Well, Brian, you can't afford bad interactivity at this level

Hunter Davies settles down with a fancy zapper to try DIY directing

Hunter Davies
Sunday 22 August 1999 23:02

YESTERDAY WAS a small step for mankind, a big leap for football and a mega stride for Sky, so I decided to get sorted well ahead. Interactive football has arrived, allowing each couch potato the chance to be his or her own television director. It's the most amazing development since the last most amazing development.

For the big launch - a world first, Sky announced - television crews came from as far away as Japan to Sky's HQ to watch other television crews, plus a few punters, getting to grips with the new wonders.

Sky has just announced that it has shifted 1.25 million digital boxes, so it's pretty vital that we all like whatever it is we are going to be able to see or do, touch or smell, on the new system. OK, I made up the touching and smelling, but that's bound to be along soon.

Naturally, they chose this season's biggest football match so far, Arsenal v Man Utd, to try out the latest miracle, knowing that fans are suckers, their loyalties easy pickings for football clubs these past 140 years and now, for the last 10 years, easy manipulative meat for Sky Television. But will we lie down and love it this time, be willing to pay the extra monies?

I have Sky here in Lakeland, purely to watch the football, the only thing I ever watch on television, but the reception is dodgy, as we're surrounded by mountains. I painted the dish the same colour as the house, to confuse the Lakeland Planning Board, and the neighbours, some of whom are rather superior about nasty modern things like Sky. Every winter, the dish moves in the gales and it costs me a fortune to get it put back.

So I decided to go digital. Match of the Day on BBC on Saturday night didn't fool me, though it was a good try. They now have captions saying "Main camera" and draw lines and squares across the screen. If you've just staggered in from the pub, you might think you're interactive, as opposed to drunk.

Sky Digital costs only pounds 40 for the new stuff, which has a name, but I didn't take it in, saving my brain for all the complicated nomenclature to come. Rental is pounds 25 a month. A bit more than before.

The Sky engineer, sent all the way from Washington, no, not USA, but miles away in County Durham, also put a telephone extension into the back of the thing. He didn't seem to know if I'd need it for the interactive business, but I would soon to shop by television at Woolworths and get into my bank account, two of the wonders of digital, neither of which I want. In a couple of months, he said, I'd also be able to get e-mail on my television set. Now I fancy that. I don't have a computer, only a vintage Amstrad PCW which I dearly love. It's going to the V&A when I finish with it, or it finishes with me.

The digital box stuff comes with a rather dinky new remote control hand set, shaped like a cultured left foot, a bit like Ryan Giggs's. It has over 30 dials and coloured buttons, words, letters, numbers, symbols. You could probably fly Concorde with it.

When the match started, I was on edge, Brian, really up for this one, Des, in fact I was buzzing. That was the first mistake, pressing the wrong buzzers and ending up with a blank screen.

As a football fan, the edge I was on was caused partly by being a Spurs fan. I wanted to see Arsenal get stuffed, but that was complicated by the need for a draw to keep Spurs top of the league. (Now that really has been a modern miracle, Spurs top, if just for 24 hours). At the same time, I wanted Dwight Yorke to do well, score lots of goals, feel over the moon, as I'm writing his biography.

So it was awfully hard coping with those emotions and following normal play - while at the same time obeying instructions on the screen and working the appropriate buttons and knobs. It was like the first exam of your finals, when the eyes go glazed, the brain goes blank.

Did I want all the extra facilities anyway? I am a fan of Sky's football coverage, as it is. For my monthly rental, I like to think the director is doing all the work for me, saving me faffing around. When I said this to a Sky person she said: "Yes we are second to none, now we'll be even more second to none." The hyperbole is catching.

For the first half, I did fiddle around. What happens is that you can keep the main picture, the main coverage, in a corner of the screen, while bringing up different angles and replays. None of which I really wanted - and found it very confusing as it upset my concentration and ruined the flow. You can also summon up statistics on the screen, giving things like background information on the player you are watching, to settle any arguments. I don't want that either. There are never arguments in my television room. I don't allow talking during any match. It's a hanging offence.

I can see the advantage of being able to call up highlights, should you come in late or pop to the lavatory, neither of which real fans ever do. We're organised. We keep our legs crossed. But this facility is bloody clever, giving you rolling highlights, edited as the match progresses. How do they do that?

Digital does seem good, and my picture overall was better. I didn't need to go right up to the screen to see if Dwight was wearing his collar up( Answer: yes). But in the second half, I dispensed with the gimmickry, ignored all the toys that I'm sure anoraks will enjoy. I just watched the match. It's the players I want to do the playing.

Match report, Sports section

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