Little to applaud in the Beeb's cricketing victory: The BBC has retained the right to show live Test cricket but, argues Mark Lawson, all it will do is stump the discerning viewer

Mark Lawson
Wednesday 17 August 1994 23:02

MANY English cricket fans have this week been cheering a rare victory over the Australians, or, anyway, an Australian. The BBC has seen off Rupert Murdoch's BSkyB to win the rights to screen home Test matches - a part of the Corporation's programming since televised cricket began - for another four years.

On the surface, this seems to be an unusual victory for the culture of public service broadcasting against the barbarians of satellite. But, although I regard the general effect of Rupert Murdoch and BSkyB on British television as ruinous, I believe that the BBC's general viewers lose out from this deal, and that its cricket watchers suffer too.

The rhetoric of the government's re-regulation of television was that it would cut costs and increase choice. Yet, in one crucial way, demonstrated by the cricket deal, the BBC has become less cost-effective. In order to retain those programmes that satellite television also wants, the Corporation is required to spend more and more of the public's money not to improve its schedules but to keep them more or less intact. It is the manufacturers rather than the consumers who benefit from what were supposed to be market reforms in television. Even allowing for inflation in the three years since the last ( pounds 15m) deal was signed, the Test and County Cricket Board has tripled its income with the new pounds 60m, four-year contract.

Exactly how much of this money comes from the BBC remains mysterious. The new deal is another of those odd couplings in which John Birt sado-masochistically gets in to bed with Mr Murdoch. Under the terms of the agreement, the BBC and BSkyB share costs, with the satellite channel gaining rights to the one-day internationals and Test highlights. Similar co-operation over televised football was presented by the BBC as a piece of canny financing, in which Sky put up most of the cash. But, under the football deal, satellite screened live matches, while the BBC showed highlights. In the cricket contract, the spoils are reversed: the plums of the Test matches to the BBC, the artificial plum flavour of the highlights to Sky Sports. If the BBC is not a major payer, Mr Murdoch is worse at business than we thought.

But the advantage of satellite television over terrestrial is not merely financial. Satellite, appropriately enough, has space. It is becoming increasingly clear that the BBC's biggest weakness with regard to sport is the Corporation's shortage of air-time. Every cricket viewer knows the irritation of watching Tests which coincide with Wimbledon or an Olympics or even a horse race of medium importance. The BBC's television coverage of Test cricket is not remotely ball-by-ball (the proud radio claim), and the highlights are lucky to appear this side of midnight. Not yet a serious competitor with the BBC in terms of accessibility or expense - signing up to BSkyB costs several licence fees - satellite is now practically better placed to serve the viewer. Symbolically, a second dedicated Sky Sports channel starts on Friday.

In other areas of programming, this impasse can be resolved by denigrating the technical quality of the non-terrestrial channels. Sky's cricket coverage does, admittedly, have its idiocies, chiefly the bloody duck that waddles across the screen when anyone scores nought. You dread any batsman getting 88, in case two cartoon fat ladies appear. Yet it was Murdoch's team that introduced to British television the 'stump camera', a beautiful and useful addition to screen cricket. And its coverage of winter tours has developed commentators - Geoff Boycott, David Gower - opportunistically used by the BBC this summer.

Media cricket coverage has always included three distinct styles - the literary (typified by John Arlott and Neville Cardus), the comedic (Brian Johnston and Martin Johnson of this parish), and the old pros (Trueman, Bailey, Agnew, Marks, Pringle and so on). BBC viewers, though, have generally encountered only the third kind. Apart from the single chance blessing that one old pro - Richie Benaud - turned out to be a poet and wit as well, BBC Television's cricket coverage has relied on dull verbal trundlers, bits-and-pieces thinkers, who happened to have played Test cricket: Laker, Illingworth, Graveney. These old pros deliver old prose. Only when shown the way by Sky did the BBC begin to dismantle this drab cabal.

So the Sports Department should not see this week's success as a triumph against the odds - its Headingley 1981 - but rather as the kind of dodgy win resulting when a rain-affected one-day match is settled by the toss of a coin or an indoor bowling competition. And, given that the new deal requires the serious fan to get dished up or cabled up to see all of England's matches, the Corporation should not hope for such luck in the next round. Perhaps the Head Of Sport should symbolically burn the new contract and seal the ashes in an urn.

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