James Lawton: Has television scored an own goal with all this football?

'There's a growing sense that TV, having bought the soul of the game, will one day consume its body'
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The Independent Online

John Motson, doyen of television football commentators, reciter of interminable facts, of whom it was once caustically said by the great Scottish player Denis Law, "if you turned him upside down the batteries would fall out," now faces the most hurtful charge of his extraordinary career.

Motty, the voice and the data bank of the national game, is accused of biting the hand that used to feed him when he warns that an army of couch potatoes may be poised to switch off an unprecedented barrage of televised football. Another army, of television executives led by ITV, which has annexed the BBC's traditional Match of the Day slot, has been quick to cry that Motson is simply filled with angst at the dwindling of his own broadcasting empire.

It is an unworthy charge. When Motson counsels against the dangers of overkill, when he becomes the ally of millions of football widows banished to back rooms to watch Big Brother and an endless menu of television chefs, we can be sure he is operating beyond a personal agenda.

Motson, you have to be believe, would still be obsessing on football if the earth caught fire. His fear, and yesterday he was asking all who knew him to put his views in proper perspective, is that the game he adores is in danger of being overexposed, that a glut of television football – nine different channels will be pumping out the game live this coming season, with the BBC hanging on to home internationals and re-gaining live FA Cup action – is bound to create a jaded audience. He says: "I just don't think people can consume all the matches that are on offer this season. There is an off button and people can make a choice."

What is most likely to hasten the move to that off-button is the sheer impossibility of providing a sustained level of entertainment value. Already, some are saying that in the case of television football more is beginning to be less. Less, certainly, in terms of anticipation of high-quality sport. Sky's hugely hyped Monday night game, for example, remains a long way short of the impact sustained over the years by the American NFL version of Monday Night Football. The following for a once-a-week big gridiron game became so intense a new religion was registered, the Church of Monday Night Football, whose high priest was the late Howard Cosell.

Neighbourhood bars bought up old television sets so that the winners of a weekly raffle would be able to throw a brick through the screen while Cosell was in mid-pontification. Even Motson has failed to generate such saleable emotion. The trick was the exclusivity of the Monday night American experience, and in recent years the popularity of the show has dwindled with the expansion of coverage across the channels. One failed device was to hire a comedian to sit alongside the game analysts. The critics said that comics should be kept out of the church.

Here, almost every other night will be pitched as a big football occasion. Ennui, after another nudge in the divorce statistics, seems to some an inevitable result.

A few years ago, a dreadful game involving Leeds United was variously described as intriguing and tactically fascinating and evenly balanced by Sky's broadcasting team. Naturally, they were somewhat dismayed when the then Leeds manager George Graham, when presented which those euphemistic descriptions of the action, shook his head slowly and said: "To be perfectly honest, I thought it was one of the worst matches I ever seen."

Such is one danger faced by a game which has given itself up so comprehensively to the television schedules.

Another is the increasing sense that television, having bought the soul of the game, will eventually consume its body. Back in the 1980s, Major League baseball saw quickly the erosion of its power to shape its own future. It was pointed out to NBC, the network which had bought the World Series between New York Mets and Boston Red Sox, that the start of the first game at Shea Stadium would come at that point when the last of the sun would be shining directly in the eyes of the batters.

NBC flatly refused to change the schedule. They pointed out it would inconvenience the audience of their top-rated show Cosby. The ball players were told to wear sunglasses.

Such a crunch may be some way down the television highway here, but perhaps not as far as a currently opulent game may imagine. Maybe it should reflect that, last week, Britain's top selling newspaper devoted four consecutive front pages to the mating habits of competitors on Big Brother. David Beckham has never received such unrelenting personal publicity.

For the moment, King Football may rule almost every corner of the television schedules but its long-term command of popular taste cannot be guaranteed. There may indeed be a time when the bug-eyed fan groans that enough is enough. In the chill that will follow, football may well wish it had listened to John Motson – and perhaps invested in one of his sheepskins to keep out the cold.

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