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International rights...and wrongs

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Paul Armstrong | 17:39 UK time, Wednesday, 4 October 2006

Much as we all love working on a belting Premiership weekend like the one just gone, covering live matches is always a real tonic for the troops.

For one thing, it means that we escape from our usual studio-based environment, and emerge blinking into the daylight. Admittedly, we in the production team merely exchange a bank of monitors at Television Centre for another in a van in a car park at Old Trafford. Even so, the immediacy of reacting to the action live on site, rather than a few hours later at base, gives us all a bit of an extra adrenalin rush.

In terms of television rights, though, international football is far from straightforward. Rights to the Premership or Champions League, or even the World Cup finals, are offered to broadcasters as centrally-sold packages. International qualifiers and friendlies, however, are sold to TV by the national association whose team are at home, often through rights agencies. This makes the whole broadcasting scene quite fragmented, and means that no broadcaster is likely to own a complete portfolio at any given time.

Pre-2000, live home England qualifiers on terrestrial TV were very rare indeed: a straw poll in our office can only remember the Wembley deciders against Poland in 1973 and Hungary in 1981. Having lost the Premiership highlights contract from 2001, the BBC managed to secure all of England's home qualifiers live for the first time. We now also show England's friendlies live. Away qualifers are auctioned to the highest bidder by the relevant FA - in the case of the campaign just started, Sky have secured all six for live transmission, but have sold the highlights rights on to us. So, this Saturday, we're live with the Macedonia home game; next Wednesday, Croatia v England is live on Sky, then features in a 1040 BBC1 MOTD highlights show.

So, as things stand, it's a reasonably healthy picture England-wise. But, as with other rights across all sports, we have to live with the fact that we're unlikely to have everything we want as an organisation at any particular point in time.

On the positive side, BBC Northern Ireland have all their nation's home games live, and have bought the away game in Denmark this Saturday, which will also be seen live on BBC Three.

Conversely, BBC Wales had been showing all Welsh home games until Sky outbid them for the rights when the contract last came up for renewal. The BBC showed the two Euro 2004 play-off games against Russia to a UK-wide terrestrial audience, and the friendly v Brazil was recently live on BBC Wales and BBC Three. For the moment, though, Wales's home qualifiers are not available to us even as highlights or for Football Focus, so the Slovakia game on Saturday will, unfortunately, be the only game involving the home countries not to be seen in our MOTD highlights package this Saturday.

Scotland's home games remain as they have for some years - and as England home games used to be - live on Sky, with highlights later on BBC Scotland and, in the case of the France game this week, BBC One UK-wide. Away games are up for grabs - BBC Scotland have bought next Wednesday's game in Ukraine for live transmission on BBC Scotland. MOTD will show highlights to the rest of the UK later that night, alongside the England and Northern Ireland games.

BBC Scotland's recent experiences illustrate the precarious nature of sports television in this day and age. Until a couple of years ago, our BBC Sport colleagues in Glasgow were producing a live SPL game most Sundays, including highlights of all the previous day's games, and made an excellent Saturday lunchtime preview show for viewers in Scotland only. Overnight, everything went to Setanta when the BBC were outbid for the rights. No blame could be attached to the production team who had been doing an outstanding job and the audience figures had always been excellent. In the end, though, it counted for nothing. We could sympathise, having been outbid for Premiership highlights in 2000 by ITV. As we did then, BBC Scotland have branched out into other live match coverage - away internationals, Uefa Cup ties and both domestic cups - and are still going strong.

Even so, when you lose your bread and butter like that, you're inclined to cite Bob Dylan's line: "Money doesn't talk, it swears". I imagine Channel 4's multi award-winning, and indisputably excellent, cricket team felt they'd been on the wrong end of the four-letter torrent of all time when they discovered that last summer's Ashes series was to be their swansong. Sky apply the same high standards to cricket as they do to all their output, but it must have been a cruel blow for the C4 team nevertheless.

Ultimately, governing bodies have a sport to run, and - listed event legislation notwithstanding - they're likely to accept the highest bid received. Other factors may come into play, but you'd probably accept the highest sum on offer if you were renting out your house. Always assuming the new tenants don't seem likely to wreck the place. OK, so the analogy doesn't entirely stand up, but I tried ...

All the same, it's a particularly brutal aspect of working in television sport. We can dress the programmes up all we like, but the bottom line is always the action and, specifically, which rights we own. Fortunately, that currently includes the right to spend Saturday in Old Trafford's car park. Let's hope we exercise it successfully!

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