Man Friday

Al Needham isn't ashamed to admit he was an ITV Digital subscriber. Here he recalls the channel's highlights – that's the first two paragraphs anyway

When ITV (née ON) Digital was launched in aut­umn 1998, it seemed a very appealing offer to the televisual tat aficionado such as myself. You could get WWF and back-to-back episodes of On The Buses without throwing any cash directly into the maw of Rupert Murdoch, and you only had to plug it in and ring a call centre to get connected.

All was well. When the Champions League rolled along, there was a special channel which would zoom around the grounds like a visual version of Radio 5 Live, dropping in on Prague for a bit, switching over to Munich, then Lisbon, and then straight over to Moscow for a late Spartak winner. It was like living in the 21st century – albeit only a couple of years before the event – and, in retrospect, it was the only thing ITV Sport ever got right.

However, after the immediate thrill most men feel after buying a gadget had gone, I noticed a few cracks in the relationship. Little things like the signal conking out regularly, leaving a tiny red dot (one of the unremarked accusations levelled at ITV Digital is that it was probably responsible for the death of Rod Hull), or the fact that the vast majority of channels were owned by the BBC or ITV, which rather defeated the object of getting the service in the first place.

However, Sky were obviously running scared, and it showed. They started lumping vital UEFA Cup games (yes, there is such a thing) on to new and unobtainable channels like Sky (the naming of which still confuses me), and began to introduce technical doodads like PlayerCams and options to get rid of Andy Gray.

The only interactive option on offer to me on ITV Digital was a teletext thing with the game running in the corner, which could be easily reproduced by taking the back page of the Sun, cutting a square in one corner, and sticking it to the TV screen. I couldn’t even mute the sound and put the radio on, as the digital signal lagged about five seconds behind. You would be watching Man Utd dick about with the ball on the halfway line, while simultaneously hearing that Paul Scholes had scrambled a goal from inside the six-yard box, which rather detracted from the spectacle (although if you ever watch Sky in the pub with an earphone, you can “predict” the action and come off looking like a tactical genius).

Ever since Sky made the Premiership their own, virtually every other TV channel has bagged exclusive rights for the leftovers. Sometimes they get it right (Channel 4 and Serie A), but mostly they don’t (L!ve TV and five-a-side matches with pub teams managed by Frank Worthington and Keith Chegwin). ITV Digital got it phenomenally wrong. And yes, I subscribed to it. It gave me the opportunity to see Forest games live without having to be pointed out and laughed at in London pubs. I’m sure there was another reason as well, but it escapes me now – perhaps I thought it might impress women.

It’s August 2001. A Friday night. I am lying on the settee, watching Wolves, or Reading, or Stoke. I can’t remember. What I can remember, however, is realising there were much better things I could be doing on a Friday night. But I kept subscribing – my flatmate was convinced there would be a huge Formula One element (there wasn’t – Sky nabbed that too), and I didn’t want to hurt the feelings of those underpaid whelps in Plymouth.

The major flaw in ITV Digital’s plan was the sad truth that not many people genuinely care about the teams in the Football League apart from their own. True, you can say the same about certain Premiership teams, but at least I can watch Spurs knowing there will be people at work I can talk to the game about and laugh at. And what about the times when there was no pulsating Third Division action? Well, there was, er, snooker, wall-to-wall football quiz shows that brought back hideous memories of Fred Trueman on Indoor League and endless reruns of old World Cup footage that even Eurosport would have turned its nose up at.

By the time Carlton and Granada had realised that the game was up, I was long gone, having moved to a place where I could get Sky. The call centre people were ob­viously upset, but they understood that no amount of stuffed monkeys was going to prolong the relationship. I feel very sorry for the clubs who are now staring bankruptcy in the face (particularly County, and especially Forest), but the supporters who are rightly frothing at the mouth at TV executives should direct at least an equal amount of vitriol at the chairmen who believed that such a ridiculous deal would be worth investing a future upon.

From WSC 185 July 2002. What was happening this month