Sport active 

2 January 2002

Less than a decade ago, watching sport and going ‘interactive’ from the comfort of your armchair meant the choice of the TV commentary or the radio commentary with the TV on mute.

During August, BBC Sport offered its digital satellite viewers the opportunity to watch the Commonwealth Games as never before, with five events broadcast simultaneously, allowing the viewer to choose what sport to watch. With the addition of ‘active’ features to live Premiership football matches on Sky Sports and the recent Grandstand overhaul bringing similar red button action, sporting fans have never had it so good.

Press red

In little more than five years, sporting rights and the nature of its coverage has changed drastically right before our eyes. Formula One Grand Prix has switched channels on both its free-to-view and Pay-TV accounts (as have many other sports to varying degrees). Most domestically produced sport is now in digital widescreen. And, of course, the red button is finding its way into the corner of the screen for an increasing number of sporting events.

Each year small-scale sporting events become popular and gain ‘live coverage’ status. Just recently Sky Sports started showing the Squash British Open, and the BBC and Eurosport are starting to give sports such as Table Tennis and Badminton extended hours. August saw live coverage of canoeing on British Eurosport, and the Rugby 7s’ popularity at the Commonwealth Games will surely elevate it to a primary sport status for the BBC. Surely it is only a matter of time before sports such as handball, archery and chess find their way into blanket coverage!

With all this and the amount of football matches shown live increasing every year, we must be on course for some sort of major catastrophe whereby sporting rights and coverage swallows itself whole?

Over paid

Well, this has already happened, albeit on a smaller scale. The recent demise of ITV Digital has helped companies such as Sky and BBC somewhat, as those who sell the rights have begun to realise that there isn’t a bottomless pit of wealth ready to dish out to football clubs who want to pay their players extortionate fees each week to play the odd match. I’m pretty sure we have seen the end of TV companies investing in a single sport (ITV Digital’s pricey football league deal comes to mind) and will prefer to go back to simply buying cheaper sporting rights where and when they become available.

With sporting organisations such as Sport England keen to make sure that football doesn’t take overall precedence in the sporting calendar, the BBC really do have cause to celebrate, as many more rights are being made accessible to the corporation with the intention of keeping sports such as swimming and rugby union ‘in the public interest’. The recent BBC victory involving the Six Nations tournament (the BBC now have live rights to every single match) and the amount of time given over to athletics recently underlines the fact that different sports are increasingly finding themselves in primetime billings.

So where does it all go from here? Will the five terrestrial channels be filled with wall-to-wall sports soon with no room left for anything else? Well, if you shout loud enough and kick up a fuss, that won’t happen. During the Olympics, you might expect the BBC to pull out all the stops and shun all sorts of programming in favour of the women’s Modern Pentathlon, but I don’t think you’d ever find full live coverage of events such as the prestigious World Track Cycling Championships, however popular they may be during games time, blanketing the BBC schedules.

Channel shortage

This doesn’t mean however that the BBC isn’t keen to provide coverage of such events – it’s just that when you only have two channels to play with, track cycling just doesn’t justify evening slots. The last time the event was held (Manchester 2000) it only managed Grandstand afternoon highlights. Even the BBC’s flagship sports programme couldn’t give over any room for live coverage.

This is all set to change, though. In August, the BBC revamped Sunday Grandstand. The main aesthetic change was the name, as the programme is now known as “G-Two”. The addition of a magazine programme at the start of the schedule is another major feature of this overhaul. G-Two aims to address the main sporting issues of the weekend, with its Sunday slot giving experts and viewers the chance to look back at the Saturday football fixtures as well as look forward to events that might finish on a Sunday evening, such as major golf tournaments.

G-Two’s start time is also 30 minutes earlier than its predecessor Sunday Grandstand, earning a 1pm start time each Sunday on BBC Two, allowing for a 45 minute programme well before Sunday afternoon events get underway. The programme format is one of an ‘interactive’ feel, encouraging viewers to e-mail or text their views direct to the studio.

Multiscreen choice

The other major feature added to Grandstand is that of the BBC’s innovative ‘multiscreen’ facility. This was first established for Wimbledon 2001 on Sky Digital. The vacation of many digital terrestrial frequencies has also allowed a similar service to be introduced there, and the BBC also gave digital cable viewers a similar amount of choice during the World Cup. For once, it is Sky Sports who are following suit as they recently began offering their own version of the multiscreen as part of their Formula 1 Digital+ package and, more recently, for Premiership Football matches. Going one step further, the service provides seven additional feeds compared to the BBC’s maximum of four.

Grandstand’s multiscreen is the ‘lite’ version, you might say. It has been wheeled out before for the Winter Olympics and formed part of the BBC’s World Cup coverage, offering just two additional feeds (on a par with digital terrestrial’s capacity). The aim is for Grandstand to eventually move away from providing snippets of coverage from several sporting events and allow the programme to concentrate on one fixture, such as a Six Nations rugby match. If anything else clashes with such an event, the multiscreen will be used to provide uninterrupted and live coverage of up to two other sports.

On the launch weekend of G-Two, the BBC only had coverage of an athletics fixture that day, so the multiscreen was used to replay classic sporting events. However, one weekend in early 2002 saw football, snooker, Davis Cup tennis and Winter Olympics all clashing on the Sunday. BBC One and Two were full of sport for most of the day and even with the 20 or so hours of coverage, a lot of action was missed. The multiscreen facility would have allowed for at least the snooker and tennis finals to be covered in full, while the main coverage dipped in and out of highlights and other programmes. As it was, the multiscreen had already been ‘booked’ for Winter Olympic use.

Switch to BBCi

Were such a situation to arise again, BBC Sport is now kitted out with the ultimate solution: a service that doesn’t have to worry about the next programme’s start-time. Available through the press of a red button or the ‘text’ key depending on which digital platform you access it through, any sport that deserves live coverage but can’t be justified extensive coverage now has the space on BBCi. Willing to stay up to watch Australian Open Tennis? BBCi should show it. Want to see the entire weekend of Superbikes? Look no further than BBCi. The athletics is going on too long and Eastenders won’t wait? Bung the men’s 10,000m final on BBCi.

Of course these are hypothetical situations – the BBC have yet to publicise what they intend to do exactly with this new service. Hopefully, however, BBC Sport will use it to extend its general coverage of sport, buy in some of the less popular (but equally exciting) sports, and just make sure they use all those live sporting rights they’ve found they own to the full.

It’s not just sport lovers who need to be thankful; sport haters are getting a good deal out of this as well, as gradually most sports coverage should be moved from the main channels into these interactive services. Sports such as tennis simply do not conform into a regular schedule, and work much better on channels that don’t require an ‘end time’. Ideally BBC Sport should use these additional feeds for extra services such as sports results, whereby, for example, on Saturday afternoons Radio 5 Live accompanies a constantly updating ‘videprinter’ to keep football fans up to date with all the goals and scores. As yet there is no indication that the multiscreen will be used for Grandstand on a Saturday, however.

There are many possibilities for this service, and it has the power to benefit those who love sport and those who don’t. Let us hope that the BBC uses its innovative multiscreen to the full. The future of sport on TV is looking very bright indeed. The future of sport is digital.

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