Offside, 1 November

On the first Saturday of the new football season two million more people chose to watch The Weakest Link rather than The Premiership. Where did it all go wrong for ITV football?

Duleep Allirajah

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It’s all gone a bit Rigobert Song for football on ITV. First, the new Saturday early evening highlights programme The Premiership was a ratings flop. Now there is speculation that the digital channel ITV Sport may be axed.

At the launch of The Premiership, ITV director of channels David Liddiment declared the programme to be ‘a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to change the shape of Saturday night TV’. Fronted by the menopausal woman’s crumpet Des Lynam, the highlights show was aired at 7pm on Saturday evenings – a timeslot traditionally the preserve of Cilla Black’s Blind Date. ‘Showing The Premiership at 7pm’, said Des, ‘allows people to get together and watch it as a family’.

Sadly for Des, what families actually did was to switch over to BBC instead. On the first Saturday of the new football season more people – 2.4million more, to be precise – chose to watch The Weakest Link on BBC1 rather than The Premiership. ITV had aimed for an audience of 5.5million, but The Premiership averaged only 4.4million. By contrast, the last series of Blind Date drew audiences of eight million.

On 22 October 2001 ITV finally succumbed to pressure from advertisers and announced that the programme would be moved to 10.30pm – a failure which, considering that ITV forked out £183million for the TV rights, was nothing short of a ‘Desaster’ (as the Sun so memorably put it).

So where did it all go wrong? The first edition of The Premiership prompted an outbreak of unseemly gloating from Match of the Day traditionalists. BBC journalist Charlie Whelan dismissed the programme as ‘rubbish’, and claimed that ‘all the fans I’ve spoken to have been unanimous in their criticism of the new show’ (mind you, Charlie probably speaks mainly to Spurs fans, who are the biggest whingers outside Liverpool).

But football enthusiasts did have a point when they complained that there were too many ad-breaks and too few highlights. I won’t pretend that football is high art – indeed, much of it is utterly artless – but reducing the tension and drama of a football match to a series of goalmouth incidents is a form of dumbing down (stick with me on this one). In order to appeal to the ladies, the punditry is tactics-lite – perfectly typified by the ‘Tactics Truck’, which features Andy Townsend and a truck, but about as much tactical sophistication as a Kevin Keegan team talk.

It would be tempting to conclude that The Premiership contained too little football for men but too much for women. But that would be harsh – in response to initial criticism ITV increased the football action and succeeded in attracting more male viewers to a timeslot traditionally dominated by women. While men might be irritated by the ad-breaks (and in my case by the U2 soundtrack), this is not enough to deter us from watching football action.

Ultimately, The Premiership failed because football plus Des does not add up to light entertainment. Men tuned in but women switched channels. Yes, football has attracted new types of fans over the past decade, including larger numbers of women. But while you might find more women cheering on England against Germany in the pub, most women will not sit transfixed while Charlton and Everton grind out a goalless draw (the type of match commentators euphemistically describe as ‘absorbing’).

Despite football’s resurgent popularity, on Saturday evenings Blind Date remains the People’s Game.

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