Fast forward to the digital revolution

Multi-channelling is a welcome prospect if it frees us from the tyranny of the programme controller
Click to follow
The Independent Online
"The Biggest and Busiest-Ever Sizzling Summer of Sport!" boasts BBC publicity. Terrific. Seven hundred hours of airtime and pounds 125m of men and balls. Euro 96 football hits the screen on 8 June, to be followed by 300 hours of the Olympics starting in July. ITV will be screening some of Euro 96 live at the same time. Wonderful.

"This extraordinarily rich summer," the BBC boasts, will include: men in cars in the British Grand Prix; men with bats in two test match series; men on horses at Goodwood and Ascot and men with clubs at the golf Open, as well as Wimbledon.

What is going on here? Sport is taking over the nation in quite a new way, seeping into the interstices of every aspect of national consciousness. Even those entirely bored by men and balls cannot help but recognise Ruud Gullit or Gary Lineker, however much they wish they didn't. Does sport increasingly stand as a substitute for everything missing from real life? Excitement, engagement, loyalty, passion, heroes, bold extremities of human endeavour?

Or is it just the latest product in the mass entertainment industry to be given the full promotional treatment? Sport used to be raw, rugged and dignified. Now it has become part of the pop industry. In the old days young boys crowded around for soccer stars' autographs, but now it is the pre-teen girls who go to scream at Ryan Giggs as they would at Oasis.

Soccer has become sexualised as never before. Who ever thought of screaming at Danny Blanchflower or Stanley Mathews in their long baggy shorts? When Oasis and Blurr took to the football field this week, screamed at by hordes of young girls, it marked a merging of the two worlds - pop stars who want to be soccer stars and vice versa. The packaging is everything. The soccer stars of Newcastle and Liverpool now regularly take to the cat walks in fashion shows, their beautiful bodies an asset as precious as their footballing feet.

When there is no sport on, light entertainment steps in to fill the breech with an ever-burgeoning strand of proxy sport shows from Fantasy Football to Question of Sport. Sports stars, however dim and inarticulate, now adorn celebrity spots of every kind - know what I mean?

Professor Laurie Taylor, a media sociologist, observes that sports commentators these days delve deeper than ever into the psychology of the players. "They've got their cameras up their noses, " he says. "It's all one long extended psychoanalysis, all through a tennis match, or a snooker tournament." It turns matches into soap-operas. But why is sport growing in popularity and consuming everything else? He suggests sport is raw reality out there on the field in a world where everything else on television is a confection of synthetic emotions.

But is it "genuine"? To those who are not fans, sport looks like the ultimate artifice - groups of grown men paid large sums of money to exert all that energy in pursuit of something entirely meaningless.

Be that as it may, however, plainly a very great number of people (mainly, but not entirely, men) want to watch this stuff. Another large number of people (mainly, but not entirely, women) would rather not. But programme controllers are men, to a man, and these days they claim a lot of women do like sport, really. Or at least many do watch it, according to the ratings. But other research shows that the remote control in the household is almost invariably under the hand of the male in the room - the programme controller in every sitting room - so it only adds insult to injury to include in the ratings all those women obliged to watch against their will.

This gender separation of tastes means that no sooner does the BBC launch its sporting schedule with great razzamatazz, gloating over its undoubted prowess in sports coverage this summer than it gets hit by a back-lash of angry women and others: "Soaps get the boot from saturation sport" blasts the Daily Mail, complaining that soaps, and even the 9 O'clock News will be displaced by live sport fixtures. "This is not what we pay the licence fee for," protests the Rev Graham Stevens, chairman of the National Viewers and Listeners' Association.

Channel 4 glows smugly in anticipation of scooping up the soccer refugees. John Willis Director of Programmes, says apart from half an hour a day of men on bikes - the Tour de France - "We shall be targeting an audience not interested in kicking pigs' bladders into nets - which we assume will be mainly women." OK, so what do women like? "Big musicals like Oklahoma and Showboat. A series called the Celluloid Closet, a season about gays and lesbians on the Hollywood screen, plus gay icons of Coronation Street. And Gender Quake, about men being neutered by women ruling the world." Well, well.

The truth is, television is bursting at the seams. It is now exceedingly difficult to please enough of the people enough of the time. Last week's unfolding of the digital future by the BBC gave us a glimpse of an entirely new world of possibilities, with a plethora of services and stations. The BBC and commercial digital services will be up and running as early as autumn next year. Before long every viewer will become their own programme controller, with news, sport, films, live and library services on tap. Separate 24-hour stations will offer us Parliament live, music, BBC classic comedy, BBC World News, arts programmes and any programme you ever missed on high-definition screens with CD quality sound.

This week's unveiling of the all-sport summer schedule shows the sceptical just why all that is needed. More affluent, more specialised, more demanding, more sophisticated and more quarrelsome audiences want a myriad things. We are no longer the same people who sat down together as a nation obediently watching Sunday Night at the London Palladium - and lumping it.

During the passing of the Broadcasting Bill which lays out the legal framework for this extraordinary new digital world, the Lords rebelled. Was is it to insert stronger guarantees of quality, to deter a world of 500 stations of trash or to ensure that all domestic satellite services be obliged to carry the BBC as well? No. The only thing that really ignited public debate was sport - again. The Lords said that the "Crown Jewels" of television should be preserved for terrestrial channels for ever. What did they regard as sacrosanct? Eight sporting events. And with that they satisfied themselves that the future of British broadcasting was safe. Phew!

The significance of the imminent digital revolution is largely passing our legislators unheeded. Some commentators fear wall-to-wall rubbish, others celebrate the prospect of the best always on offer. Some worry if any one station can assemble enough viewers to fund good programmes. The best guess is that big audiences will still gather around high-quality programmes, and the BBC will still be the sheet anchor guaranteeing the uniquely high-quality of British television.

This long hot summer of "sizzling sport" will stand as a reminder of why we need digital broadcasting - freed from the hegemony of the programme controller for ever.