Torin Douglas: Will ITV drag football into a relegation dogfight?

Although the season is young, ITV’s Premiership highlights package is looking ill-planned and dangerous, both for the network and the sport, says Torin Douglas

Greg Dyke must be tempted to say “I told you so”: ITV’s acquisition of the Premiership highlights is already looking like a spectacular and expensive own-goal. And it’s not just the early evening scheduling that is the difficulty – though that has exposed the problems sooner than one might have anticipated.

The seven o’clock start was always a brave decision, though you wouldn’t have known that from the hysterical reaction when it was formally announced. We were led to believe that the nation’s social and viewing habits on a Saturday night would be transformed at a stroke. Dads would be set against mums, with kids caught in the crossfire, and – since dads monopolised the remote – the nation would go even more football crazy than it was already. The Premiership juggernaut would crush everything in its path, strengthening its domination of British life.

That was surely never likely, though most observers must have thought the ITV Premiership programme – with its huge resources, promotion and newspaper previews – would attract a few more viewers than last weekend’s 3.1 million. The notion that it would drag down ITV’s whole Saturday night schedule, with Cilla Black beaten by the Edinburgh Tattoo on BBC1, was not on anyone’s agenda.

The seven o’clock start came about partly because there was no natural slot for the Premiership which made commercial sense. Wherever the show was put, it was going to cause problems, exacerbated by the fact that the clubs wanted it to go out in peak time.

Greg Dyke always said ITV had overpaid with its three-year, £183m bid. As he’d once led ITV’s football negotiations, he was in a strong position to judge, but because he was the BBC director-general who’d just lost the battle for the rights, his comments were seen as sour grapes.

So let’s spool back and remind ourselves what happened in that frantic week last summer when all the main TV football contracts came up for renewal – the Premiership, the FA Cup, home internationals and the Nationwide League.

Dyke had come into the BBC vowing to win back some of its lost sports rights. He said it could be done partly by finding more money but – given that no free-to-air terrestrial channel could outbid a subscription channel – also by playing to the BBC’s strengths and making sport more of a priority in terms of scheduling and profile.

The Football Association, under former Saatchi boss Adam Crozier, was receptive. The FA Cup had lost some of its gloss since ITV won the rights from the BBC four years before, and home internationals had been appearing only on Sky, reducing their audience considerably.

By agreeing a deal with the BBC and Sky, the FA set out to address these problems. It was a huge coup for Dyke. His strategy of offering more than just money had been proved correct – the BBC could win back some of its lost sports by thinking smart and being fast on its feet.

Had the BBC won the FA Cup and England internationals without losing any of its existing contracts, Dyke would have become a hero. At a stroke he would have shown that he really could make a difference at the BBC. Morale would be boosted throughout the Corporation, and Dyke would have demonstrated real leadership.

Unfortunately, the BBC lost the Premiership highlights, and the news was announced before that of its FA Cup win. Far from Dyke being hailed a hero, he’d lost one of the Corporation’s long-established sports contracts. The story dominated front pages and broadcast bulletins, and was seen as a disaster for the BBC.

When the FA subsequently announced that the BBC had won the live rights for the FA Cup from ITV and for England home internationals from Sky, the news received less prominence. The deal was seen as a consolation prize.

So how did ITV win the Premiership highlights, when many people – including Dyke – thought it had decided live football was the only game in town and the highlights package made no commercial sense? According to one version, ITV had got wind that it was going to lose the FA Cup, and knew it had millions of pounds, previously earmarked for football, to spare.

The prospect of Dyke winning back the FA Cup was bad enough, but ITV had positioned itself as the terrestrial home of football. It had a high-profile, high-cost team, headed by Des Lynam, whose defection from the BBC had been hailed as one of the Corporation’s greatest sports losses. Was the Champions League enough to keep them busy, fired up and in the public eye?

According to this version, ITV threw the FA Cup money at the Premiership contract, whipping it from under Dyke’s nose. In PR terms, it was a huge victory, spiking Dyke in spectacular fashion and muting coverage of its FA Cup loss.

Now it is paying for that victory, as it struggles to make sense of the Premiership contract. And so is football, according to respected football writers who say the game – and business – is being damaged by the poor showing of the Premiership programme. For the first time in years, they say, football is looking like a loser.

Of course, as ITV points out, we’re only at the start of a long season. Bolton may not head the League next spring, and ITV may turn its game round. But as Dyke tried to persuade football’s negotiators, the highest bid isn’t necessarily the best bid. It’s a bit late for them to be finding out now.

Torin Douglas is media correspondent for BBC News

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