State of the Nation on TV: Is the BBC worth it?

Date published: Friday 24th March 2017 1:48

In a new series, Johnny looks at all our football broadcasters on TV and radio, celebrates what’s good and sighs disapprovingly at the bad stuff, like that disappointed auntie who caught you fiddling with yourself in your bedroom all those years ago.

First up, the organisation that used to require us to pay them just for owning a TV, even if you didn’t watch it. That’ll be the BBC, then.

 

HOW MUCH?
The per annum licence fee is £145.50. That’s almost no money by modern broadcasting standards, and works out at 40p per day. But if you don’t pay it, they get very cross and, in the past, people have even gone to jail for non-payment of court fines relating to not paying for the licence. These days they say you need to be covered by a TV licence to:

Watch or record live TV programmes on any channel
Download or watch any BBC programmes on iPlayer – live, catch up or on demand.
This applies to any provider you use and any device, including a TV, desktop computer, laptop, mobile phone, tablet, games console, digital box or DVD/VHS recorder.

So that’s you told. But who is recording BBC programmes on a VHS recorder? What’s wrong with Betamax?

Someone, rather improbably called Pipa Doubtfire, Head of Revenue Management, says on the BBC website that “evaders face prosecution and an average fine of £170 levied in England and Wales.” So if you got away without paying for a couple of years, you’d be up on the deal! Oh, and what about Scotland and Norn Iron?

The vast majority of us, obviously, are happy to cough out for their the modest fee, though a subscription service, rather than a legally mandated levy, seems a more modern solution. However, someone who was once quite important in the BBC, over 10 years ago, told me why the corporation never want to go down that route. “Basically we’ve convinced the working class to pay for a lot of television programmes that are largely consumed by the middle-class. So why would we want to change that?”

I hope attitudes have changed since.

 

WHAT’S ON?
Their flagship show is still Match of the Day on a Saturday night, and people are still arguing over the running order, just as they always have. Possibly one of the most half-watched programmes on telly, as the drink shuts down the central nervous system, sending viewers to sleep on the sofa, only to wake up at 3.15am, freezing cold, with a dry, plastic mouth, leading your partner to believe you’ve been watching rude things and interfering with yourself when you do finally crawl into bed. Just me? MOTD is a meeting of old friends. It’s part of the skeleton that makes up our football body.

They also do some live FA Cup games. The magazine show. Football Focus. Final Score, which is like a mini version of Soccer Saturday. MOTD2. MOTD2 Extra, which brightens every Sunday lunchtime for 45 minutes. The Premier League Show, which is fronted by Gabby or Gary and is a welcome half hour of well-shot, rather arty interviews and clips. That makes up the regular output along with the excellent, regionally specific Late Kick Off programmes, all of which can be seen by anyone in any region.

 

STAR PERFORMERS
I firmly believe that we take how good their presenters are for granted. To my eyes, this season, as per usual, there are three standouts: Gary Lineker is still the consummate, well-informed and relaxed performer; Gabby Logan is articulate, interesting and sharp-witted (I know this ‘cos I’ve met her); Mark Chapman is knowledgeable, amiable, funny and the right side of blokeish. You know if they’re in charge, it’s all going to flow pretty well and we’re headed for Planet Good Times.

Others who can be trusted to drive the BBC bus include Jacqui Oatley (need to have more of her cool erudition, please), Jason Mohammed (impressively argumentative), Dan Walker (has made being nice into an artform) and Manish Bhasin (great everyman skills).

Basically, you don’t get a gig on the BBC unless you’re pretty top notch at staring down a lens and talking like a human.

They employ commentators who tend towards the steady rather than stellar. I love that they keep Motty on, though more for radio than telly. Yer Guy Mowbrays and Steve Wilsons have, like all comms, deep and well-appreciated knowledge, but it’s Jonno Pearce who is their most idiosyncratic and distinct performer. He’s still barking and roaring after all these years. I love him beyond all measure. He has made shouting into a performance art and is very entertaining interacting on live games with a co-comm.

When it comes to the pundits they employ, there’s a lot of crossover with those who turn up on BT Sport. So there’s a big cast of characters – some are better than others, some are probably lucky to get called back time and time again. It must be very frustrating for aspiring pundits to see their way blocked by clearly inferior talents. I do sometimes wonder if non-football fans in BBC management book ex-players, not realising how poorly regarded they are. One always worries that the BBC might have tendency to apply middle-class perspectives to a largely working-class sport.

A welcome recent addition to the roster is the mighty physical presence of Mark Schwarzer, who is well-spoken and has organised his thoughts like a regular intelligent person. In doing that, some would say he has overcome the twin hurdles of being both Australian and a footballer.

The breakout star of the last couple of years has to be that nice Jermaine Jenas, who is a welcome bridge between the ex-pros in their 40s and 50s and the generation that is still playing. He’s been especially good at one-on-one interviews, which is a hard artform because you’ve got to listen and respond, not just ask questions.

They’re fond of employing Phil Neville these days, which is always enjoyable, as the Neville who isn’t Gary leans forward earnestly and talks at speed, like an excited, slightly over-focused schoolboy. These sorts of individual voices really create a multi-hued football fabric and, though perhaps a little odd, should be clung to the collective bosom.

Alan Shearer has, of course, been a resident pundit for 11 years now. Eleven! An 11 years which have seen him transform himself from grinning stater of the obvious to a contemplative, quiet, thoughtful analyst. Perhaps the further away you get from the dressing room, the more clever you become?

Danny Murphy is a regular resident of MOTD and, despite looking like a man who has just woken up and found himself in a skip, he can deliver some of the best analysis. I like the fact he’s dour. Shouting and being ‘fun’ has too much weight in modern media.

I’m also pleased they keep Mark Lawrenson on (I thought he was older than 59). He’s usually on Football Focus these days. I like that he’s not modified his unique mix of Lancastrian cynicism and terrible puns. And his withering disapproval of social media is a nice counterbalance to the more puppy-ish tendencies of younger contributors. There’s definitely room for genuine arsiness in football broadcasting, because it’s such a common emotion in all of us.

There is much amazed bewilderment at Garth Crooks too, of course. Not just for his infamously bizarre team-of-the-week selections, but for his unique way of talking in bursts of circular illogicality and also for his fantastic, almost perfectly spherical head. I firmly believe the BBC should be home to eccentrics and I would welcome more, over and above those who take themselves too seriously and have a vanilla outlook on football and life.

The BBC is in a unique position. It is our friend, our family. Sometimes we take it for granted, sometimes we hate it, but we love that it’s not trashy and common. It’s our best defence against the blartocracy. It’s not perfect – nothing is – but the People’s Broadcaster should always aspire not to engage with the lowest common denominator.

 

RECENT HITS AND MISSES
Got a lot of great publicity over Gary’s ‘underpants’ promise if Leicester City won the league. Though those hoping it would lead to an outing for a pair of substantially-packed tighty-whities were to be disappointed.

Have just got the rights for the 2019 Women’s World Cup and they’ve had a very creditable commitment to women’s football stretching back to the time when it was weirdly called ‘the ladies game’, as though the players all wore crinolines.

Lack of financial clout/commitment has meant it’s always been excluded from the Champions League coverage and that is a really, really big miss. Were they to broadcast those games, not only would the audience be substantial (should this matter to the BBC?), but it would restore the competition to prominence. The £1.2 billion it cost BT this time around would be about 10% of the BBC’s three years income. Sounds do-able if there’s a will, but it’d be easy to imagine how it’d be received by the bigoted right-wing press for whom the BBC is a forever enemy, no matter what it does.

However, an ongoing big hit is the fact that they don’t have any advertising. This is fantastic because it means NO F**KING BETTING ADS which are utterly ubiquitous in our sorry lives. At least they are not contributing to the promulgation of an increasingly destructive, addiction-riddled industry, bloated with base values and grotesque aesthetics, passed off as normal life.

It also means that, unlike ITV especially, they don’t have to cram analysis into short gaps between advertisements for destructive lifestyle choices.

Only the BBC can deliver a large audience for a live football game. While BT and Sky scrabble around to score a million for a big game, the BBC can pull in seven or eight million or more for a big England game.

 

LOVED OR LOATHED
My firm belief is that we take the BBC for granted. If you’re of a right-wing persuasion you’ll hate them and will see wet liberalism everywhere, I get that. You probably want Gary Lineker sacked for his Twitter declarations of empathy for the dispossessed and struggling. To the rest of us, it is a bulwark against the very oppressive, ever-encroaching downmarket idiocy, for whom ‘you’re talking loud, you ain’t saying nothing’, is their primary raison d’etre. They don’t get everything right, and in that, they are us. So it wasn’t surprising that a lot of people got in touch on Twitter to tell me what they thought of the BBC.

‘Still good but there’s an air of complacency – most evident during last year’s Euros. Needs better pundits, JJ aside.’

‘Pearce & Motty aside, I find the BBC crop indistinguishable.’

‘Great coverage but budget restraints obvious – Kilbane, Dublin, Sinclair etc. Save their budget for star guests at WC/Euro.’

‘Production is nice enough but the pundit analysis is poor, just sound bites, could really do with a G Nev type analyst.’

‘Good coverage, especially at international tournaments. Who’s who of the worst pundits though: PNev, Sutton, Keown, Crooks.’

‘The magazine show on a Thursday night is a good watch.’

‘MOTD2 always far superior. Lee Dixon was incisive before he made the switch. Gullit is good!’

‘I just despise the fact that the tv license is mandatory, punishable by incarceration and a criminal record.’

‘Using Sutton on TV is a huge minus (he seems to be all over 5Live too) – the Katie Hopkins of punditry for me, Clive.’

‘MOTD has flaws, but I miss it when it’s not on. BBC is streets ahead of the competition during international tournaments, mind.’

‘Pundits vary. Kilbane and Jenas are both gems and I always like Wrighty appearing.’

‘MOTD aided the transition of my club-only obsession to more appreciative of football in general, immeasurably.’

‘Can’t beat a BBC big tournament heroic exit montage. Euro ’96 to cast walkaway was special.’

‘Nearly as bad as BT Sport. Lineker is smug and annoying. Shearer is pointless. Keown talks nonsense. They make everything boring.’

‘It’s free, extensive highlights of the Premier League with no adverts. I can’t stress enough how far that puts it ahead of everyone for me.’

‘Football with no betting adverts. Doesn’t get any better (than that).’

‘They try to be the everyman channel and at times please no-one.’

‘Lineker is excellent, The Football League Show was excellent, and some new pundits have been great.’

‘It’s football on terrestrial TV. It’s magic.’

‘Still love MOTD, and Lineker is still a good anchor.’

‘Loathes: The continued employment of the walking insult to intelligence that is Martin Keown. Hate Savage, Sutton, Keown, Crooks all ruining the watching experience.’

‘Loathes: Keown, Savage, Garth. Loves: Ride as Football Focus theme music. The peerless Mark Chapman. The Monday Night Club. Clem being odd on Final Score.’

‘They regularly employ Garth, Keown and Savage (shudder) as pundits. Aside from…great.’

‘Got the best commentators. Don’t like it when the studio stuff goes a bit ‘light-entertainment’ with forced banter.’

‘Of the British broadcasters, they are by far the best for football. No hype, just professional, excellent tournament coverage.’

 

WHAT CAN THEY DO BETTER?
In some ways, there’s no point in voicing disapproval of this pundit or that really, because it’s all so subjective, and I think sometimes we forget that they’re not all employed for the same reasons. Someone important and top notch who works in football telly made a good point to me last week, saying: “All pundits have strengths and weaknesses, so the key is to play to their strengths.” So maybe when that doesn’t happen, we start shouting at the TV and wondering why on earth this clown is being paid to bark nonsense at us.

Personally, I’d like them to tell pundits not to keep saying “it’s just my opinion/in my opinion” with a determined tone, because it’s obviously just their opinion. But that’s just a linguistic obsession of mine.

There is a tendency to over-do the ‘magic of the cup’ rhetoric in advance of games, because it’s too prescriptive. It’s like when a trailer describes a movie as “a moving story” it immediately puts your back up, because no-one wants to have their emotions defined in advance.

While the BBC has long been progressive in their support of women’s football, I do think it needs to lead the way once again by bringing more regular female pundits into the men’s games. It is happening now and again, but it should be common, normal and not an exception.

Overall, the BBC does serve us well in terms of football coverage. We all have an investment in it and I think we probably take its quality massively for granted and are too quick to shout too loudly about the aspects we don’t like – especially in relation to a small minority of contributors – but are too slow to appreciate the vast majority of quality output. There are nasty, vicious politicians and media organisations that love to find fault with the corporation in order to further their own mendacious, greedy agenda. We should not aid them in this work.

Well done BBC football. More power to you.

 

John Nicholson

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