoes of Imola, Ecclestone said of the much-publicised Senna accident: "If he had been killed like Roland Ratzenberger the day before, where it hadn't been seen on television, it wouldn't have created such a terrific impact. It was the fact for an hour people were saying: 'What's happened to him? Is he going to make it?' It was a public death. Like crucifying Jesus Christ on television."

Television can be a two-edged sword. Later that year a serious pit lane fire at Hockenheim again made sponsors nervous. Foca issues air-time figures for each team; after five races in 1995 Williams had amassed one hour, 47 minutes and 35 seconds, the now extinct Pacific team only two minutes 14 seconds. By such figures can teams justify the massive expense to their backers. If the sponsors are unhappy, everyone suffers.

More and more the game is being tailored to television, with controversial refuelling, stop-and-go penalties, and safety cars to slow the field during accidents. There are even suggestions of an official handbook for aspiring race promoters, indicating that tight circuits with predominantly third and fourth-gear corners make trackside advertising more visible on the small screen.

Tennis John Roberts

For years the United States Open virtually has been run by CBS television, whose "Super Saturday" sandwiches the women's singles final between the two men's singles semi-finals.

The women have no idea at what time their supposed showcase will start, and the winner of the second men's semi-final simply hopes to have the energy to raise a game for the Sunday final. Jim Courier once described the arrangement as a "crock of shit", but conceded that "CBS pay the money and can call the tune".

Courier and Pete Sampras were the nightwatchmen in 1992, when the opening semi-final between Stefan Edberg and Michael Chang took a record five hours and 26 minutes.

Edberg and Mats Wilander were given a 10am start to their semi-final in 1987, even though Edberg was committed to playing doubles on the previous Friday night. The Swedes were told that the other semi-final, featuring Ivan Lendl and Jimmy Connors, was a bigger attraction for prime time television.

In 1986, Miloslav Mecir won a late night five-set semi-final against Boris Becker and was easily picked off by Lendl in straight sets in the final.

The "CBS Open" is tennis's most glaring example of manipulation by television. After years of criticism, the format for the climax of the championships is under review.

Wimbledon, the world's most prestigious tournament, is also the most resolute. "We like to think we put the players first here in terms of scheduling matches," Ian Edwards, the All England Club's TV marketing director, said.

Emphasising that seeking the widest television audience is as important as the fees involved, the All England Club has been associated with BBC TV since 1937. The latest contract, agreed last year, runs until the end of 1999.

Golf Tim Glover

Television coverage of tournaments is the key to the commercial success of the European Tour and Sky has all but blacked out the BBC. The Tour needed an injection of cash and felt that Sky made an offer it could not refuse. In signing the deal it left itself open to a charge of flogging off the family silver.

For an undisclosed sum, Sky gets not only the bread and butter events but the jewel in the crown, the biennial Ryder Cup match between Europe and the United States. When Europe regained the Cup at Oak Hill, Rochester, last September the public at large were stunned to discover that Sky had exclusive rights.

The majority, however, did not abandon Auntie, they tuned in instead to Radio 5 Live. It is estimated that six million people listened to the radio commentary compared to less than a million television viewers. Peter Alliss and the BBC team are now left with a handful of tournaments although they still have the Open. Thus far Sky has made no impression on the Royal and Ancient, who run the Open.

Not every sponsor has welcomed the Tour's expediency in selling out to Rupert Murdoch. Benson and Hedges, for example, who have been sponsoring their International event for 25 years, chose to remain with the BBC on the grounds that their viewing figures would be considerably higher.

Nevertheless Sky is paying the piper. When Dunhill withdrew its sponsorship of the British Masters in the summer the Tour could not find a backer, despite the fact that the BBC were contracted to cover the tournament. In the event Sky offered to underwrite the lion's share of the costs and, of course, took over the coverage. The BBC had virtually no choice but to waive the contract and take a back seat.

Sky was able to call the tune to the extent of bringing play forward to a ludicrously early hour for the final round so that the championship would be finished in time for the satellite company to switch to that afternoon's Premiership football match. The BBC were restricted to showing recorded highlights.

Snooker Guy Hodgson

If any sport has had a symbiotic relationship with television, it has been snooker. Without it the game would still be the province of working men's socials, and Stephen Hendry would either be struggling to make a living or selling balls in a professional's shop at a golf club.

In 1972, the year of Alex Higgins' first world title, the World Championship was played at Selly Park British Legion, the prize-money was pounds 800 and spectators in the overflow had to sit on beer crates. Hendry, the current champion, is a millionaire several times over. The difference was colour television...

In 1985 18.5m people watched Dennis Taylor beat Steve Davis on BBC2 in the World Championship final. This, it should be added, was after midnight. Snooker's matches are played at times with television in mind but no one seems to mind. In fact, the game's governing body would probably be more accommodating if it could guarantee more BBC live coverage of the World Championship, particularly during the evening.

Boxing James Reed

Colin McMillan is typical of the type of boxer that television executives are scared of: he can move, he has fast hands, he barely gets hit but he rarely knocks people out. In short, McMillan is a TV nightmare.

Earlier this year Frank Warren secured an incredible deal with Sky and left ITV with boxers including Naseem Hamed, Nigel Benn and Frank Bruno. Chris Eubank had left ITV six months earlier. Warren's deal is worth in excess of pounds 100m over three years, and includes Mike Tyson's fights.

Warren, who first worked with ITV 10 years ago, admitted that he was sad to end the partnership but the money on offer from Sky was simply too much to refuse. Two fights promoted by Warren have since attracted Sky's highest-ever viewing figures.

There are problems with fights on all channels. There are delays between fights and whenever an American company is involved there is invariably an after-midnight start time - and that is an insult to the paying British fans.

Rugby Union Steve Bale

The very idea that rugby union could sell itself - as opposed to its product - to the highest bidder by inserting the power of veto of transfers into contracts or by any other means was yesterday treated with disdain by the game's administrators. Rugby league's apparent agreement to cede this right to Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation will not be copied by union, no matter how much lucre he offers.

Turbulent times these may be, with the onset of professionalism, but there is one unbendable principle to which rugby union intends to adhere, even in the face of Sky's anticipated offer of pounds 175m for the next home unions television contract. Rugby union and not a TV mogul such as Murdoch (News Corp is Sky's largest shareholder) has to control itself, including its transfer system.

Tony Hallett, the secretary of the Rugby Football Union, said yesterday: "Were such a clause to exist, it would mean he would effectively own the game and I am certain the Rugby Union could not and would not enter into such a thing in any circumstances. No amount of money could buy that sort of influence on the game."

Hallett is in any case determined Sky will not be granted exclusive or unfettered rights when the next television contract comes up for negotiation next season. This is highly significant because, although the contract is in the gift of the committee of home unions, the percentage of the audience situated in England gives the RFU greater leverage than Scotland, Wales or Ireland.

"Any TV contract is going to have to be a partnership between terrestrial and satellite," Hallett said. "However difficult it may be to resist all of satellite's offers, the two need to be dovetailed so that we keep faith with the majority of the public who have terrestrial only.

"It will need a judgement of Solomon but we have to get the best bid for the best of all possible worlds, bearing in mind there are many clubs who are desperate to find a way of funding the new professional game with no big bankroll available to do it."

The current contract, in the second of its three seasons, was won by the BBC for pounds 27m with Sky having primary rights to English, Scottish and Irish club rugby for pounds 2.4m per season. A clause in its agreement for the 1991 World Cup enabled ITV to secure the UK rights to this year's tournament in South Africa for pounds 5.25m and to win rights for 1999.

Murdoch's principal rugby union involvement is a pounds 360m, 10-year TV deal between News Corp and Sanza, the acronym for a company formed by the South African, New Zealand and Australian unions.

The deal has added an annual home-and-away international series starting next year involving the Springboks, All Blacks and Wallabies as well as an expanded Super 12 provincial competition to the established round of tours and domestic rugby. "I hope they have read the small print," Hallett said.

Athletics Duncan Mackay

As a sport with wide international appeal, athletics has a close relationship with television. Television coverage is a vital component of any successful meeting and some one-off races have been totally dependent on TV money.

Big names, huge egos, plenty of hype and a blockbuster of a television story all conspired together in 1985 when Zola Budd and Mary Decker staged a rematch at Crystal Palace of their ill-fated Olympic meeting. American TV bankrolled the event and, naturally, called the shots.

An extra day was added to the programme so the race could be shown live across the Atlantic at prime time, while runners like the Olympic 3,000 metres champion Maricica Puica, who may have got in on the act and spoiled the story, were not invited to compete. The fact that Budd, paid pounds 90,000 for her appearance, finished only fourth did not seem to matter. "Who cares?" one TV executive said afterwards. "The ratings were good. That's the bottom line."

In 1993 the 100m world record holder, Leroy Burrell, complained after he could not get a lane when Linford Christie staged his head-to-head with Carl Lewis at Gateshead. But as Lewis's manager, Joe Douglas, said at the time: "We don't want anyone else winning for the sake of television. The race everyone wants to see is between Christie and Lewis, not Burrell."

Television has long dictated the Olympic timetable. So it is no surprise that, bowing to the demands of TV executives, organisers have ignored the advice of their own medical commission and will start the men's marathon in Atlanta next year when the afternoon sun will be at its hottest, humidity highest and conditions most dangerous.

Cricket Derek Hodgson

The BBC spokesperson was mischievous: "Crusty old members of MCC will have apoplexy when they hear this," she said, referring to an idea being developed in New South Wales, Australia, of an eight-a-side cricket competition of hour-long matches designed specifically for television. The players would wear coloured uniforms and each would both bowl and bat.

A league would be played during the English summer and Australia's Test men would be expected to compete, ruling them out of county cricket. This announcement is the latest television-driven tinkering with the game.

What should be noted is that cricket, especially MCC, has been in the business of selling the game, in the face of competition from cock-fighting, bare-knuckle boxing, gambling, professional sprinting, horse-racing, golf and dog-fighting for around 250 years. On one occasion at Southwark, in 1744, cricket had to compete against "a run by two jolly wenches, one known as the Little Bit of Blue and the other Black Bess, to run in drawers only and excellent sport is expected".

Richard Little, the Test and County Cricket Board's media manager, insisted: "We are starting from a completely different base from Rugby League. Their deal with TV is built around broadcasting whereas in cricket the broadcasting is built around the game.

"There is such a huge fight developing between the various TV channels that every sport is being examined for broadcasting opportunities, and where the basic sport either does not fit the schedule or cannot be manipulated to do so then secondary sports, or variations, will be approached or even set up."

Cricket will continue to come under pressure. Anyone watching Sky's Test match transmissions from abroad can sense that Sky would love to have a longer interval, for showing ads, between overs, and much shorter intervals between play at lunch and tea.

Cricket is making one concession next summer: the Benson and Hedges Cup will be played over 50 overs, instead of 55, and there will be just one interval, usually between innings, of 45 minutes.

What suits TV also happens to be a sensible improvement by cricket, for it is clear that matches less than 60 overs hardly warrant two intervals.