Not enough variety on digital TV

Cameron Carter bemoans Sky 3's obsession with Manchester Utd

Digital television, if it were a person, would register at a high point on the autistic spectrum – nervous as it is of any change, limited in imagination and happiest when repeating its behaviour. Sky 3 is a very digital channel. Their latest big documentary idea was George Best – Football Genius, first shown on October 24 and which is certain to run and run.

Faced with the awkward question “What more can be said about George?” the makers boldly answered “Nothing” and rolled out that goal against Sheffield United, that goal against Chelsea, that goal against Benfica and, of course, the young superstar winding down the steps of a nightclub in a tie-dyed shirt to wait until the girls stopped dancing. Amid the contributors’ praise there emerged the complaint that Best didn’t pass much and the most revealing footage is of him without the ball. Straight from the kick-off between Northern Ireland and USSR, Best tears into and through midfield like a man hunting down the toilets in a crowded shopping centre. When, briefly, the ball is out of shot with a team-mate, the camera stays on the figure of Best, crouching, twitching, almost vibrating with impatience to have it back. As soon as he has the ball again he plunges towards goal with traumatised Soviet players hurling themselves at his phantom image.

Sky 3 is also a very Man Utd channel. You’ll spend a long time waiting for Newcastle United’s Top 50 Goals to appear in its schedules, but, just a few days before the lengthy George Best rehash, Man Utd – Heaven and Hell took up a couple of hours. At first I thought the hell-word in the title was a cynical ploy to get floating non-fans to keep watching in the expectation of a good laugh at the Frank O’Farrell years, only to become ill on dangerously high levels of United joy and glory goals. However, a week later it all became clear when Man Utd – Heaven and Hell appeared again, but this time, by way of psychic detox, with the 50 best goals against United.

Geoffrey Boycott popped up in the Heaven programme, to bring a wonderfully jarring note. Speaking frankly (of course) of the 1968 team, he declared: “I fell in love with them straight away. I’m not ashamed of it. I’m not embarrassed by it.” This is a strangely defensive angle to take when discussing one of the most exciting sides in sporting history, but becomes even more idiosyncratic when you realise that Boycott was sitting indoors wearing a wide-brimmed wicker hat of the style favoured by retired headmistresses to expire beneath on a summer lawn.

On the subject of eccentric contributions, and still with Sky 3, Chris Kamara guest co-presented Soccer AM’s All Sport Show under the impression that what the public want at that time of night is a “laughing policeman” figure with scared eyes. Helen Chamberlain at first looked politely incredulous during Kamara’s attempts at clever banter and reading the autocue, but soon took to looking merely incredulous. When not reading or missing his links, Kamara stared at the camera like a man watching a ghost develop, which is a good look for a film like The Sixth Sense, but not so right when you’re about to introduce the best goals from La Liga last weekend.

Inside Wayne Rooney (still Sky 3), had Paddy McGuinness of Phoenix Nights comparing his own fitness, physique and sensory awareness with the boy Rooney (there’s always a route back to Man Utd). This approach illustrates another habit of digital TV: namely, in the absence of a big budget or any time for creative planning, it’s a good idea to throw a lot of facts at the viewers, thereby startling them into inertia and also educating them by the back door. The combination of McGuinness’s jokiness, occasional glimpses of Rooney in action and lots of sports science talk was reminiscent of a schools’ programme where they try to pretend you’re watching a fun snooker show featuring Tony Meo, only to hit you suddenly with Newton’s Third Law of Motion and several equations to write down. Anyway, to save you watching a repeat, it turns out that Wayne has a “low mean format dispersion” and is, in the rather lovely phrase of one expert, “sculpted by the power of testosterone”.

Two fairly rare sightings to end with, for collectors. First, during ITV1’s The Championship, the fan-with-plastic-cup-in-mouth-applauding-sudden-goal was observable on the touchline at Brighton v Northampton. Then Football Focus’s Manish Bhasin gave us the first “six-pointer” reference of autumn when contemplating the Charlton v Watford game. Which I’m sure fans of those two teams appreciated most of all.

From WSC 238 December 2006. What was happening this month