football on the box

Along with strawberries and cream, flags on cars and bitter disappointment, another ritual of summer sport in this country is the complaining by those who are not interested. One letter in this week’s Culture magazine in the Sunday Times reads:

“Congratulations to the BBC. Yet again, you have taken over prime viewing for most of the week with football, almost to saturation point. Put it on BBC3 or BBC4. The majority of the viewing public has no interest in this dreadful display of mainly arrogant and grossly overpaid individuals spitting, cuddling and generally showing off. If we want to watch this we can turn to Channel 5. I expect better from the BBC.”

The viewing figure for the England vs Italy match was 23.2 million at its peak, with an average audience of 17.4 million. The peak figure was a 77% share of the audience, so actually “the majority of the viewing public” did watch the match. It was the highest peak viewing figure for any channel in eight years, since, incidentally, the England vs. Portugal match at Euro 2004. Between them BBC and ITV have shown all the games, and obviously the rest have been less popular. Yet the other three quarter finals all got over 8 million, more than the highest viewed programme in most weeks on any channel aside from BBC1 and ITV.  Even Greece vs. Czech Republic, at the beginning arguably the least appealing match for a British fan (and it was on ITV) reached a peak of over 5.8 million viewers. To claim live Euro 2012 football is unpopular is ridiculous.

As for saying football has taken over “almost to saturation point”, this is an overstatement. The games have all been in the late afternoon or evening; overall a small percentage of time is taken up by football. Compare this to annual Wimbledon coverage (bearing in mind tennis is a less popular sport) where for two weeks the BBC shows live coverage for most of every day. For the Olympics as well, normal schedules will be disrupted.

As for putting coverage on BBC3 or BBC4, the same point was made in another letter by a disgruntled viewer, who said:

“As a dedicated football-hater, the current hijacking of proper programmes by football is deeply depressing. When are we going to get back to normal on Sunday, Wednesday and Friday evenings, especially? There are more than 400 channels to choose from; why make us all suffer?”

The abundance of BBC channels and other channels mean it is possible to avoid the ‘hijacking’, by watching another channel. This and the internet mean it matters less if the schedule on terrestrial channels is disrupted. For example, in the absence of 10 o’clock news, you can watch BBC news 24 or just go online for news.

Of course satellite television and internet access is not ubiquitous. It still matters, though less than it used to, what the BBC shows on its flagship channels. I don’t think it is the immense popularity of football which gives it immediate right to be broadcast on the BBC. If the BBC simply wanted to chase audience figures it may as well become private. It should serve the viewers in a more enriching way and has extra duties as our public broadcaster. However, live international football, especially games involving England, does deserve to be broadcast.

I have a feeling that increasingly people, and especially younger generations, watch television in a different way to in the past. Firstly, the Internet has, like in so many other aspects of life, shaken up how we do things. If you want to watch a sitcom or a drama, there is no need to watch it on live television. You can simply record it on your television set, or watch it online. If you want to look at the news, you can read or even watch it online. Music, films and even live sports are available (legally and illegally) at any time. This means certain television programmes are no longer as ‘valuable’ when they are on TV. Secondly, I have noticed an increasing tendency to want to communicate whilst you are watching a programme. People sit with a phone or a laptop whilst watching a programme to tweet or post updates on Facebook. Witness how many people tweet during Question Time, or how Twitter trends often reflect television, from football games to soap operas. This increases the ‘demand’ for some programmes on television.

This means live events, or things not repeated, become the most significant programmes, and are the ones that are most likely to unite the country. Last year’s most watched television was the Royal Wedding; the year before it was The X Factor results. Contrast this to the period from 1981 to 1993, where there was only one year where the most watched programme of the year was not a film or soap. Given that it is live, people want to communicate about it in real-time, and that it is a ‘national event’, an international football tournament is clearly something that the BBC should broadcast. So, I’m afraid the dedicated football-haters may have to turn to Channel 5. Or just watch something on iPlayer.

I edited this after posting it to add a link and change a few sentences 

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