Reinventing Sport On Television - speech given to Business in Sport and Leisure Conference, Royal Lancaster Hotel, London
30 November 2006
It will be 80 years next January since the BBC first broadcast a sports commentary. In January 1927 we offered the first ever radio commentary on a rugby match at Twickenham; and then a week later, on 22 January, the BBC's first football match was Arsenal versus Sheffield United at Highbury. It was a 1-1 draw. Some things don't change.
Last week we started our coverage of the Ashes from Australia. It includes podcasts, video highlights on demand on the internet, a WAP score service to mobiles, a nightly programme on interactive TV – as well as live coverage by satellite on radio through the night, and a programme leading up to the next day's play on BBC Two.
What I want to do today is to sketch out – briefly – what happened between 1927 and now. The changing nature of sports broadcasting and – more importantly – how the BBC believes it can be a pioneer now just as it was 80 years ago. The title of this session is Reinventing Sport On Television but I'd actually go further than that. It's about reinventing sports media, and it's about what we like to think is one of the most radical reappraisals of sport and its role in a public service broadcaster.
The thing that's striking about that history is how important sport has been in driving innovation. The BBC television service began in 1936, and by 1937 there was the first major sport outside broadcast. It was at Wimbledon on 21 June and it featured a match between Bunny Austin and George Rogers, though apparently the greatest novelty was when the camera showed Queen Mary entering the Royal Box. The FA Cup Final followed in 1938.
Now, those years were about a single UK broadcaster in the BBC. It wasn't until the launch of ITV in 1955 that there was any competition – and even then for many years the Crown Jewels of sport were unchallenged on the BBC. It's not altogether fair to remember ITV's World Of Sport as comprising the ITV Seven horse racing and then wrestling from Derby with Big Daddy… after all, there was sometimes cliff diving from Acapulco.
But it's only really in the past 20 years that sport has become the intensely competitive market place that is today. That's true of radio as well as television: local commercial radio did begin to take some sports rights in the 1970s, but it wasn't until the 1990s that Talk Radio offered the first UK-wide speech competition to the BBC.
The big change in television was the advent of satellite and cable. In particular, the launch of BSkyB and the recognition that sport was a mass market weapon in the battle for viewers.
One of the more bizarre arguments around is that the BBC was somehow careless to lose some major sports and it showed a lack of commitment by the then management; but actually the arrival of multi-channel TV and the creation of dedicated sports channels is a worldwide phenomenon – and one in which the BBC emerges as one of the most successful public service broadcasters.
Of course, some sports were going move to digital platforms; of course, the challenge of other commercial operators galvanised ITV. It was inevitable, and indeed right for choice and diversity, that change happened.
All that said, the late 1990s were a sticky time for the BBC. I was controller of Five Live at the time, and we were locked in our own battle with Kelvin MacKenzie. But over in television there were some losses that hurt. Formula One went to ITV. The BBC lost the FA Cup also to ITV. Cricket, the ultimate leisured summer sport, went to Channel 4. England's home rugby internationals, including the Six Nations, went to Sky. Even in the early years of this decade there were major setbacks – the biggest being the loss of Match Of The Day to ITV.
Now, you will notice things have looked up since then. Match Of The Day is back with us and guaranteed until 2010. We have the FA Cup and England home internationals. We are also at Twickenham and all the other key grounds for the Six Nations. Our Ashes highlights will be followed by the Cricket World Cup. We also like to think that we are now innovators in sports coverage on television – as this short film will testify:
So we are proud of what we do in conventional television. We have a strong rights portfolio. We innovate. We are the preferred choice of UK audiences, with an average of up to three times more people watching Ryder Cup highlights on the BBC than watched it live on Sky; a record winning margin of 5:1 over ITV for the World Cup final; and independent research showing that three times as many people would rather watch football on the BBC than on Sky.
But television is not enough, and to tell the story of BBC Sport now we need to identify two key developments in the 1990s that are very strong guarantors of our future.
After the first Gulf War in 1991 – in which the rolling radio news service Gulf FM was a major success – there was a quest for a permanent 24–hour news based radio station from the BBC. At that time, sport radio was rather languishing on the old Radio Five – which was a peculiar mix of children's programmes, education and sport that understandably attracted few listeners and had a markedly low profile.
It was an act of inspiration from the BBC leadership at that time that it saw the potential for news and sport to come together in Radio Five Live – and when that was launched in 1994 it showed a remarkable ability to create something more than a sum of its parts.
The informality and tone of the sports broadcasting fed into a different kind of news coverage; and the big stories from news created an excellent all–round radio station that wouldn't have been possible if we'd relied only on live sports events alone. An audience winner was born, and one that sustained the reputation of sport from the BBC even in the worst days of contract losses.
The other far-sighted act was creating the BBC website in 1997. There were people at the time who scoffed at John Birt's digital vision, but he was right and they were wrong. The original BBC news site inevitably wanted to do sports news too – and again the two genres were mutually reinforcing.
The growth of bbc.co.uk since then has been strongly powered by news and sport – and the absolute key was that in this area unlike some others we had first-mover advantage. If you look at the long battle between BBC World and CNN or between BBC News 24 and Sky News – a battle in which we've now declared victory – then you see how much more difficult it is when you're playing catch-up.
At the time of the website's launch, the idea that you'd be offering high-quality video was a dream rather than reality. Our early proposition was pretty much entirely text-based and, though we've got further still to go, it was a world away from the rich multimedia offering we have today.
But in those two developments – a credible, cutting-edge sport-based radio station and the BBC online site – we have two essential pillars for the vision we have for BBC Sport today.
So let's spool forward to the BBC's Creative Future project in 2005–6: the route map for the whole of the BBC in the digital age. The base for sport feels strong. Our rights position in television is, as I've described, much improved. Our rights position in radio is as firm as ever. Our online site is now the biggest in Europe. But BBC Sport as a whole felt like less than a sum of its parts.
Take, for instance, the sheer number and range of our sports journalists across the UK – not just in network television and radio but in our local radio stations and in the nations. Does it feel like we have more people than Sky? Well, we do – but the evidence is the audience perception was the opposite.
Equally, look at the number one accusation made against us in the past couple of years – that we've abandoned and don't care about cricket. I was even asked why the BBC was no longer in cricket on a Radio 4 programme that just happens to share the network with something called Test Match Special. But however much we argue with the press and audience view it's certainly out there – being on radio-only didn't add up to a convincing story for BBC Sport.
And then there was Grandstand – described recently by a writer in the Sunday Times as "a conscientious objector in the ratings war". Does it help our image or hinder it? Do audiences any more want to watch our occasional table d'hote menu with maybe 15 minutes of horse racing followed by 15 minutes of recorded tennis?
So those were some of the questions and here now is our response – some of the key recommendations made by our Creative Future project.
The BBC should offer audiences clarity and consistency via a BBC Sport portal
This is arguing that the old debate about whether or not we should have a sport channel is over. We think we can do better than that, so let me show you what we mean by this.
Sports Journalism must strive for the same range and quality as the rest of BBC News
At its bluntest, this is saying that our sport journalism hasn't had the reputation we want for it – either in its range or its ambition. It's not saying it's all hopeless because much of it is very good indeed: our website, Radio 5 Live and a lot of what we do on television.
But we are strengthening it in all areas; investing more than ever before; making sure that high visibility roles – like the trackside interviewing at athletics – are done conspicuously well; and making bigger shifts like the appointment of a BBC Sports Editor and the creation of a flagship sports news programme for BBC Television. We want, quite simply, to be world-class in sports journalism; and we believe the BBC has the reputation and the independence that can deliver it.
We will continue to develop multi-platform – but we also uniquely operate at three levels: local, maximising our fantastic assets across the country; at a UK level to keep the whole nation informed; and globally via World Service radio, BBC World and the internet. Sport is a powerful force at all those levels
Move away from multi–genre programming and schedule live content to reflect audience need
This means phasing out the Grandstand format because audiences don't want a mixture of sports chosen by us. They want the sport of their choice at length and uninterrupted. The brand, which speaks of an older analogue era, no longer helps us either. Major events can be branded in their own right – as we did this year with the Winter Olympics and the Commonwealth Games, and as we'll do next year with the Six Nations and Wimbledon and the rest.
We also take the view that events should be scheduled in the place that's best for rights-holders and crucially for audiences – rather than where we have a gap in the schedule. The Six Nations achieved record audiences in 2006 partly because it was shown at times when people could watch it. They were there in big numbers for 5.30pm kick-offs in a way they wouldn't be if it was still all at 2pm and much of the potential audiences were in Tesco's.
And the final big recommendation:
BBC Sport is the custodian of major events on behalf of the whole BBC and has a duty to make them even bigger
This is recognising that we have a formidable strength in our rights portfolio – not just the Olympics in Beijing 2008, but crucially London 2012. And not just the rights to the World Cup in 2010, but to 2014 as well.
As we saw this year, with 50 million people seeing at least some of the World Cup, these are the events that truly bring this diverse and multi–faceted nation together. Sport is the only genre that can guarantee an audience of tens of millions for BBC One in the summer of 2012, as the London Olympics get underway.
In the years ahead, nowhere else will better tell the story of those Games: the journalism around their building, the events that are crucial in the run–up and then on all our platforms a festival of sport that will be a truly unique event in our lifetimes.
The trick for us is delivering the same kind of value, the same kind of amplification of great sport, year in and year out … and we do believe we're starting to do that.
I mentioned earlier the Ashes. Not much need for us to add to the hype, you might say, but what we hope we've done is build from a number of dispararate propositions – radio commentary, a TV highlights show late in the day (in every sense), the news from our website – and make them into something that gives real depth for cricket fans but also brings in casual consumers in a way that adds to cricket's support.
The early audience response has been terrific. A million people watching the TV highlights – many more than the peak for the live broadcasts. Well over 2 million people a day coming to our website. A quarter–of–a–million using audio visual online, and hundreds of thousands pressing their red button. A real insight into a multi-platform, on demand world; but one in which we harness the power of a universal public service broadcaster for the benefit of our audiences and the good of sport. An early fruit of our vision of the Creative Future.
So let me conclude.
We believe it's worth fighting for the role of free-to-air sport for the people of the UK. It brings in millions more people to watch, and it encourages more participation.
We want Sport to be at the heart of the BBC's public service proposition – not just for the Olympics but day in, day out.
And we are in the early stages of a revolution in the way in which we deliver our content: wherever, whenever you want it – and with the ability for audiences to shape our output.
What this adds up to is a conviction that the best days of BBC Sport are yet to come, Yes, we have traditions; but we also have a future, and by combining the best of the two we can deliver excellence to our audiences in a digital world just as we have done since 1927.