Leading Article: A shrewd move by BBC sports

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The Independent Online
GRANDSTAND, the Saturday afternoon sports programme, has been one of the great institutions of the BBC and of this country's sporting life. To its addicts it is therefore a matter of no little interest that the former tennis star Sue Barker is - as we report today - this summer to become one of its presenters.

Ms Barker is currently co-presenting the BBC's coverage of the Winter Olympics in Norway - no small task, given the variety and obscurity of some of the sports involved. She cut her teeth as a sports presenter at Sky Television, but was borrowed by the BBC to act as an additional anchor at Wimbledon last summer. In October, she signed a contract with the corporation.

The swift rise of a relatively inexperienced broadcaster to one of television sport's premier jobs is a notable achievement. Ms Barker is very competent, and along with good looks has an easy manner and light touch - too light for some tastes in the essentially conservative and habitudinarian world of sports enthusiasts. In such minds, dark suspicions will be nursed that the BBC wants to make its sports coverage more appealing - dread thought - to women viewers. Others will fear that the BBC is trying to hook in men more interested in Ms Barker than in the day's sporting events. Both sets of cynics are likely to interpret her advancement as a desperate throw to arrest the decline of a once-great programme.

Bit by bit over the past decade, this 35-year-old institution has seen its importance reduced by the expansion of sports coverage on other channels, and by the shift of more and more weekend sport from Saturday to Sunday.

On top of that, rugby league coverage (knock-out competitions and internationals apart) has gone to BSkyB, and there has even been talk of the Five Nations' Championship rugby union contest and Wimbledon itself being bought up by rival stations: all of which makes the promotion of Ms Barker look like a shrewd rather than a desperate move.