Into the premier league 

2 January 2002

At the start of the 1990s, the idea that satellite television would become the dominant and most influential source of sporting coverage in the UK would have been a prediction met with ridicule and derision.

By the end of the decade, BSkyB could justifiably prove its critics and the sceptics wrong. Through the acquisition of rights to some of the UK’s most prestigious sporting events, the satellite broadcaster set a precedent of coverage and presentation that was slick, professional, and changed the public perception of satellite broadcasting in the UK. In a reversal of what convention ought to dictate, it also had a major influence on the terrestrial coverage of sport.

The start of the decade saw the satellite treatment of sport on rocky ground. The beginning of 1991 saw the invoking of EC regulation forcing Sky to relinquish its interests in its EuroSport venture.

The event received little publicity in light of the enforced merged between Sky and BSB the previous November. However, sports fans worried that Sky’s coverage of the sports it had covered, and the imminent axing of the recently acquired Sports Channel, were soon assured by the launch of Sky Sports in April 1991.

Initial content on the new channel was mainly a mixture of coverage inherited from the Sports Channel (essentially the predecessor of Sky Sports) and the Sky-owned era of EuroSport, such as FA Cup matches, highlights from the Italian Serie A league and rugby league.

With the broad spectrum of sports Sky provided coverage of, the channel was non-focused and carried few events of great magnitude.

Until the launch of a second dedicated sports network in 1994, prominent soccer and boxing fixtures were transferred to Sky One or Sky Movies if necessary.

The coup de grace that shifted and changed public perceptions on the unsteady relationship came with the acquisition of live rights to the newly established FA Premier League commencing September 1992.

No longer was televised soccer to remain a proverbial football kicked between the BBC and ITV in various seasons; leaving ITV out of the picture until its much publicised successful bid to seize terrestrial rights from the BBC in 2001.

The Super Sunday programme, launched with the debut of the FA Premier League in 1992, was the centrepiece of Sky’s soccer presentation. The programme was longer in size than live coverage previously provided by Match of the Day or The Big Match.

Four and a half hours were normally given over in the Sunday schedule to not just the full match, but pre- and post-match analysis of the 90 minutes, and interviews with team managers and players.

New innovations were introduced to live coverage, such as a digitised pen to indicate tactical moves, and the then-controversial time and score panel retained constantly in the top left-hand corner of the screen.

These were adapted from foreign networks, some of whom Sky’s entrepreneur-in-chief Rupert Murdoch had interests in. Unique to Sky, these devices soon manifested themselves in coverage of other sports, mainly cricket and rugby, and by the mid-1990s they became conventionalised in BBC and ITV coverage of live sport.

It wasn’t just Sundays that became celebrations of the beautiful game. Sky’s main sports network devotes most of its Saturdays to football as well.

The instantaneous nature of Soccer Saturday, evolved from the more generic Sports Saturday, has made it a Saturday afternoon staple in both the home and the pub.

The programme features designated reporters at key games of the day on location and in the studio, and during match times, on-screen graphics relay the latest scores, goals and sendings-off as they happen. Sky’s success has encouraged a new impetus among its terrestrial counterparts.

The BBC has implemented an overhaul of Final Score, and the ITV networks have reinstated a stand-alone results programme, The Goal Rush; with their own tickers and teleprinters in full swing competing to be first to provide the most up-to-date. Imitation, as they say, is the sincerest form of flattery.

The precedents Sky set with its sports coverage in the early 1990s have now placed the company at the forefront of sports presentation in the UK.

It’s no surprise that some of the highest rated programmes in Sky’s portfolio of channels are its live football matches. Some pundits have attributed Sky’s relationship with the FA and SFA as bolstering the 1990s renaissance of the game, both among the Premiership elite and the lower divisions in both England and Scotland.

With Sky leading the forefront in developing digital technologies and bringing the technology to the consumer, Sky has implemented an interactive service, Sky Sports Extra, to create as close to an on-pitch atmosphere on the domestic screen as technically possible.

As well as various camera angles, the viewer can access game statistics and even contribute their views on the match from the comfort of their armchair.

With the lauding Sky’s coverage has received over the past decade, one would imagine that Sky’s development in soccer coverage would be a detriment to the actual game itself. This would not appear to be so.

Attendance figures for games has increased, and football clubs, especially those in the Premiership, have exploited the lucrative element the extended coverage Sky has provided to their financial advantage; in nurturing new domestic talent, securing the cream of international players to England and Scotland, and improving the facilities of grounds nationwide.

Therefore, it wouldn’t be wrong to assume that Rupert Murdoch is partly responsible for re-defining the game of football in 1990s Britain.

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