The saturation coverage given to football now was unimaginable in the 1980s. Roger Titford looks at how the change happened

TV coverage of English football was in a state of flux 25 years ago. The 1980s was the decade of change between two quite distinct orthodoxies of how we watched most of our televised football. Before 1980 we had the certainties of the highlights era and after 1990 the choices offered by live broadcasts.

This system began to unravel with ITV’s infamous “Snatch of the Day” in 1980 which disrupted the viewing habits of up to a third of the population by taking the BBC’s long-established Saturday night slot. Viewing figures (and match attendances) began to fall steeply and the TV companies’ interest turned to other sports (notably snooker) and other football formats. In October 1983 the Spurs v Forest fixture was moved for live TV coverage, the first League match to be so covered since a failed experiment in 1960. While depressing the attendance at the match – at times severely – the live format (about a dozen games were covered) drew a significantly larger TV audience than highlights programmes. The battle between live coverage and highlights had started.

It took place in a time of immense, and now incredible, pessimism about football and a general view that the BBC and ITV were acting as a cartel to depress the fees they would pay for an apparently increasingly unpopular product. The BBC’s head of sport, Jonathan Martin, said in 1985, “soccer is no longer at the heart of the TV schedules and is never likely to be again” while Simon Inglis wrote in 1988, “[the TV companies] allowed televised football to rot and then turned to the Football League and said, you see, nobody wants to watch it any more”. For six months of a commercial dispute from August 1985 there was simply no League football on TV at all.

When it came back coverage swung towards live matches – 14 in 1987-88 and 21 the following season (by contrast with 138 Premier League matches this season). But the purists were not happy. Patrick Barclay in the Independent argued (in 1987) that “live matches will never replace highlights in the enthusiast’s affections” and bemoaned that because of the fragmentary coverage you could go a whole month without seeing a League goal. By 1991, with around 45 domestic games covered live and 210 hours of recordings, the Daily Mail’s Brian Scovell wrote: “Some experts are now pondering whether there is too much.” About the only pundit who was anywhere near right about the eventual outcome was, infuriatingly, Robert Maxwell who said in 1986 that football had sold itself much too cheaply to TV.

When and how did it all change? Despite the ten million who watched Arsenal snatch the title from Liverpool on a Friday night in 1989 I think the following year was the crucial one in turning the nation on to a diet of live football. There was the first truly exhilarating Super Sunday of two FA Cup semi-finals (Crystal Palace 4, Liverpool 3 and Oldham 3, Manchester Utd 3) followed by the nation-gripping Italia 90. The market and the interest in football was back but now there were also new broadcasters who wanted to fill airtime – BSB, Eurosport, Screensport (a satellite operation in which WH Smith had a big interest, amazing as that sounds today) and, of course, Sky. Sky cut its teeth on the ZDS and the Leyland Daf competitions and made its breakthrough in 1992 by winning the first TV contract to cover the newly formed Premier League.

The rest is history; or, as Sky might have it, history starts here. There is a natural and strong symbiosis between live coverage and satellite broadcasting, and Sky quickly weaned the English football fan towards seeing this as the norm. And it’s not just the norm in the way it’s covered. It’s also the norm that live football always seems to be on TV, with the terrestrial channels hoovering up as much as they can afford too. In 1980 there was 70 hours of recorded League football, in 2010 you could find 70 live hours a month.

From the fans’ perspective the quantity and pictorial quality of the coverage has never been better and the choice never been wider, though the studio presentation is surprisingly bland and unsophisticated. The growth of live televised football has had effects on matchday attendances but in a more subtle way than one might have expected.

In the 1980s thousands did take the simplistic view that because the game is on TV it’s not worth going. But in 2011 thousands still go even to away games that are on TV and that must be because the nature of supporting has fundamentally changed; it’s about more being there (more often as a family) and taking part, not just witnessing a parade of skills. Clubs recognise this shift of emphasis and promote “passion” through featuring madly involved fans on websites and in programmes.

While live TV football has far from killed off match-going it has had another feared effect: increasing the support for the most televised clubs at the expense of other, more run-of-the-mill, local clubs. How many matches does the satellite-enabled, TV-only fan of a Big Four club actually not get the opportunity to see?

Now 25 years on from what was effectively a low-grade TV football desert we have a cornucopia of choice, if a paucity of style, way beyond what was predicted at the time. Saturation coverage has created some victims – snooker and horse-racing, pub life, family life, Saturday afternoon kick-offs, popping to a game as a neutral – but so far the grass-roots of football have stood up remarkably well. What’s happened over the last 25 years confirms that the old adage “as seen on TV” still works.

From WSC 291 May 2011

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