Right to watch?

Clare Balding holding a microphone

Clare Balding presented from Aintree for the last time on Saturday. Photo: CharlesFred

Saturday saw the end of an era, the end of the Grand National on BBC television (well for four years at least). The loss of the TV rights to Channel 4 means that as of 2013, there will be no horse racing on BBC television. The Derby and Ascot festival have also been lost, so Channel 4 will be the sole source of racing on terrestrial television.

Admittedly I’m not the biggest racing fan you’re likely to meet, so to say that this passing on of the ‘baton’ hasn’t really troubled me, is somewhat of an understatement. Though,  as the Grand National is most people’s solitary dealing with the ‘gee-gees’ all year, I would wager that the news is unlikely to have affected all but the most ardent of racegoers. As long as the public can still watch the race on Channel 4, then I doubt they are too upset that Clare Balding has lost her most beloved presenting job.

The BBC’s inability to hold onto the coverage does highlight the wider issue of the their shrinking sports portfolio though. Not only has the racing been lost, but the athletics and Paralympics coverage has made the switch to C4, the French Open tennis is now on ITVSky have bought the BBC out of the two remaining years of their exclusive Formula 1 deal, and most recently Sky have also acquired exclusive rights to the BMW PGA Championships and the Scottish Open golf.

Cuts at the BBC have forced them to streamline their sporting commitments and prioritise where the licence fee income is spent. Reports at the time suggested that the corporation sacrificed their exclusive F1 rights to maintain their coverage of the full Wimbledon fortnight. Now this is a very simplistic view to take, but were I to be given the choice between a full F1 season live and exclusive on the BBC, but with limited Wimbledon coverage, or the situation we have now, then I would opt for the latter every time.

I appreciate there were a huge number of F1 fans incredibly upset at being forced to pay for something that they previously received effectively ‘free’. However, I believe the general public feel a greater attachment to the events in SW19 every summer, than they do to the millionaires playground of F1, a view the BBC clearly share.

In an ideal world the BBC would win the bidding for all television rights, for every sport, and still find space to broadcast a diverse array of programming to keep all license fee payers happy. This simply is not possible though, not only do the BBC work within a limited budget, they simply don’t have space to give exposure to every sport. From football fans, to handball fans, to arts documentaries fans, the BBC face an impossible task in satisfying everyone.

Spokespeople for minority sports often claim that their sports suffer from a lack of exposure, unfortunately that is just the way of the world. Money is spent where the demand is largest, and demand is most commonly at its largest where there is a history and tradition, or when there is success to be celebrated. Take cycling for example, not traditionally a major sport in Britain; British Cycling have built a highly successful team, and as such they now have a very marketable product. If minority sports want more exposure then they need to be successful first, then use the exposure that brings to fund and drive further success. At a time when the world’s best golfers are British, and even they are complaining that the BBC are cutting their commitment to golf, why should handball expect to compete?

Mark Nicholas interviews Daniel Vettori

Mark Nicholas interviews Daniel Vettori for Cricket on Five. Photo: HNM_1977

It should also be noted that, though many people are upset when the BBC loses sports rights to competitors, there are other sports on terrestrial channels that are covered very well. Channel 4, along with Sunset + Vine, did a fine job in revolutionising cricket coverage before it moved to Sky, and ITV, with VSquared TV, have done a fantastic job with their Tour de France output.

So yes it is a shame to see the Grand National switch to Channel 4, and even more of a shame to lose other sporting occasions from terrestrial television completely, but unfortunately that is just the way it is. I would love to be able to watch test cricket on television for free, but who is to say that England’s ascent to world number 1 status would have occurred without the extra funds the Sky deal brought to the ECB?

It is these dilemmas that lead to the list of sports ‘crown jewels’ being created. The list dictates which sporting events are so important to the nation that they must be kept on free-to-air television. In its current guise the groups are as follows:

Group A – full live coverage protected

Olympic Games
Fifa World Cup finals
European Football Championship finals
FA Cup final
Scottish FA Cup final (protected in Scotland)
Grand National
Epsom Derby
Wimbledon tennis finals
Rugby League Challenge Cup Final
Rugby World Cup final

Group B – highlights only on free-to-air TV

England’s home cricket Test matches
Other matches, excluding finals, at Wimbledon Championships
Other matches, excluding final, at Rugby World Cup
Six Nations matches involving home countries
Commonwealth Games
World Athletics Championships
Cricket World Cup – final, semi-finals and matches involving home nations
Ryder Cup
Open golf championship

Source – BBC, Panel names free-to-air choices

As we can see there aren’t actually many sporting occasions deemed so important to the nation that we shouldn’t have to pay for them. Yes it’s nice for sports lovers to pick and choose what they watch, and there is a strong argument that sports participation would benefit from increased exposure on terrestrial television. But governing bodies have to stay afloat somehow, and if they can put television money into grass-roots initiatives then maybe that is a better option?

In 2009 the list was reviewed and a new one proposed:

Summer Olympic Games
Fifa World Cup finals
Uefa European Championship finals
Grand National
FA Cup final (England, Wales and Northern Ireland only)
Scottish FA Cup (Scotland)
Home and away football qualifiers for World Cup and European Championship (listed only in home nation to which they relate)
Wimbledon Championship (in its entirety)
Open golf championship
Cricket’s home Ashes Test matches
Rugby World Cup tournament
Wales matches in Six Nations (in Wales only)

Lydia Lassila wins Women's aerials event at Vancouver 2010

Events like the Winter Olympics could be lost from terrestrial television. Photo: Kyler Storm

This would have been the sole list, no Group B for highlights, just the events listed above. Notable objections were raised about the emission of the Winter Olympic Games, and the inclusion of home Ashes Test matches. The head of the ECB complained, citing the money they would lose from their current Sky deal, and the BOA were understandably unhappy at the world’s largest winter sporting event potentially being relegated to subscription based TV.

The decision on the proposed list was supposed to have been made in 2010, the general election ended up delaying that and it has now been further pushed back into 2013. The reason given for the second delay is the digital switchover. The theory is that with digital television, there should be more space to broadcast, and therefore more free-to-air channels available to schedule sport on. However, buying the license to broadcast on a particular channel, buying the rights to a sport and then producing a programme all cost money. So with terrestrial broadcasters limited in funds, the problem of being outbid for television rights will still exist.

Decisions will have to be made whether governing bodies go for the money or the media exposure, broadcasters will have to decide which sports offer the best value for money, and minority sports will have to realise that exposure follows success, not the other way round. The decisions taken will never see everyone singing from the same hymn sheet, so we should be thankful then when a sporting occasion is kept on terrestrial television for the nation’s pleasure.

The challenge now is to tackle the TV companies who think that because they’ve paid so much money to broadcast a sport, that they now own all the history and tradition that goes with it. Tradition in sport is dying out and TV broadcasters that pay the money, and therefore hold the power, can largely be blamed for it. Take Saturday’s FA Cup semi-final as an example: played at Wembley, broadcast on ESPN, with a 12:30 kick-off. That is a whole other debate for another time though.

Featured image: Silver Birch wins 2007 Grand National – CharlesFred

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It’s Not Always Good To Talk

Having written recently about the skills required for good sports commentary and the value it can add to a sporting occasion I feel it necessary to show the other side of the coin. Due to the extensive coverage given to sports in a multi-platform and subscription television based world there will inevitably be bad commentators. The word ‘bad’ is perhaps misused here though as judgement of commentary is not an objective matter, it is very much a matter of opinion, what may annoy someone may be exactly what others desire from a commentator.

There must be some things that annoy a majority of viewers though, below are a few of my pet hates that can guarantee a cringe every time I hear or read them, I suspect I’m not alone with some of them;

Nicolas Anelka in action for Chelsea

Nicolas Anelka - He may be French but he's definitely a man. Photo: americanistadechiapas

Mispronunciation: I fully admit that as more foreign players have found their way into British sport and more international sport is broadcast that there will inevitably be names that are difficult to pronounce. What annoys me is when names we all know how to pronounce are mispronounced by those who should know better. A perfect example of this to have recently annoyed me is ITV4’s cycling commentator Phil Liggett calling the French rider Thomas Voeckler, Thomas Voikla. Liggett is a veteran of countless Tours, he commentates on cycling for a living and will have been to France more times than most so how on earth does he get it wrong? It should be pronounced something like Vercklair but a widely heard and acceptable pronunciation is Verckla. Another example that gets up my nose is David Pleat’s (he is a serial offender) pronunciation of the French footballer Nicolas Anelka, Pleat insists on calling him Nicola. I know in French the ‘s’ is not pronounced but he calls him Nicola in an English accent, by all means call him Nicola but if so don’t make him a girl and so do it in a French accent, if you’re intent on using an English accent then do as most do and simply call him Nicolas.

Over familiarity: Steven Gerrard should be called Steven Gerrard, John Terry should be called John Terry, no Stevie Gs, no JTs. A commentator is there to inform and describe, if a teammate wants to refer to them in that way in a post match interview then so be it, a commentator can call them by their nickname in pub conversation just as you and I would but please not in a commentary. This is one criticism I have of Tom Fordyce, he has a habit of creating new names for sportspeople that often have little relation to their actual name. His current favourite seems to be referring to Tim Bresnan as Brezucio, I don’t know why this annoys me but it does.

David Coulthard in a Red Bull

David Coulthard's helmet meant he was easily identifiable. Photo: :: De todos los Colores ::

Missing action: In my opinion a cardinal sin of a commentator; so caught up in finishing what they are saying that they miss something. It may only be the beginning of something happening but I like my commentators to react to things as they’re happening, not with a few seconds delay. It can often feel like the commentators are actually at a disadvantage being at the event because for television commentary they aren’t necessarily seeing what the viewers are and as such may not react to something on our screens due to them not looking at their monitor at the time. A culprit of this particular pitfall was Jonathan Legard, the 5Live turned BBC1 Formula 1 commentator, he didn’t seem to manage his move from radio to television too well and was often found to be still talking as Martin Brundle interrupted him to update the viewers with something happening out on the track.

Referee Howard Webb

Referees such as Howard Webb rarely escape the wrath of Alan Green. Photo: thetelf

Know your stuff: This may be the most important part of preparation for a commentator, if your job is solely to commentate on one sport all year round then I expect you to be able to identify the main protagonists. In many sports and for most commentators this will come naturally just through being a fan and recognising the way somebody kicks a ball or runs a bend or pedals a bicycle. Kits, numbers, car bodywork, haircuts and tattoos all help in this respect yet commentators still get it wrong, unfortunately Legard falls foul of this as well. Most Formula 1 teams are kind to the commentators and make some distinction between their two cars, be it the colour of the nose or the camera on the top of the air inlet, not forgetting that each driver likes to make their helmet very distinctive, yet Legard still seemed to have trouble identifying drivers. I say seemed as he was booted off the Formula 1 coverage and back to football league commentary after two years of complaints from F1 fans and was replaced by the very knowledgeable David Coulthard. Henry Blofeld is another prime suspect for this one, I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been listening to Test Match Special and he’s called Stuart Broad, Chris. Stuart has been playing international cricket for nearly five years now and Blowers still gets it wrong at least once a day.

Alan Green: There isn’t anything inherently wrong with being opinionated and sharing your opinions with the audience, in fact I’d say that I probably prefer commentators and summarisers to have opinions. However Green angers me with his opinions as he more often than not assumes everyone shares his and dismisses those who don’t. I also find that he is far too quick to criticise and pass judgement, whether it be the performance of a player, the referee or the standard of a game in general. If he commentates on a poor quality game, and with the amount of games he covers that is inevitable every now and again, then he appears to take it as a personal slap in the face from all the players on the pitch that they can’t put on a performance worthy of his presence. He seems incapable of accepting then not every game will be Arsenal v. Barcelona, not every pass will find it’s target and not every referee will go through their career without making a mistake.

Right that’s a few things off my chest! Feel free to comment if you agree with my criticisms or defend a guilty party if you feel they’ve been harshly treated or simply to add to the list and vent some frustration of your own.

Photos: Anelka – americanistadechiapas, Coulthard – De Todos Los Colores, Webb – thetelf