State of the Nation on TV: BT Sport

Date published: Saturday 15th April 2017 8:48

In his new series, Johnny is considering the State of the Football Nation on TV and radio. This week he’s watching his favourite channel, along with almost no-one else. That’ll be BT Sport then.

 

HOW MUCH?
It used to be free to BT Broadband subscribers, and I thought it still was, but after extensive research of my own bill it appears I pay £6 per month for it. I think. It’s so hard to know what it all means, as there seems to be a £1.50 discount applied because I’ve got turquoise socks on, or something. And, of course, I pay for Infinity broadband in order to get the sport at their discounted price, which only confuses matters further.

I am a bit thick, but these bills are surely intended to be confusing. You can bolt on or off so many options, depending on how you’re accessing it and whether you want the software that makes Glenn Hoddle invisible or not, so that finding a definitive cost for anything isn’t easy. However, if you want the TV access but not the broadband that’ll be £22.99 per month please.

 

WHAT’S ON?
Phwoar, how much time have you got? Basically, everything. Champions League, Europa League, UEFA Super Cup, The FAWSL, 42 Premier League matches per season, the Vanarama National League, Serie A, Ligue Un, the Bundesliga, the Primeira Liga, the FA Community Shield and the FA Trophy. They also have shared rights to the FA Cup with the BBC, and to the Scottish Professional Football League with Sky Sports and BBC Alba.

If you’re a football nut, this is all essential stuff.

While most of their output is based around live games, they’ve also moved into Soccer Saturday territory with a sofa/TV/pundits/clipboards (clipboards?!) programme called Score from 2.30pm on a Saturday afternoon. The European Goal Show on Champions League qualifying game nights is wonderful. And there are magazine shows such as the European Football Show and Football Tonight, as well as archive programmes. They don’t seem to have done a version of Sunday Supplement, but it can only be a matter of time (I hope).

 

STAR PERFORMERS
Blimey. There are so many. So where to start? James Richardson is consistently excellent, doing his gigs with a light touch on the European Football Show, while the European Goals Show also celebrate his live chops in a difficult, responsive format.

Lynsey Hipgrave is one of the channel’s stand-out performers by keeping things simple and crisp and by having possibly one of the finest accents on the TV. My missus is a Geordie, so I’m contractually obliged to say this. But it is true that the aesthetics of a voice are important in any broadcaster. Her performance this week after the Dortmund incident was exemplary.

Jake Humphrey handles the Premier League gigs and has become a smooth, consummate but informal performer.

Mark Pougatch or Matt Smith on the Score show also do a good mix of cohesion and chatty informality, something that is way harder than it looks. Too much informality and it’d all fall apart, but too much reading out loud from the autocue is stiff and tense. They also have to deal with some primo bantersaurs, with all the leg grabbing, gurning and amusement at childish things that they love so much. Can’t be easy.

I always liked Howard Webb’s rather handsome presence on any show. He has has now gone to America to do something reffy. His replacement, Graham Poll, just isn’t cool like Webby and comes over like a Daily Mail reader complaining about someone’s hedge.

Champions League nights sees Gary Lineker let loose on live TV, a format he’s always been good at. Am I alone in greeting a much-liked and familiar presenter? ‘Alright, Gary. Nice tan,’ is what I always say, thumb up at the TV, as he makes his opening remarks. I have lost my mind.

Darrell Currie handles Scottish football well in his distinctive, rather bird-like way and though usually wrapped in 15 scarves and a 243 tog quilt, is good at keeping his head under pressure, as this well proves.

I’m also a fan of Natalie Quirk’s work on the wonderfully named Vanarama National League. Along with Mark Clemmit, it is one of those niche pleasures in football telly life. They both express the essence of fifth tier clubs and the communities from which they spring. There’s a really lovely mix of grit and affection for an audience of literally some.

When it comes to pundits, BT Sport largely dines at the same restaurant as the BBC. Great to see them put a knowledgeable, articulate woman, usually Rachel Brown-Finnis, on the Score panel. They also give air time to Dean Saunders which some might feel is more like a curse than a pleasure. See also; ‘Arry et al. That being said, as is often the case with the PFM tendency, they are, in their own way, fascinating and often perfectly illustrate so many of the issues – some might say problems – in British football and indeed, life.

David James seems perfectly nice but for some reason exudes an awkward vibe, as though still overly self-conscious and not properly committed to the punditocracy.

Stevie G has been taken on, but can’t be said to have made a big impact in any way. Rio remains a cornerstone for them and seems to be growing into himself the further away from the dressing room he gets. This seems to happen to some ex-pros. Once freed from the dumb cultural confines of dressing room banter they can allow themselves to be more intelligent and sensitive without fearing ridicule. (Frank Lampard on Goals on Sunday was a perfect example of this. What an absolutely smashing fella he is.)

Like the BBC, they employ Chris Sutton for bluntness and saying the unsayable, something Chris is creating a niche for. This can be really effective at times, especially when cutting through pseudo respect and unthinking nonsense. But it can equally just seem in service only to the blartocracy, done purely for reaction, rather than as creative thinking or insight. Still, his cunning smirk and weary sneer is never not entertaining, as is his Norfolk-style ending of sentences with a rhetorical question, isn’ tit? Say Happisburgh, please Chris. That or Wymondham.

They also employ Paul Scholes, who is essential viewing for fans of north west downbeat misery. It always feels like Paul is spiritually a figure in a Lowry painting, hunched over, trudging to work in the rain.

Owen Hargreaves tends to divide opinion but I find his soft, oddly-accented voice attached to a decent brain very seductive. He’s actually at his best in the studio rather than as a co-comm and has a lovable shaggy, scruffiness to him. Looks like he could play a farm hand who gives the Lady of the Manor a damn good rogering in a 19th century costume drama.

Steve McManaman is a divisive figure too but, like him or not, he’s got a bit of spit and attitude about him which you could never say of Mr Michael Owen, (string-backed leather driving gloves surely always just out of shot) who looks more pleased he’s there than most of the audience is.

Jermaine Jenas is another quality regular, even if his haircut sometimes resembles a rubber swimming hat.

I think what BT Sport reaches for with pundits is breadth. They have so much football to cover that they need a cast of characters to hit as many points of light as possible. So while they go downmarket with the PFM-ers at times, when it comes to European football, we’re invited into the university common room for chat with real experts, with real knowledge.

This is BT Sport’s greatest contribution so far. They clearly worked out that only dedicated students of European football are going to watch their German, Italian, French and even Portuguese coverage, and they are likely not to be drawn from the slack-jawed for whom foreign is all the same and happens somewhere what isn’t here, Jeff. So they ditched the idea of having ex-footballers on and brilliantly decided to get expert writers and journalists on.

In doing this, they broke the unspoken law that only those who are playing or have played the game can know enough to talk about with any authority. It was always an obvious nonsense. The expansion of the use of journalists, and reduction of ex-players, has only increased the quality of output whenever it’s been tried.

So what about their commentators? Comms is a tough gig: you’re only one f-word away from causing an international incident. You get hammered on social media for being biased. You’re expected to know far more than your better paid but far more stupid co-comm ex-player. You have to pronounce every foreign name correctly for fear of being called a racist. Who’d want to do that? Lord knows. BT has quality, reliable performers such as Ian Darke and Jon Champion but their stellar talent has to be Darren Fletcher who, possibly because he’s also a brilliant radio commentator, has the right mix of detailed knowledge, excitement and passion to convey both entertainment and information.

 

RECENT HITS AND MISSES
Both The European Football Show and its sister, the European Goals Show with James Richardson, Julien Laurens, Raf Honigstein, Andy Brassell and James Horncastle continue to be an absolute triumph.

The style of these shows obviously owes much to the tone set by the understated brilliance of James Richardson and the easy bonhomie of Lynsey Hipgrave, but they are also beautifully, artfully produced and simply look sensational. The EFS looks, sounds and feels like the football programme so many of us have always, always, always wanted, made by well-informed, articulate and amusing people. At last a programme which provokes, entertains and inspires. If only there could be an equal for Premier League coverage.

However, their post-game Saturday night show has also been a great success. It’s hard to come up with new ideas, but their mix of social media requests and fan videos – with a few regulars – have really made for a great hour-long show. There’s a proper ‘after the game’ feel about it, with all of the release of tension or new frustrations that comes with that. And Jake ringmasters it very well and seems very much in his element. I think history will judge it as a bit of game-changer for mainstream post-football shows. Obviously, if you got a dullard ex-pro it doesn’t work as well, but it’s even made ‘Arry seem amusing on a few occasions, so it must be doing something right.

As previously mentioned, The National League Show pitches its tone just right.

This was tremendous fun too. Especially like how Mr Owen goes for a canter like a lovely little pony.

The Scottish games are worth watching if only for Chris Sutton and Stephen Craigan having a pop at each other like this, even if they now seem to be trying to work it up into a double act.

They’ve tried the two co-comms idea this season. I like it, but many don’t. The best thing is that if one is rubbish, it dilutes their contribution.

When it comes to fails, you might argue that the fact BT Sport exists at all is a problem.

All of this great football TV is all well and good, but it doesn’t come free and a lot of people can’t or don’t want to afford it. Hence audiences for many games, as has been well-documented, are often low, especially compared to what some now see as the glory days when BBC and ITV showed games for free.

Football is about community and if the vast majority don’t have access to the big games, then it loses its place at the heart of our civic life. Love for the Champions League is diminishing because people can’t see it. That’s a rot that has to be stopped.

But capitalism won. That’s why you have to pay to watch football. If you don’t like it, let’s have a peaceful revolution by stopping buying into the billionaire elite’s ideas of what life should be like and stop buying stuff which will never make us happy, the way non-judgemental love and friendship does.

It’s just a simple choice right now between fear and love. The eyes of fear want you to put bigger locks on your doors, buy guns, close yourself off. The eyes of love instead see all of us as one.

No? Can’t be bothered? Too busy watching Netflix in Starbucks while drinking a soya latte? OK then; you have to quit bitching and pay up.

 

LOVED OR LOATHED
My position on BT Sport is clear: I really enjoy it. Not as much as I Iove 5 live, obviously, but it’s my favourite TV channel and by some measure. Only a silly person would think that a broadcaster with so much coverage could provide us with everything we personally love, but BT Sport hits far more than it misses. Yes, it has its dodgy performers, and what is remarkable is how these are universally identified by my research. All of this is obviously subjective and we are in danger of merely being in an echo chamber on this, but there was a clear view, thus:

‘Owen. Savage. Hoddle. It’s like focus groups don’t exist.’

‘Not a fan of their double co-commentator, particularly when that regularly contains Hoddle or Sav.

‘I think Sav, Hoddle and Owen are awful.’

‘Veers from the sublime (Richardson, conference coverage) to the ridiculous (Owen, Savage, McManaman, Hoddle all employed).’

‘I’d prefer less Redknapp and Hoddle.’

‘Michael Owen is blander than his horses.’

‘Not sure how you go from sublime (European football show) to the ridiculous (Savage & Owen).’

‘They’d generate a lot of good feeling from the football watching public (that can see them) if they only had the sense to get rid of Hoddle.’

Now, there was so much of this sort of comment that I thought I’d ask someone who has good reason to know how the channel runs its football coverage, and they say this:

“I’m fairly sure that all the pundits that so many find to be poor, get work precisely because of that. Having someone waffle on in an incoherent way about something they don’t seem to know much about gets people talking, and that’s what management likes. People taking the p**s out of whomever – viewers getting annoyed by them – is judged as a success. It’s quite deliberate. They know they’re patchy performers but the whole ‘have you heard what this idiot said’ thing on Twitter is free publicity.

“I’d suggest if the audience want to get rid of them, they should just ignore them totally. Even you writing this will be seen as a win. Also, there’s a belief that viewers want familiarity more than quality and that most don’t care much who is on anyway. You guys are obsessed with football, most people aren’t.”

That’s all very interesting, isn’t it? Back to your comments:

‘European football show is superb.’

‘Euro goals show excellent, Richardson fantastic. Sutton & McManaman might be the most detestable people out there. Savage a pillock too, obv.’

‘Lynsey Hipgrave is way better than Jake Humphrey. Not even close.’

‘It’s good but they screw the clubs over cash wise. Altrincham FC lost money playing on BT last year at Bromley. And Clem did kind of apologise when taking his position in the comms box.’

‘James Richardson is the most underrated football presenter of the last 20/30 years. how he’s not been picked up by the big dogs is a mystery.’

‘Lineker and Richardson are the best in the business.’

‘Just waited 35 mins for their live chat & service was then poor. Missed 2nd half.  £27 per month… fans are over a barrel.’

‘It’s like Being John Malkovich, if John Malkovich was Tony Blackburn. I’ve heard more insightful analysis during a university freshers week.’

‘VSPO with @prodnose and @dannykellywords was the best programme of any kind on TV before they axed it.’

‘The Goals Show with @acjimbo is the best football programme on TV.’

‘European coverage is top notch, domestic coverage is a non deliberate satire of Sky’s.’

‘Put Sky’s Scottish coverage to shame. They have a genuine interest in more than 2 teams.’

‘Disappointed people don’t hate bantertastic Jake Humphreys as much as I do. Bring back grizzled old people presenting sport I say.’

‘That show where Sutton, Savage et al shout their inane opinions over each other is genuinely unwatchable.’

‘Majority of the pundits are awful. Owen, ‘Arry – with his little Englander schtick- particularly bad.’

‘It’s the Radio 3 of football TV.’

‘Like it a lot. Especially Sutton’s endless enthusiasm for the Scottish game, choice of leagues on a Sun night & the phone app.’

‘James Horncastle’s hair is incredible in HD.’

‘The Euro Football Show on Sunday night is ace. Lyndsey, Jimbo and Lineker prob best combo of presenters I can think of. Presentation matters.’

‘They treat Scottish football with respect and hire pundits that seem to care about the game up here. Miles ahead of Sky in my opinion.’

 

WHAT CAN THEY DO BETTER?
I sat for a long time thinking about this and I can’t really identify what they could do better, outside of the pundit issues raised above. And that’s quite an achievement really. So many things we’ve banged on about over the years have been adopted. They could perhaps employ more excellent women. A variety of informed voices is one of BT Sport’s great achievements. It’s not weird or odd and it shouldn’t even be considered progressive, it should just be normal.

It’s just a pity that so few people seem to have access to it. If I was in charge, I’d give it away free for a fortnight to let people see what they’re missing.

 

John Nicholson

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