State of the Nation on TV: Sky Sports

Date published: Monday 10th April 2017 10:05

In his new series, Johnny is considering the State of the Football Nation on TV and radio, celebrating the heroes and trying to be polite about the zeros. This week it’s the home of Jeff, Jeff. That’s got to be Sky, then…

 

HOW MUCH?
Be honest. Do you know how much you’re paying for the football package? As I write this, I simply have no idea, but I’m going to look it up…here I go….

Blimey, I’m paying £49.50 per month for their Sports Package! I watch no sport other than football. Why am I doing that? Can I pay less?

Sky pricing, as ever, is extremely opaque and seems to depend on which, of an almost infinite combination of variables, you opt for. Clearly this is done to make it as complicated as possible so you end up paying more than you realise, by the time additions are bolted on and discounts taken off.

This pricing issue, aside from the actual fee, is a real problem and leaves a cataract in your televisual eyes. It shouldn’t be so complicated. It could be far more simple, and given no-one likes things to be complex, we must assume they like it this way for some reason. And that reason can only be their coffers.

So I, at least, am paying £600 per year to watch football on Sky. That is what economics professors call “a f**k-tonne of money”. I feel like I’m the golden goose who is on the loose and never out of season.

I’ve since been told that the way to get a cheaper deal is to threaten to cancel and wait for increasingly desperate offers to keep you on board. This took it down to £23 for one contributor.

 

WHAT’S ON?
Coverage of the Premier League, La Liga, Football League, EFL Cup, Copa del Rey, Coppa Italia, Eredivisie, Scottish League and Cup games, MLS and all home nation tournament qualifying matches and friendlies, bar England’s.

That’s a hefty chunk of fitba. On top of this there are magazine shows such as Sunday Supplement, Soccer AM, Soccer Saturday, the occasional documentary and, of course, Sky Sports News, the vividly coloured outlet where not much news is repeated, dragged out and rolled until one atom thin before it loses substance and ceases to exist altogether, making everyone wonder if it was ever real at all.

You also get those slightly transatlantic shows which look like they were made to only be shown on a plane, like the Premier League Review. On top of all this there are old games, old goals clip programmes and nostalgia such as the Premier League 100 Club. It really is packed.

 

STAR PERFORMERS
When it comes to presenters they have two stand-out performers: Kelly Cates, who presents the EFL show on Saturdays, and Jeff Stelling, Soccer Saturday’s long-serving doyen and occasional match-day host.

Kelly’s show sees her alongside two ex-pros or a manager and is always a decent run through the action and highlights from the three lower leagues, with a bit of analysis thrown in. What she achieves so well is to squeeze the best out of the guests, no matter how good or bad they are, and she does so with an easy, enthusiastic manner, which plays perfectly. She is one of our primo performers, who I sometimes think is very much underestimated due to her being so good at her job that she makes it look easy-peasy. The best always make what they do look simple, I guess.

The same can be said for the Soccer Saturday ringmaster Jeff Stelling, who still pulls obscure facts out of thin air and puts in energy and articulation that few can match. That being said, there are murmurings that Soccer Saturday is now well past its sell-by-date. That it is the same old poorly informed tut week after week. That at least half the regulars can’t even be relied upon to speak in coherent sentences, on anything but an occasional basis. That there is a core of default thinking which is so out of touch with modern football as to make their contributions irrelevant.

All of this may be true, but Soccer Saturday is primarily an entertainment show and, if you want in-depth serious analysis, it really isn’t the place to go. As I was researching this piece, someone who has good reason to know a lot about football broadcasting on Sky, got in touch to offer this view.

“The people behind Soccer Saturday deliberately employ some pundits who they know are less than intelligent. They see it as reflecting part of the audience back to themselves. The uneducated, intellectually undernourished punter loves Merse because he talks like them and he’s endearingly funny. They love that he can’t say foreign names, because they can’t either. And they don’t know anything about European football either. He also holds views based on assumptions rather than fact, which is what a lot of viewers do. They don’t see a stupid bloke with a limited vocabulary, they see a fun bloke who got rich playing great football and who is still like them. That’s why he’s on. If you put really clever people on Soccer Saturday, a lot would turn off. Basically, a lot of the audience wants simple ideas presented by simple people who have won trophies, and that’s what they get. And that’s why it’s been so successful for so long.”

All of which makes a lot of sense. It’s certainly all too easy to find yourself in the position of being a football snob, sneering at the grunt labour who don’t know Marco Silva from Marco Polo. But TV is for everyone, so it’s not surprising that Sky employ men (never women, good God no) who are likewise. All they’re doing is servicing their public, as they see it. Not everything can appeal to everyone.

However, this is a tricky balancing act because in seeking the simplistic you can lose those who want more than the pub loser’s betting waffle. If word gets around that your pundits are hopeless idiots, the clever people will stop watching when there’s a decent alternative.

Anyway, back to star performers. This must include one Gary Neville, the man who revolutionised punditry by simply doing work. The surprising thing about GNev2 isn’t that he’s so good, it’s that until he arrived in the analyst seat, previous occupants had been allowed to bluff it for so long.

Then there’s Jamie Carragher, a man who can express elite knowledge, but mix it up with street smarts. And he’s so handsome. This matters.

Next star is Graeme Souness. I can see why some don’t like him but simmering aggression is attractive. There’s something of the resting lion about Souey. Sooner or later, someone is going to be savaged.

Chris Kamara is another, and we all know why: Passion, knowledge, soul, humour.  Danny Higginbotham occasionally pops up and we all wish he did so more often. And, finally, Alan Smith is always welcome in the room for being a grown-up and having a good brain.

 

RECENT HITS AND MISSES
The basic product is showing live games and we all totally take for granted that they are really well filmed, with lots of camera angles and as much hi-def ‘n’ slo-mo as anyone needs. Yes this is the basics, but it’s still worth noting they do it very well.

That being said, the feeling that the glory days are gone pervades Sky. With no Champions League, no Europa League, no FA Cup and no England games, they are simply much less important these days and are reliant on the Premier League to maintain their status.

Another miss is Jeff Stelling screaming ‘C’mon!” in some sort of betting ad. For a highly respected broadcaster, it seems very undignified and is persistently uncomfortable to see.

Soccer Saturday has an addictive quality to its word salad, at least until they start watching the TVs, after which you’re better turning to BTSport’s Score hosted by the excellent Matt Smith or Mark Pougatch.

Also, why is it necessary for the panel to eat while on air? Merse was shovelling something from what looked like a takeaway box into his face the other week. There are plenty of ad breaks for a snack if you must eat. The programme is only six hours long, not six days. Have a meal beforehand and one after. That’s how a grown-up would manage in the real world. This ain’t that, though.

Even so, hits in 2017 still means Monday Night Football. GNev2 with Carra riding shotgun is unmissable. Neville’s presence on co-comms remains a highlight. I also love Sunday Supplement, not for what is said, but for the window it opens on a strange, some might say fetid world.

Their Football League coverage is good and feels like it lives up to a standard worth aiming for. Scottish live games though, well, they often seem actually to hate football and all concerned are rather miserable about having to witness. Also they did this shambles.

Home nation international coverage is decent enough, though is far too focused on one ‘superstar’ such as Gareth Bale.

Why is Soccer AM still on? For research, I took a look. It was as stuck in 1996 as an Elastica record and even they were virtually a Wire tribute act.

Their Spanish coverage might be great, but I don’t watch it very often so can’t comment knowledgeably. The glory days of grumpy Mark Bolton seem a long time ago.

Transfer Deadline Day is a further big miss of the year. It’s an appalling, self-regarding thing which went from being funny, jumped the shark and became vomit-inducing. Lack of transfers also make it rather pointless. This year, they played it down; surely, it will be gone soon. Put the yellow clothes away. You’re done.

The Friday Night Football experiment was a disaster which struck exactly the wrong note. It was impossible to shake the idea that Rachel Riley was present not for her undoubted football knowledge and passion, but as decoration. The dynamic of chunky middle-aged man on a sofa, dress shirt on, but tie off, next to attractive young woman, gave the whole thing the look of a local news programme ‘fun feature’ in 1979, so much so that you half expected them to cut to a wet t-shirt competition.

But let’s end on a positive note. Goals on Sunday goes under the radar a little, but is always a nice mix of wisdom and wit. Like any show, it can vary in quality depending on the guests, but Chris and Ben are an all too little heralded double act.

 

LOVED OR LOATHED
We’ve all watched it for so long that a huge amount of people had to have their say. A general view emerged. We all loved how Sky changed football on the telly, but that feels like a long, long time ago now.

I had a massive amount of response on Twitter when I asked for views on Sky. Most of the points below were made time and time again. Common themes emerged which I’ve tried to reflect:

– Don’t seem to have learnt lesson BT have – ex-pros don’t always make great presenters/pundits, quality journos can provide better insight.

– MNF makes Mondays bearable.

– From the sublime (Neville, Carragher) to the ridiculous (Redknapp, Merson).

– Carragher and Neville are great. The Monday morning hour with Dermot Gallagher going through decisions the refs calls is also excellent.

– Very professional but calling every Sunday Super Sunday is wearing a bit thin. Jeff Stelling still without equal though.

– They need to freshen it up. Merson, Thompson and Redknapp all need to be jettisoned. They’re out of touch. They have zero understanding….

– They need to get rid of Merson and Thompson.

– Merson should be banished.

– Soccer Saturday has become a retirement home for the anti-foreign brigade (Merson, Thompson)

– Merse is entertaining, funny (not always intentionally), and genuinely seems to care and enjoy the game. Don’t take it so seriously.

– Punditry has largely improved hugely, nothing better than seeing Souey in full flight and wanting to seriously injure Jamie live on TV.

– Feels weird when the football presenter talks about the next live game on Sky & the new season of Game of Thrones on Sky Atlantic.

– Martin Tyler and Alan Smith probably their best commentary partnership. Not a huge fan of the ‘gantry’ gimmick.

– Hyping of everything, trying to make deadline day a thing, Americanisation, giving everything a label & endless superlatives.

– A minimal part right enough but their coverage of Scottish football is terrible. A token effort. David Tanner is poor.

– They show goals in Twitter clips now. That’s great.

– Their standard definition channels are worse quality than other SD channels. As if they’re forcing viewers to purchase HD for £5/month!

– The whole thing could really do with a youthful revamp, it all feels the same as 10 years ago. Also, Soccer AM is the worst.

– Love Soccer Saturday with JS great fun. Loath the amount of gambling adverts in every break.

– Ties. That’s what I like. Not sure how Le Tiss gets away with not wearing one?

– They’re still charging the same price but don’t show Champions League football anymore. Or England, or FA Cup games.

– Has become fashionable to criticise them. They do football better than anyone else, by a distance.

 

WHAT CAN THEY DO BETTER?
Innovate. It often looks and sounds old-fashioned. They need a distinctive new style.

Don’t concentrate so much on the lowest common denominator. Reduce hype and increase quality content funded by removing SSN. It’s a waste of everyone’s time and your money.

Feature female pundits and presenters regularly on your live Premier League coverage. Regularly put women on Soccer Saturday and Goals on Sunday. Sky is far too male.

 

John Nicholson

 


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