Week of Rupert's wallet and a loose cable

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IT WAS a big week for Rupert Murdoch's wallet. First it opened up and secured a bumper pack of boxers to an exclusive deal with Sky Sports. Mike Tyson, Naseem Hamed, Nigel Benn and Frank Bruno won't fight anywhere else until 1997. Then it bulged seductively once more to see if it could tempt Britain's rugby league sides into forming a European super league - again exclusively on Sky. At the time of writing, those sides are still thinking about it. Of course, for the wallets of fans in, say, Wakefield, attending away games in, say, Milan is going to present something of a problem. But it's unlikely that Rupert Murdoch's wallet is all that bothered.

This is the kind of thing to make you hate extra-terrestrial television, though it's strange how that hatred somehow fails to prevail. One minute, you're cursing satellite TV's arrogance, its disrespect for tradition, its sour motivation; the next, you're avidly scanning the listings to see which of the channels is going to bring you Chelsea's European Cup Winners' Cup game away against Real Zaragoza. The relationship of the sports fan to the satellite station frequently appears to have all the dignity of the relationship of the addict to the drug dealer.

For vast portions of the 90 minutes on Thursday, it looked as though Chelsea were never going to get anywhere near the Real Zaragoza goal. But this still felt positive, because all week leading up to the game, it had looked as if the team was never going to get anywhere near a television screen. ITV had the Thursday night slot squarely occupied by Arsenal v Sampdoria. The BBC, who showed Chelsea v Bruges in the last round, were unable to get this week's tie shifted to Tuesday and in any case, what with a new series of Wildlife on One commencing on Thursday, they probably felt they had enough animals scheduled for one evening.

Of the other two obvious openings, Sky Sports were busy delighting their subscribers with the British Snooker Open from Plymouth (excitement at almost health-endangering levels); and Eurosport as usual were showing pigeon racing, or stunt-kite flying or lorries backing in and out of a sandpit, so clearly there was no chance there.

Things, then, were looking bleak. UK Gold? Completely occupied, what with Knots Landing and Robin's Nest and a bumper, triple edition of I Didn't Know You Cared. The Family Channel? Committed to Dangermouse. The rock video channel MTV? Half-time analysis from Beavis, Butt-Head and Alan Ball? Alas, no go.

Late on Tuesday, there was a wildfire rumour that Red Hot & Dutch had agreed to screen the game, or at least what they could fit of it in the commercial breaks during Debbi Calls A Plumber III (nowhere near as good as Debbi Calls a Plumber I and Debbi Calls a Plumber II, incidentally), but even they pulled out, as it were. It was all very Chelsea. No one wants the fans in their ground and no one wants the team on their television. Would it be unreasonable to suggest that these might be linked?

But finally, incredibly and right at the last, in stepped Wire TV. To witness Wire, you need a cable link-up, a decoder box and a strong stomach for poor production. The name "Wire TV" makes the station sound a good deal more shiny and technically hooked-up than it is. String TV might be more appropriate. Or Dust TV. The pre-match build-up, led by Mark Webster, a former stand-up comedian of an alarmingly Cockney chirpiness, unfolded at a desk in front of some orange drapery which had clearly been in use, only recently, as someone's curtains. Still, Wire TV declared themselves ready to shelve the scheduled episode of The Brady Bunch for the benefit of those of us whose desire to attend the game live was overcome by our greater desire not to get clobbered by a Spanish truncheon, and for this much we should be grateful.

Commentating was John Helm who, the chances are, got the call as late as the rest of us. In his opening remarks, he declared, "It's a city of culture, really," an observation informed, one felt, by only the speediest of taxi trips from the airport. And though the budget had clearly stretched to buying a programme, one felt that Helm hadn't really had an opportunity to take its information on board. "There's the Real Zaragoza substitute," he said. "With the coach," he added.

You wouldn't want to assert that Wire TV never secures the big games, but it did occur to Helm to point out for regular viewers, midway through the first half, that Chelsea's second reserve goalkeeper, Alan Judge, had already made an appearance on the channel earlier in the season - in a match involving Bromsgrove Rovers.

Sceptics will have been wondering whether Helm was in Spain or whether, in the manner of Channel 4's Italian football coverage, he was actually in a box room in London, talking into a microphone wrapped in Sellotape while simultaneously scrunching a cereal packet for that special "live by satellite" feel. But Helm had to be there because, at one point, in a bout of unfakeable squeaking and whining, the line went down.

Typical of cable TV. And Chelsea lost. Who needs it?

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