There may not have been too many reasons to have wanted to watch Bradford City on the Football League Show this season; but when anticipation of re-living the goals from the thumping 3-0 Boxing Day victory over Crewe was ruined by a realisation the BBC’s highlights programme was absent from the evening’s TV schedule, anger quickly spread across the #bcafc Twitter community. Unless you were a Colchester United fan, it appeared the mood of confusion and despair over there being no Football League Show was reflected around the country.
The BBC initially claimed they couldn’t show Boxing Day highlights for contractual reasons. Shortly after, however, the Football League Show’s presenter, Manish Bhasin, Tweeted that the no-show had been a budgetary decision. There will not be another episode until mid-January, but more troublingly media reports have quickly followed claiming the Beeb is unlikely to be renewing its Football League contract when it expires at the end of this season. Could Bradford City and the other 71 Football League clubs no longer have a home on terrestrial TV?
If the biggest impact of TV on English football over the past 20 years has being to create a split between the haves of the Premier League and the have-nots of the rest of us, it’s perhaps no surprise that we are the first to notice the effects of TV stations’ difficulty to cope with the ongoing worldwide economic woes.
Back in November, ITV took the decision not to broadcast an FA Cup 1st Round highlights package on the Saturday night; instead incorporating the goals and shocks of the day into an extended build up of its Sunday lunchtime live FA Cup game. The reason was simple: with England v Spain broadcast live on the channel Saturday teatime, ITV didn’t have the staffing resource to construct and edit an FA Cup highlights package to be shown a few hours later. Understandable perhaps, but not something that was ever a visible problem during TV’s football boom period, which showed no signs of slowing just a couple of years ago.
Terrestrial TV has been badly affected by the faltering UK economy. Advertising revenue down, the BBC’s licence fee frozen and cuts needing to be made everywhere. The early rounds of the FA Cup and the Football League are hardly the jewels in either station’s football rights crown, so apparently are the first on the chopping board when budgets are stretched. Those expressing outrage at the prospect of the BBC not renewing their Football League contract have been quick to point towards the recent disclosure over how much Alan Hansen is paid to continue looking bored on Match of the Day. Is the continued presence of the Scot to deride bad Premier League defending a fair trade for the rest of us no longer being able to watch our team’s goals?
If the BBC does drop the Football League contract it will be a huge shame, because it has done an impressive job of covering the lower leagues since taking over from ITV at the start of the 2009/10 season. Although the Football League Show can at times be a little too rigid in its weekly format, it has shone a bright spotlight on the three divisions and dug deeper into the related stories on and off the field. Pundits Steve Claridge and Leroy Rosenior clearly do their homework on the clubs they comment on, while Mark Clemmit’s segment visiting a different ground each week is always great viewing. The BBC has also shown 10 live Championship games per season.
It should not be forgotten, however, that before the BBC, ITV provided good coverage of the Football League too. Away from its irritating main presenters and pundits, the Sunday morning The Championship programme was a more understated but still compelling review of the previous day’s games; featuring – despite what the name of the programme might suggest – the goals from all three divisions. In fact, there was something nice about viewing it on a Sunday compared to the BBC’s Saturday night early hours slot. Watch Match of the Day and the Football League Show back-to-back now, and by the end you can feel weary and a little fed up of football.
It remains to be seen whether ITV – which is showing signs of recovery after looking in a desperate shape a year or so ago – will bid for the Football League highlights package for next season, should the BBC fail to renew the contract. But for the sake of the future of lower league football, we must all hope and pray that they would be prepared do so.
The Premier League and Champions League is already the be all and end all for too many football fans, journalists and pundits in this country. The most banal pieces of big four-related news blown out of all proportion on 24 hour news channels, rivalries between managers and teams hyped up endlessly, and the significance of certain fixtures taken far too seriously. The Football League has to compete with that. Not in the sense of its players jostling to appear on the front and back pages, but in persuading a legion of armchair supporters of the merits of popping down to watch their local football club instead of spending Saturday afternoons watching Jeff Stelling’s banter.
Without terrestrial highlights on a Saturday or Sunday, the Football League significantly loses its profile. The talented players of the future or the fading stars of the past will no longer have their skills showcased to millions of TV viewers, who might be tempted to go and see them perform live the following week. Promotion-chasing sides won’t have as many Johnny-come-latelys coming along to cheer their end of season games, because awareness of the Football League’s soap opera stories will reduce. The financial rewards that TV provides lower league clubs is clearly vital too, but the relatively high profile exposure they enjoy from appearing on terrestrial TV could prove a bigger loss.
The Football League needs the BBC. It needs to have Bhasin enthusiastically acclaiming that it has been an exciting day for the NPower Football League today. It needs Clemmit interviewing a wooden-sounding supporter next to a turnstile about how his team is playing its best football for years. It needs Rosenior pre-fixing his answer to every question with the word “absolutely”. And if it can’t have these things from the Beeb, it needs ITV to provide something similarly wonderful-but-at-times-frustrating-because-they-only-showed-10-seconds-of-our-game-the-useless-bastards, to replace it.
Take the Football League away from the armchair supporter, and there is even less reason for them to ever get off their backsides and support their local club.