It was a game of two halves for the BBC, played over two days. On Wednesday, culture secretary Chris Smith announced a five-year extension of the licence fee, backing it with a ringing endorsement of the Corporation’s current strategy. Sir John Birt could hardly restrain his delight: “We wouldn’t change a word,” he said.
On Thursday came “the Death of BBC Sport”, as the Mirror melodramatically proclaimed it. After 60 years, all cricket coverage on BBC TV was to be snatched away – not, in the main, to Sky Sports, but to that other public-service, non-profit-making broadcasting corporation, Channel 4.
Some believe the strategy which won the BBC its licence-fee extension is also the reason it lost the cricket and other top sport. Former BBC TV managing director Sir Paul Fox asks why the Corporation cannot find the money to save sport’s “Crown Jewels” for its millions of viewers, while ploughing licence-fee money into digital services such as News 24 and BBC Online, which few can yet receive? And why the BBC has regularly put the cricket highlights on at midnight – while C4 will show them in peaktime?
Others claim BBC Sport has been arrogant and complacent, slow to modernise its coverage and presenters. The head of BBC Broadcast Will Wyatt insists the Corporation increased its offer substantially, and says there’s a limit to how much extra licence-fee money it can put into such events. He says rival broadcasters are able to cherry-pick, paying over the odds for particular events that suit them. C4 says it could have used some of its profits from Teletubbies to pay for the cricket.
Even so, the cricket decision came almost out of the blue. Since June – when the Government took test matches off the list of events protected for terrestrial TV – everyone assumed the next contract would be split between the BBC and Sky. The only question was how many tests would go to satellite – and since Smith said he still expected “substantial live coverage on free-to-air television”, it seemed likely to be one or two at most.
Privately, the BBC almost welcomed the possibility that the Lords test match might go onto satellite. It clashed with Wimbledon and several other top BBC sports events. Even with two channels, the Corporation found it hard to fit in all its goodies – let alone satisfy those viewers who, incomprehensibly, didn’t like sport.
No one expected any other terrestrial broadcaster to compete for the cricket contract, which was why the England & Wales Cricket Board had lobbied so hard to have test matches delisted – to create a market and push up the price.
“Terrestrial television services, with an obligation to provide a wide range of programming, cannot or should not be able to cover lengthy sporting events in full, without unacceptable disruption to normal services and consequential disappointment for viewers who are not aficionados of the sport in question.”
So said the “listed events” advisory group, chaired by Lord Gordon (of Radio Clyde), in March. Specifically, they said: “We believe it is difficult for generally-available terrestrial broadcasters to schedule the Tests in full without being unfair to viewers who do not take an interest in cricket.”
Hence the decision to recommend that tests be taken off the list, so rival broadcasters could bid against the BBC. C4 suddenly decided it could find room to schedule the Tests in full – and would happily have bought all of them if it could, including the ones now sold to Sky. So why didn’t it do so before?
The C4 bid was a product of its times, the audacious idea of David Brook, its director of strategy and development. A cricket enthusiast, he led the pitch with chief executive Michael Jackson, and handled it as an ad agency would – winning over the ECB and its ad industry advisers with an inspiring mix of hard numbers, creative thinking, vox pops from cricket fans and testimonials from satisfied clients (notably racing).
Crucially, Brook appreciated just how much the ECB chairman, Lord MacLaurin, wanted a change in the TV coverage, to rejuvenate the game. And fortunately C4 had in its back pocket its windfall money from ITV, following the winding down of the “funding formula”.
But surely the Government hadn’t intended that to be used to help nick cricket from the BBC – particularly when the 30-odd hours of coverage would mean “unacceptable disruption to normal services” and “disappointment” for non-cricket fans? This is the clever bit. Lord Gordon’s group had noted the “Commonwealth links” of cricket and “its appeal to distinct cultural groups in society”, while the new C4 remit specifies a commitment to “multicultural programmes”, innovation and education.
So C4 will be working with the ECB “to broaden and freshen the appeal of cricket, particularly to a younger, more multicultural audience”.
Finally – and this is where the BBC really couldn’t compete, despite its new-found enthusiasm for marketing – C4 will be investing 13m in marketing and promoting cricket, “bringing all its marketing experience to bear to develop the game as one of its premier brands”.
Media independent John Ayling, who saw the pitch, says C4’s marketing strategy for cricket is exceptional. He also believes its showing of highlights in peaktime is very important.
But can C4 really find room for all these hours of play, and still fit in racing, the 7pm news and its entertainment shows? It claims it can, and the advertising department is confident it will bring in extra revenue.
The BBC, with two channels, will now have no cricket at all. It’s particularly galled, claiming the controller who scheduled test highlights at midnight was…Michael Jackson.