With the next Premier League deal in the offing, ITV’s Jim Rosenthal discusses changes in broadcasting since the arrival of Sky and casts doubt on Duncan Ferguson’s mystique

What has been the main impact of Sky since 1992 from the broadcasters’ point of view?
They’ve taken football coverage on to a new level and basically, for us, they have created a lot of work within the industry. Foot­ball saved Sky, but in return people in TV recognise what Sky have done for football. They have ob­viously created a vast am­ount of wealth for the game – wealth that football has spent as it always will, not necessarily wisely. If you give football club chairmen £1, they will always spend £1.10.

How do you recall the impact of the initial Sky deal?
I was outside Lancaster Gate and Lawrie McMenemy came up and said to me, “This is bad news for you, isn’t it?” I said, “Yes, I’ve had better days.” The figure involved then was about £300 million and everyone said what a huge am­ount that was. Of course that has proved to be not a vast amount at all. When the next deal goes through, the billion pound mark will probably be reached. Sky tapped into a market where they found that people are pre­pared to pay to watch football in their front room and they’ve now found that people will pay again to watch specific matches. There is still this appetite for the game. OK, some grounds were a long way from being full for FA Cup matches this year, but I don’t see that many signs of people getting fed up with it.

Has the amount of live football on TV itself become a problem?
I presented the first live game in 1983 when Forest played at Tottenham on a Sunday afternoon. Brian Clough said, “Hey, I might not turn up if I’m having my meat and two veg.” So we were all wondering if he was going to be there and sure enough he did turn up.  But you have to remember that in those days the attitude was such that clubs said, “If you show us live, you’ve got compensate us.” And we did give them money. But the thing moved on so rapidly, to the point that watching Sunday football itself has become a habit. I always believe in the scarcity value of things and if something is on all the time, there will come a point where it loses its value. I think some of Sky’s figures for their Monday night games are not that great and so you could say that might be a sign. There is definitely a danger of overkill, but at the moment the wagon is still rolling.

From 1988 onwards ITV focused their coverage almost totally on the so-called Big Five. Do you feel now that was a mistake?
Definitely. We concentrated much too much on the very big teams. I think we could have been cleverer and looked after the smaller clubs more. We ended up alienating them, so when Sky came along and said “we will do this and that for you”, they said “fine”. Sky will always have a broader platform for covering football, but the view at ITV was, well, we’ve got to have Man Utd, or Arsenal, or Spurs, there’s no point in covering Coventry v Norwich. We didn’t grasp that, yes, we might drop a few hun­dred thousand viewers for the odd match here or there but that in the long term it would have been better to have done that.

Does it annoy you that there is still this widespread perception that the BBC is the best sports broadcaster, despite their increasingly limited output?
I think it’s a generational thing. If I told my 12-year-old son the BBC are the best at sport he’d look at me as if I was mad, be­cause in his lifetime they haven’t been. I was trained at the BBC, as a lot of ITV people were, and we’re all in the same boat really, no one’s laughing at the BBC. We went through a period at ITV when the sports listings were a paragraph at the bottom of a page in TV Times, and ITN didn’t even give the football results, but we got through it. The BBC have still got sport coming out of their ears although they would say that, in football terms, they have to maintain Match Of The Day – which might be a battle for them.

Why is it that the BBC always come out on top when they screen the same match simultaneously with ITV?
I’ve always had a simple reason for that. I remember doing the Czech Republic v France semi at Euro 96, which had been a desperate old game, then walking across with Ray Wilkins, who’d been the sum­mariser, to the hotel to see the England v Germany game. We started off watching the ITV coverage, before the game, then as soon as a commercial break came on, we looked at each other and switched over to the BBC. Because you don’t want to leave Wem­bley before the game. Commercial breaks with ITV come with the territory, people pay fortunes for them, but there’s no doubt in my mind when you’re sitting there watching you want to have continuous coverage. I don’t know if the Des Lynam factor will change that this summer when they’re in direct competition.

Commercials also mean it’s harder for the ITV pundits to sustain a discussion about the game...
Yes, there are more cuts and interruptions. But not being able to do too much build-up can have its ad­vantages. I’m not in the habit of getting to a ground three hours before kick-off and I think the same principle applies to TV. Sky will sometimes start their build-up hours beforehand. Fine, if you want to see August’s goals in Jan­uary, but that’s not my idea of great television. ITV has sharp constraints with time and always will have until we get an ITV sports channel, which might happen. But for the com­mitted fan, you probably want to sit down about 20 min­utes beforehand, just as you would if you were going to a ground.

The fashion for using ex-players as presenters shows no sign of diminishing. Does it irk you that people like Gary Lineker get the job simply because of who they are?
Yes, I’m still waiting for my chance to pay centre forward for Tottenham but I’m sure it will come. I wouldn’t swap my training for anything, but TV is a strange business in that they have a habit of throwing people into it who patently aren’t ready to do it. Without the journalistic grounding, I don’t think you’ve got a prayer. Obviously there is an appeal to having a star name presenting, and some of them find they can do it, but if they are honest I think they would admit that they wouldn’t mind having that grounding. But presumably the broadcasters think it’s good for ratings. What’s daft to me is when you don’t make the best use of having a star name. You really want to pull their expertise out to enhance the programme. I don’t see the point in having Gary Lineker as a presenter saying to Trevor Brooking, “Well, should he have scored there or not?” If Gary Lineker doesn’t know, who does? That to me is where you are not playing to your strengths. Journalistically, your job is to get the best out of the people you’re talking to, and for that, good training is the crucial thing.

Has the clubs’ attitude towards TV changed noticeably since the Premiership started?
Yes, the clubs recognise it is a partnership and they have to get on with television. Not get on their knees to TV, but you do have to work with them. Clubs used to see us as a neccesary evil, but now there is certainly a closer relationship.

Have footballers themselves got better at dealing with interviews?
Funnily enough, I think there is less wariness with TV than there is with the newspapers. Players realise that if they’re reasonably com­municative, you can tell it like it is. Talk directly to the camera and you’re not going to be stit­ched up. I interviewed Roy Keane just be­fore he agreed his new contract and I was able to say to him, “Look, whatever you say goes out there.” Clubs should be looking closely at how their players come across, although I think there have been some improvements in the way players present themselves. But nowadays some players might wonder why they need to bother being interviewed at all. It’s not as if they need the publicity – Duncan Ferguson probably feels that it adds to his mystique that he doesn’t talk. Top players now are in a world of their own. No matter what fee you offer them, unless they really want to do it, what’s the point? This is why it’s very difficult finding good pundits among current players. If you’re in the team you might not want to say anything that people could hear because you might be playing them next week. And if you’re not in the team you don’t want to say anything that could jeopardise your chances of getting back in. Then you’ve got be available to do TV at short not­ice, you’ve got to look presentable, you’ve got to be articulate. There is a danger that it can become a cosy club – it’s not often I imagine that people will be say­ing “Did you hear what so-and-so said last night?” But then you don’t want to go the other way and press the outrageous button and get someone like Tommy Docherty, who’ll just say any­thing. Journalistically, you want some­thing to bite on and you hope you can ask someone a question that they’ll have to come up with a response to, even if they won’t thank you for it later. But there are so many hidden ag­endas in people not saying what they see.

The format of presenting live football has stayed pretty much the same for a long time. Why is that?

It’s the same with a magazine, in that you’ve got to have a front cover, a back cover and something in the middle. You can tinker around with it, but in basic terms it’s, “Here we are, he’s with me, here’s the game and goodnight.” Technology is racing along now and with digital they’re doing things like putting a camera exclusively on Roy Keane. Now, fine, if you want to watch Roy Keane while the ball’s at the other end, but I don’t, I want to see the game.Yes, if you get in late and it’s already 1-0 and you can get to see the goal and the early highlights by pressing a button, then that’s good, but the danger is that the technological stuff will lead the sensible journalistic stuff. We tried an experiment years ago at London Weekend when we gave remote controls to people watching The Big Match and they could be the director and switch angles, watching the game from behind the goal and all that. They got bored with it very quickly and just wanted to watch the game the conventional way.

Do you agree with the current wisdom that TV is putting too much pressure on referees?

Yes, I think it’s a problem. There was a moment during the recent Man Utd v Arsenal game when Silvestre chested the ball down and Trevor Francis said “That was a penalty”. But it wasn’t. I always think you’ve got be very sure before you say things like that. My son plays football on a Sunday morning and I’m sure it filters down – you see kids arguing with referees even at that level. On the other hand, I don’t think referees have helped themselves by not communicating. There’s this strange silence they hide behind, refusing to comment on why they made certain decisions. I also think technology could help referees. I’m a firm believer in cameras in the goals to judge if the ball has gone over the line. 

Doesn’t the saturation coverage also exaggerate the tendency of clubs to think only of  short-term success?

Some chairmen always want results yesterday. I don’t know if that’s got worse. The money now is such that managers go with it and think to themselves, well, I’ll stick this for a few years then I’ll probably get the boot – but they’ll be well paid in the meantime. One thing about the way the game is covered that has influenced the way people behave is when you see that shot of fans who are so depressed when their teams have lost. And you think, “Have you not got anything else in your life, that you can be in tears over a game of football?” The whole thing reaches a level that it shouldn’t be at. I think it started with the Newcastle fans when they started to lose games on the championship run-in in 1996 and now everyone knows they’ve a good chance of getting on camera if they sit there clutching their heads in despair.

What about the use of TV evidence to convict players of misdemeanours?
I thought the Ben Thatcher thing was right, though the sen­tence seemed very lenient. The fact that players used to get away with it in the past, and still will get away with it in a midweek game at Hartlepool when there’s no cam­era there, doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be brought to book through TV evidence. Paul Davis got caught elbowing Glenn Cockerill in a famous incident years ago by an ITN camera that happened to be at Highbury, and that caused a lot of fuss at the time. ITV suffered because of the association with ITN, but I don’t think it was wrong that he was pun­ished for it. Ob­viously you don’t want someone to have to sift through 60 vid­eo cassettes every Monday morning looking at incidents. But I don’t think it sends out a great message to let such things go.

As an Oxford fan, do you think the lower divisions get a fair share of the coverage?
I think the lower divisions pretty much get the right coverage at the moment. Much as I’d love to say there should be more, the reality is that if you’re getting 6,000 people through the gate, you’re going to find a certain level in the marketplace. Football Extra does very well, and I think it’s an outstanding show, but the fact is the schedulers are probably delighted that something on at 12.30am gets such good figures, so they’re happy to keep it there.

How do you expect the new TV deal to work out?
I think there are two schools of thought, either that it will be exactly the same as now, only with a lot more money, or that there will be a broader footprint and the BBC and ITV will both have a slice alongside Sky. I think the second option is more likely. ITV definitely want something, the BBC are very keen, not to say desperate, to keep Match Of The Day and there are other players involved now, like digital – though I remain to be convinced that digital is the goldmine everyone says it is.

Now that each channel needs to promote the particular tournaments it has the rights to – such as ITV and the Champions League – is it harder for anyone to offer even mild criticism of what they are showing?

I know there is a strong feeling against it because it’s not just the champions. I think the threat of a breakaway was real, though, and at least they’ve kept it within UEFA. I appreciate that the traditionalists will say it’s not right, and OK, it’s not Real Madrid in their white shirts playing a few knockout matches any more, but the best club will still emerge. But yes, you’re not going to get an investigative programme about European football on ITV half an hour before a Champions League game. I remember when ITV first got live football in the 1980s and Greg Dyke said, “From now on, even every goalless draw will be a fantastic match.” You’re compromised after that. Hopefully, you can say a game is bad when it is, though I have had people tell me never to say that, because people will switch off. But you can’t take things to the ludicrous extremes that Sky were guilty of early on. Somewhere, hope­fully, there is a line drawn where you can speak the truth, but without people switching off.

From WSC 157 March 2000. What was happening this month

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