Wednesday 21 January ~
Setanta got a record audience figure for the Premier League match between Liverpool and Everton on Monday night. This fact is reported in a couple of today's papers – although there is not a word about it in the Murdoch press. At one level this is understandable as commercial rivals can't be expected to acknowledge one another's existence. But even though the match at Anfield had a direct bearing on the top of the Premier League table, there was scarcely a mention of it on Sky Sports News at any point on Monday night.
Instead they focused almost entirely on the announcement, made to Sky Italia, that Kaka had turned down a move to Manchester City. This "exclusive" was padded out across several hours with the same looped footage of the player waving to Milan fans from the balcony of his flat while the Sky presenters gravely read out a stream of emails and text messages from City fans as though they were communiqués from the UN Security Council.
This blanking of an event of which they don't happen to have footage is nothing new. But it is nonetheless revealing of the essentially totalitarian outlook of a broadcasting network that was built up on the back of its football coverage and has sought to make itself synonymous with the game. Football matches are of use to Sky only in so far as they helps to promote the existence of the Sky network. Otherwise they don't exist.
This doesn't matter in the slightest to football administrators, who are perfectly happy for the fixture list to be arranged to suit the broadcasters. Indeed, the Premier League has sought to extend its current arrangements with Sky and Setanta, up for renewal at the end of the season, for another four years at the same price – a combined total of around £1.7 billion. This has been blocked, however, by EU competition regulations that require the League to invite tenders for its various live packages, which may prompt the Disney-owned ESPN to mount a rival bid.
When the Invitations to Tender documents for the 2009-13 period were sent out in mid-December, it was even suggested that the Premier League could form its own subscription channel should the various bids fall below expectations. But rather than joining forces, the PL clubs are more likely to splinter. Even though they would have been happy to accept the same deal again in these economically straitened times, some owners are expected to press for an end to the centralised selling of rights outside the UK, with the major clubs' own channels beaming their matches to subscribers overseas. No doubt Liverpool and Man Utd fans in south-east Asia will be fully prepared to make a direct contribution to reducing their club's massive debts – for as long as the matches they fork out to watch involve comfortable home wins.