Hey BBC, stop sexing-up Wimbledon
Viewers don't want banter and slebs – they want good tennis highlights.
Wimbledon, as everyone knows, is a byword for stultifying Home Counties conservatism. Tradition is sacrosanct to fans of lawn tennis. They don’t like swearing, unwomanly grunting, gobby upstarts like Nick Kyrgios, or any splash of colour on the pristine white kits. Little wonder, then, that this grand old tournament has been rocked by a furious row over the BBC’s attempt to revamp its highlights programme.
The Beeb was flooded with complaints from traditionalists over the new format, called ‘Wimbledon 2day’, which featured national treasure Clare Balding interviewing tennis pundits in a pop-up hospitality lounge called the Gatsby Club complete with a studio audience. Ninety-five per cent of respondents to an online Radio Times poll gave the new format the thumbs-down. The programme was savaged by the press and monstered on Twitter. As many critics gleefully pointed out, it felt like the kind of bonkers rebranding concept that Siobhan Sharpe, the character played by Jessica Hynes in Twenty Twelve and W1A, might have dreamt up. The controversy even spilled over into Radio 4’s Today programme. Such was the strength of public opinion that, after just one week, the BBC felt compelled to ditch the studio audience and relocate to a conventional rooftop studio with expert pundits.
Now, I guess this could be interpreted as a victory for the forces of reaction over the forward-thinking, youthful desire to inject some fresh ideas into a tired old broadcasting institution. But, while I do think there are probably more pressing social issues to get your knickers in a twist about, I’m with the outraged toffs on this. ‘Wimbledon 2day’ was wrong, not because it attempted to try out new ideas, but because it did so at the expense of the tennis. If you don’t really like tennis but enjoy zany banter, then ‘Wimbledon 2day’ might have been the programme for you. However, if, like me, you just wanted the tennis highlights with a dash of expert analysis thrown in, then the new programme was an abomination.
Now, I’m all for innovation in sports broadcasting. Over the past two decades, Sky Sports has revolutionised football coverage. It has done so through a combination of analytical gizmos and intelligent tactical analysis. By contrast, the BBC’s flagship highlights programme, Match of the Day (MOTD), with its traditional fare of chummy, insight-lite ex-pro banter, has looked increasingly antiquated. Of course, Sky Sports is aimed at a particular football-obsessed market segment, whereas the audience for MOTD is necessarily broader. There is inevitably a tension between the desire to analyse the action and the need to entertain the more casual viewers, who really couldn’t give a stuff about false nines and high pressing. For a sports fan, the football and tactical dissection is sufficiently entertaining. For the casual TV viewer, the tactical analysis is a turn-off.
So, you could see what the ‘Wimbledon 2day’ creators were trying to do. This was an ill-conceived attempt to be more like a modern chat show in the zoo television style of TFI Friday or Top Gear, rather than make a conventional sports-highlights programme. Presenter Clare Balding has been mercilessly slated for her apparent lack of tennis expertise by tennis fans irked at the departure of John Inverdale, who stepped down after making derogatory comments about Marion Bartoli. But Balding wasn’t really the problem. She’s an accomplished sports broadcaster who was doing her best to orchestrate a slightly desperate circus. The new show was clearly trying to tick all the right interactive and irreverent boxes to appeal to a ‘yoof’ audience who presumably prefer John McEnroe to be discussing beards rather than backhand technique.
To be honest, if the BBC had wanted to pilot a tennis-related chat show to run after the highlights programme, fronted by Jack Whitehall or Alan Carr, it might not have been such an issue. Fantasy Football League, which pioneered this format in the 1990s, was essentially a chat show. It showed that there was a market for programmes dedicated to light-hearted sports-related banter rather than serious tactical analysis. The broadcasters have attempted to replicate this format, albeit with mixed results, during major sporting events – the most execrable example being James Corden’s World Cup Live in 2010. Where the BBC went wrong with ‘Wimbledon 2day’ was in trying to mix banter, highlights and analysis in the same programme. It was neither fish nor fowl; a half-cocked mash-up that alienated hardcore tennis fans but didn’t really attract a younger audience. The studio audience looked uncomfortable and bored, while the talking heads were ex-tennis players rather than the usual chat-show fodder of popstars, soap actors and reality TV show ‘slebs’ who might have appealed to the devotees of E4 or BBC Three.
What were BBC bosses thinking when they opted to ‘sex up’ the Wimbledon highlights? It would appear that they were chasing ratings. In fact, the makeover had the opposite effect. The ratings tanked. Moreover, the reversion to the old format saw ratings double overnight. As I said, this isn’t really a matter of life or death, but the failed experiment with ‘Wimbledon 2day’ should serve as a timely reminder to broadcasters that, if it ain’t broken, it doesn’t need to be fixed; that there are plenty of us who have a larger concentration span than a gerbil’s; and that we don’t need dumbed-down banter, D-list celebs or whacky home videos to keep us entertained. The pure, undistilled sporting drama of the tennis is the only entertainment we need.
Duleep Allirajah is spiked’s sports columnist. Follow him on Twitter: @DuleepOffside