TV UK, 9 March

'A Bradford City fan might be gripped by his team's encounter with Charlton Athletic, but most of us would rather watch The Antiques Roadshow.'

Jeez - I never realised how boring this game is! That was the verdict of Homer Simpson on the noble American pastime of baseball, when he was forced to watch it without beer.

When football hits terrestrial TV (soccer, that is, not that ridiculous thing with the helmets), I’m inclined to echo his sentiment.

The Men Who Changed Football (BBC2, Tuesday at 9pm) is a history of the past 20 years of English football. Basically the story goes like this: hooliganism, blah, blah, national disgrace, yadda yadda, Thatcherism, entrepreneurs, blah, blah, stadium disasters, all-seater stadia, etc, etc…multimillion-pound business.

But the really significant development was the introduction of live TV coverage.

Traditionally, only three games were shown live every year: the FA Cup Final, the European Cup Final and the England-Scotland game. From 1983, the BBC and ITV paid a couple of million pounds to show 10 league games a year. But (as is often the case in football) this cosy arrangement came under threat from an unexpected source.

Louis Edwards was an old-fashioned football chairman who made his money selling pies at Old Trafford before taking over a mediocre Manchester United. Under the control of his son Martin, the club began a slow rise to supremacy that mirrored the transformation of the game as a whole.

As United challenged the mighty Liverpool for the league championship in 1988, the upstart British Satellite Broadcasting bid for football league broadcasting rights, only to be outflanked at the last minute by ITV, just as Liverpool clinched the title yet again. The old guard won this time, but Manchester United and satellite TV will be back in episode two.

It was Greg Dyke, now director general of the BBC, who won that contract for ITV. In the process he almost initiated the breakaway from the league of the top clubs that later happened as part of the triumph of Rupert Murdoch’s Sky TV. Sky Sports is now synonymous with the Premiership, which has profited enormously from the partnership, while Dyke’s BBC struggles even to get highlights.

Many see Sky’s dominance as a new national disgrace, especially with the current move towards pay-per-view. But why?

Excepting really extraordinary games, football is not good TV. The trouble is that the appeal is largely subjective. A Bradford City fan might be gripped by his team’s encounter with Charlton Athletic, but most of us would rather watch The Antiques Roadshow. Better to have games available for true believers, but out of the way.

New technology means that in theory a fan can see his own team on TV every week while the main networks stick to proper programmes with a general appeal. If the price is right, pay-per-view makes sense all round. But in fact there is now more rather than less football on mainstream TV. Along with the duller-by-the-year FA Cup Final, European club games have become a regular fixture.

This week you can see Arsenal play Bayern Munich in the Champions’ League (ITV, Wednesday at 5.55pm) and Liverpool against Porto in the UEFA Cup (BBC1, Thursday at 8pm). The idea is that these games make good TV because we all want to see football played by the best players in the world. This is nonsense. As soon as Glasgow Rangers are out of the picture (a long-running series of freak accidents means that this is always before Christmas), I lose all interest in football at the highest level.

I mean, was anybody other than Leeds fans and professional patriots pleased to see Leeds United qualify for the quarterfinals of the Champions’ League? Let’s not even mention the nation’s finest and their tiresome never-say-die spirit. (Bitter? Who me?) Football for neutrals is a myth put about by the kind of bores who drone on about ‘the beautiful game’, ‘working-class ballet’ and worst of all, ‘football played to the rhythm of the samba’.

The growth of football-as-TV mirrors the rise of the docusoap, in which other people’s baby videos are presented as entertainment for a passionless audience. Watching the game, having a Bud? You’ll need it.

Dolan Cummings is publications editor at the Institute of Ideas, and editor of Culture Wars. He is also the editor of Reality TV: How Real Is Real?, Hodder Murray, 2002 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)).

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