Choose sport or war 

17 July 2003

Over the few weeks of war in Iraq, the conflict seemed to have completely taken over our screens, and enveloped all of our viewing habits.

Nothing seemed to be where it was meant to be; programme schedules got updated on an hourly basis, depending on the circumstances at any one time.

But there seems to be one thing that looks like it can remain completely unaffected. Sport. No, not even the events of the first major war of the 21st century, a war that can be covered on an ever-growing number of 24-hour news channels, can deflect the attention of the terrestrial scheduler away from sports.

And why should they? Broadcasters are caught in a very serious bind here. On the one hand, here is a news story to top all news stories.

This is the original reality television; people are being killed, young men are putting their lives at risk to defend what they believe in.

Bombs, tanks, guns, yes, to the Iraqi people this is very real. And each of the networks are covering it, as very well they should. But on the other hand, we have the problem of sport.

Sport is TV’s most expensive commodity. It draws in viewers, mostly the grouping that most advertisers crave the attention of – the 18-35 year old male.

TV companies, and to a lesser extent, radio, have spent large amounts of money getting the rights to tournaments and matches, and they have a duty to the sporting clubs and organisations to show them.

But what happens when you have choose between the biggest news story of recent times and an item that you have paid a lot of money for?

Well, as seen over the first two weeks of the war, it’s been a bit of both. The BBC have been the best placed to cope with anything that happens. After all, they have 2 terrestrial networks to help balance the load.

The first result of this was the on day 2 of the war, when the BBC had live and exclusive coverage of Liverpool vs. Celtic, from Anfield.

As the war had been breaking news for most of the day, a decision had to be made; would the match run on BBC 1 as scheduled, or shunt it all to BBC 2.

In the end, they reached a compromise; the first half was played out on BBC 2, while rolling news from the studios of BBC News 24 occurred on BBC 1, and for the second half, the news and football swapped over.

With that, it gave BBC 1 a ratings winner of an evening over ITV, with their newly launched bulletin for the duration of the war, “ITV News at Nine”, in the scheduled BBC Ten O’clock News.

But the game could easily have gone into extra time, what would’ve happened then? The only possibility is that the match would have to be moved back to BBC 2, such as the need for the Ten O’clock News at the moment.

ITV, on the other hand, were lucky. The war started late on Tuesday night/Wednesday morning, after the final fixture of phase 2 of the UEFA Champions League involving Manchester United, shown live on ITV1, their main game that week.

On Wednesday, there were some minor scheduling changes. Since the collapse of ITV Digital, ITV needed a channel to show the games that they had signed up to. So, the ITN (since ITV) News Channel had become a 24-hour news channel that occasionally showed live football!

The ITV News Channel was meant to show the crucial Newcastle-Barcelona fixture, but as events unfolded, this match was moved to… Granada Plus; a channel more accustomed to showing repeats of ITV’s archives than live football.

The Arsenal match was shown, as scheduled on ITV2. What if the war had started before then? What if it happened during the match? Would we have seen Clive Tyldesley or Ron Atkinson break the solemn news over a through-ball from David Beckham to Ruud van Nistelrooy?

Luckily, for their sakes and ours, this scenario didn’t take place. And since then, such are ITV’s commitments to football it has been quiet, with only regular Premiership highlights late on Saturday nights.

The BBC has had to juggle more sport since then, with Six Nations Rugby and racing, but it has been less frenetic on the schedules, as these are scheduled in the midst of Saturday and Sunday afternoons, a quieter time on TV than later on in the day.

But there is once place where news and sport should live harmoniously. BBC Radio 5 Live. It was designed to cover effectively live news and sport. This war has been its first major test of which tugs more – the news or the sport.

Five Live has become the default channel on radio for the BBC to cover the developments in Iraq. Over the first 10 days, the channel became almost devoted to the coverage of the war. I say almost, as it too, has it commitments of its own, especially to the Barclaycard Premiership.

There were some developments beforehand. When the House of Commons was debating the prospect of war, 5 Live devoted a lot of time to this. But in times like these, sometimes Radio 4 Long Wave covers parliamentary debates in full.

One snag. The cricket World Cup semi-final, between Sri Lanka and the ultimate winners, Australia was scheduled for Radio 4 Long Wave too.

Here, the sensible decision won; the first half of the game was covered, right up until the start of the debate, around 12:30pm, which was then carried in full, albeit for the shipping forecast. Even the cricket can’t stop the sailors!

For those with digital radio or TV, the cricket commentary was still available on 5 Live Sports Extra, a useful station when sport can be carried separate or supplementary to the normal 5 Live service.

The next semi-final, between India and Kenya on the Thursday, when the war had started, didn’t fair too well either, in that Radio 4 LW reverted back to the network for regular bulletins, including a full Six O’clock News. The final, the following Sunday was played out in its entirety.

During the first 48 hours, 5 Live was almost blanket coverage. There was no coverage of the Champions League on Wednesday, luckily Manchester United had qualified for the quarter-finals weeks ago, so the match away to Deportivo la Coruña was of no consequence.

Even the Liverpool-Celtic match was moved totally to 5 Live Sports Extra. And that was the pattern until the weekend, when the Premiership restarted.

The Premiership is the jewel in 5 Live’s portfolio. It is virtually sacrosanct. All Premiership commentaries were covered, as full as the news from the Middle East would allow that weekend.

It was interesting to note that the regular Sport on Five on Saturday afternoon, which is usually presented alone by Mark Pougatch, was co-hosted by Allan Robb, who normally presented The Midday News during the week, so that if news did break, it wasn’t the sports guy or the regular newsreader, Susan Bookbinder who covered it, but one of the more regular voices of the station.

Since then, it has been the pattern, until Monday 31st, when a relatively normal schedule returned, and where its 3 hour block of Sport on 5 between 7pm and 10pm had sport as the main programme, and news secondary. But if anything changes, these roles will be completely reversed.

One place where sports news has gone completely has been on the 24-hour news channels. In the dipping in and out nature of these channels, since news turned to war, I have not been a sports bulletin across Sky News, BBC News 24, CNN and ITV News Channel. Which makes me wonder, what are the sports guys and gals and weather presenters up to?

Sport is valuable to the television channels, they have invested a lot of money in these events, and even in wartime, there are some things that have to honoured, but still for the average viewer watching the 5 main channels, even for those who don’t like sport, the schedulers will sooner dump or postpone drama or documentaries before dumping sport.

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