Ladies and gentlemen, play 

17 July 2003

It is one of this country’s most prestigious sporting events. It captures the nation’s interest for two weeks each summer in a sport that is often largely ignored for the rest of the year.

More recently it has become the focus of national hope and expectation, with the now traditional ending at the Quarter or Semi Finals of any British hopes of the first men’s singles champion since Fred Perry in 1936.

Virginia Wade won the women’s singles title in 1977, but with the present success rate of the female game, it appears the country may wait even longer for another champion there.

Along with the Derby and Test Cricket, Wimbledon has been a part of television from its very earliest days – the first broadcasts were in 1937.

It was the source of the first scheduled British colour television transmissions in 1967. And since 2001 it has taken advantage of digital broadcasting to provide an outstanding interactive service, with Widescreen coverage being introduced in the same year.

The BBC now offers viewers, depending on their digital platform, a choice of up to five matches as well as results, news and scores.

Although Sky Sports pioneered interactive coverage with football, the BBC’s Wimbledon service was one of the first to offer a genuine extra choice of viewing, rather than alternative coverage of the same match.

It has reduced the need for having Wimbledon coverage on both BBC channels at the same time, although the majority still do not have it (with digital now in around 48% of homes), so some overlap still takes place.

There is a factor that makes Wimbledon stand out in the sporting world. During the mid 1990s the advertising slogan for Sky TV was ‘No Turning Back’. For sports fans deprived of coverage, it seemed all to true. The juggernaut appeared unstoppable.

Pay-tv signed up event after event – and surely Wimbledon would be next to disappear from terrestrial? Even if the Men’s and Women’s singles finals were ‘listed’ events then the rest of the tournament could be picked off for broadcasting live only on Sky Sports.

Wimbledon, almost uniquely amongst the major sports, stayed firmly with the BBC. This was a mystery, until a visit to Wimbledon for the first day of the 2003 tournament at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club (AELTCC) gave the answer.

In the official programme, there was a fascinating piece by the director of television of the AELTCC, John Rowlinson, about the history and importance of television to the championships (we’ll use the colloquial term for the championships, ‘Wimbledon’, for ease).

In the dilemma of the extra money from pay television or the exposure of terrestrial television, the organisers of Wimbledon took the opposite approach to most sports and it is a position they continue to hold.

Some of the profits from the championships are invested in tennis in this country, so surely more money from pay broadcasters would mean more for the grass roots (no pun intended)?

This has been the argument used by some sports for moving over mainly, or exclusively, to pay-tv. Yet Wimbledon realise that it is their tournament that is the main exposure people, especially those who may be persuaded to take up tennis by watching, get to the sport, both in this country and around the world.

That would explain the policy of attempting to get at least some coverage of the tournament on to terrestrial or ‘free to view’ television in each country.

In the US the tournament is covered by both the NBC network and the cable broadcaster ESPN- a sports channel that is part of the basic channel packages which, given the popularity of cable (and now digital satellite) in the US, is available in 87m homes.

Previously the cable coverage had been on HBO (Home Box Office) – a premium channel and so with a smaller audience. Around three years ago TNT took over, meaning the tournament was on a ‘basic’ cable channel for the first time.

Meanwhile, in Australia, the terrestrial station Channel 9 broadcasts coverage live throughout the night with the premium cable and satellite channel Fox Sports showing highlights. The national broadcaster of Japan – NHK – shows live and delayed coverage.

In Germany the public broadcaster ARD shows coverage during the afternoon, whilst free to air cable and satellite station DSF takes over from the early evening. Holland, Italy and France appear to be exceptions, with coverage only on premium channels.

The current contract between the All England Club and the BBC was signed in 1999, and John Rowlinson talks about the mutual benefits – the BBC know the popularity of the tournament and respect it, whilst the organisers realise the effort the BBC puts in and the audience it brings.

Perhaps another reason why the BBC has been able to retain its relationship with Wimbledon is the variation in viewing figures, and the advantage of having two ‘universally’ available channels.

The figures for matches involving Tim Henman may hit 13m at their peak (although this may be helped by people tuning in expecting to see ‘EastEnders’), but on other days the average is more like 3-4m. Still, very good for daytime and early evening, but hardly likely to satisfy ITV, who wouldn’t dare run it into primetime as BBC 2 are able to do.

In the past few years the Order of Play committee at Wimbledon appear to be getting ‘influenced’ by television at times, although they strenuously deny this.

Each day broadcasters (from all countries) can submit their requests to the committee for who they would like playing first and who second, and so on.

These are then taken into consideration when deciding the order of play for the following day, but other considerations – such as needing to get all the matches from a particular round finished, the weather, breaks for the players – have to balanced with the demands of television.

It’s a difficult situation. The broadcasters have paid large sums of money for the rights to televise Wimbledon, so they have a right to expect some give from the organisers.

Most obviously, the BBC, who will want Tim Henman, Greg Rusedski or any other British player as the third match on one of the show courts in order to maximise the amount of people who can see them play, and, cynically, push the viewing figures up as high as possible.

If anyone, along with the BBC, have influence over the order of play, it is likely to be NBC. Their relationship with Wimbledon reached its 35th year in 2003 with the signing of a new four-year deal, and their ‘Breakfast at Wimbledon’ broadcasts have become a regular part of American sports broadcasting. (In 2003 their broadcasts run from 10am-1pm EDT, or 3-6pm BST, with ESPN or ESPN 2 broadcasting live coverage outside these times, but NBC’s hours expanded as the tournament progressed.)

One of the times this appeared to happen was the 2001 Men’s singles Semi Finals. Andre Agassi was playing in one, whilst Tim Henman was facing Goran Ivanesavich in the other.

Traditionally these matches would be played on the Friday of the tournament’s second week. As usual at Wimbledon, the weather ended up having rather a large say in the matter. Agassi’s match was placed first on Centre Court, with Tim Henman’s match to follow. Agassi’s match was completed, and Henman’s begun.

Then the rain began to fall, and continued to fall wiping out any play for the rest of the day and until early Saturday evening. Even then Henman was unable to complete his match, with it ultimately being finished on the Sunday before the Ladies’ singles final.

Henman lost the match and it was suggested by some that he may have a better chance had the match been played first on the Friday and completed, rather than being split over three days.

Playing the Agassi match first followed by the Henman game benefited both the BBC and NBC, although to be fair to the Order of Play committee, it was a 50/50 chance who went first, so maybe the broadcasters wouldn’t have got their way.

Another feature of the past couple of years has been the desire of the BBC 1 controller to get high rating matches onto the mainstream channel. For many years it was BBC 2 that continued into the evening, regardless of who was playing.

BBC 1 would screen coverage until 5 or 6pm. Children’s programmes would be knocked out for two weeks, or at least severely reduced. The introduction of first BBC Choice, and now multi-screen BBCi coverage has lead to this being reduced.

For the 2003 tournament BBC 2 broadcast from Midday until 3:20pm when Children’s programming was run. They resumed at 5:35pm and continued through until 8:30pm, or slightly later if there was an interesting or important match taking place.

BBC 1 broadcast from 1:45pm through until 6pm. The BBCi service was available throughout this time, and if matches continued after 8:30pm but weren’t shown by BBC 2, they could be viewed via the interactive service.

However, the emergence of ‘Henmania’ (and whatever the Rusedski equivalent may be called) has lead to the desire to maximise ratings. BBC 2 is available to just as many people as BBC 1 is, but for some reason, perhaps a form of reverse snobbery, a popular event is likely to get more viewers on BBC 1 than on BBC 2.

With the apparently preferential (for the broadcasters) scheduling of Tim Henman’s matches and the desire to maximise audiences, some schedule changing was inevitable.

In fact, Henman’s first four matches of the tournament were scheduled as the third to be played (either on Centre or No 1 court), meaning they were likely to begin around 5-5:30pm. As could be predicted, the BBC 1 controller pulled rank and kept the match on BBC 1, with BBC 2 having to take up the displaced BBC 1 programmes.

For the first two matches this was the Six O Clock News and the regional news programmes- and that’s where the problems started.

In order to save costs, when the BBC set up its networks for digital, they only put in place the infrastructure to allow regions to opt on BBC 1 digital. If there were regional programmes on BBC 2 they would not go out on digital, only on analogue, whilst any digital transmissions still came from London.

The national regions retained their individual versions of both channels. This is the reason behind the gradual moving of all regional programmes to BBC 1. (The remaining exception, and likely to stay that way, being the rugby league highlights show ‘The Super League Show’ which goes out on BBC 2 in the north of England on Sunday mornings.)

The decision to keep the tennis on BBC 1 meant that the regional news programmes could only go out on analogue and some couldn’t go out at all.

The new ‘sub regions’, such as Oxford, had only been fitted with the ability to opt into BBC 1 – with the Tennis continuing on there, viewers instead got the main regional programme and an apology.

The new region of ‘South East’ broadcasting from Tunbridge Wells appeared to have been kitted out to opt on either BBC 1 or BBC 2.

‘Henmania’ also resulted in major changes to BBC 1’s line-up on the middle Saturday of the championships. The film ‘Mission: Impossible’ had been scheduled at 8:15pm, with some entertainment programmes, including ‘National Lottery In It To Win It’ preceding it.

Although the film had been screened several times before, it was still likely to draw high ratings. With the Henman match continuing past 8pm all the entertainment programmes were dropped – except the show surrounding the lottery. It was broadcast at around 8:25pm.

Repeats of ‘Only Fools and Horses’ and ‘The Vicar of Dibley’ were brought into the schedules and ‘Mission: Impossible’ was put back in storage to be shown another time. This time the BBC had gone against its usual policy of merely switching the programmes on the two channels.

Perhaps they didn’t want their Saturday night shows ‘lost’ on smaller audiences, and there is most likely a contractual obligation to screen the Lottery show on BBC 1.

In the meantime BBC 2 viewers were treated to filler programmes – that in situations like this, or when rain disrupts play, with little prospect of live action likely, and both channels are scheduled to show coverage – often get a run out. ‘Ready, Steady, Cook’ and ‘Trade Secrets’ seemed to be two in particular.

When Henman played on the second Monday of the tournament, the half hour regional programmes ‘Inside Out’ were also moved to BBC 2, leaving digital viewers with the chance to sample the London variant, or switch back to analogue to see their local version.

At 8pm EastEnders had been due to be broadcast. No chance of the BBC 1 controller letting that go out on BBC2, so it was held back. Later programmes were disrupted on BBC 1, whilst BBC 2 also had to rearrange itself.

It even had a knock on effect on BBC 3. One of the BBC 1 programmes dropped was the MI5 drama ‘Spooks’. As the BBC has been doing for some programmes, (such as ‘State of Play’ using BBC 4 and ’24’ using BBC 3) the next episode had been due to be shown on BBC 3 immediately after the BBC 1 episode.

With BBC 1 not showing its episode BBC 3 had to repeat the episode they had shown the previous week, and the one that had been scheduled to be shown by BBC 1 that night.

The following week BBC 1 showed that episode, and BBC 3 got to show the episode they had been supposed to screen the previous week. I doubt the BBC 1 controller would have wanted BBC 3 getting two weeks ahead.

Rain was to cause delays to Henman’s Quarter Final, with little play possible during Wednesday afternoon. Come 6pm it was raining in SW19, so the news programmes were run on BBC 1.

At around 6:50pm play began again, so the BBC 1 controller decided that’s where the match should be. At 7pm BBC 1 took over the coverage, and BBC 2 took over BBC 1’s displaced programmes.

The first to be shown? ‘Wildlife On One’ of course, with the announcer being very careful not to give viewers the line some viewers were waiting for- ‘Now on BBC 2 its time for Wildlife On One’, but the programmes titles were unchanged, and it was listed in the EPG under its original name.

Fortunately for the controllers play was stopped at 7:25pm and it was announced that no more would be possible that night. So BBC 1 resumed its normal programmes and BBC 2 went back to the tennis.

It mustn’t be easy being BBC 2, or more precisely, it can’t be easy being the controller of BBC 2 (OK, maybe it is at times- but think of having to displease either sport or Sci-Fi fans when it comes to scheduling- not an easy choice!) knowing that your channel runs over ten hours (including highlights) of coverage a day, but when the public suddenly gets excited about the prospect (whether likely or not) of success for a British player, you’re suddenly forced to play second fiddle and run filler programmes or cater for displaced (and possibly disgruntled) viewers.

Still, maybe those who have the ‘reverse snobbery’ about BBC 2 will get their eyes opened by seeing a trailer for a programme they might not otherwise have watched.

The limits of the power of TV had actually been exposed on that Wednesday. It was reported that Henman was annoyed at being placed third on court for all his matches in the tournament to that point.

That time it was the one element that makes Wimbledon interesting, and at times frustrating, the weather. It had caused the match to be pushed into prime time, and ultimately, for it to be concluded the next day, with Henman this year ending any British hopes at the Quarter Finals, one round earlier than has become usual for him.

This situation looks likely to continue. The broadcasters will want the most convenient and ratings driving scheduling, whilst the organisers have to balance those demands with the need to get matches played, the players having equal time to rest between rounds, and the weather.

Viewers with no interest in the sport will be frustrated for two weeks every summer- with other events, its usually known in advance what time matches or particular events will take place, so disruption is usually only caused by extra time being played, or agreements between broadcasters – such as happens with BBC and ITV during the World Cup or European Championships.

Even then, alternative schedules can be planned out, and BBC 2 is likely to remain unaffected. For yet another reason, Wimbledon can be seen as unique.

During the 2003 tournament it was announced that the BBC had signed a new deal with Wimbledon. This means it now holds the rights until 2009, and will continue to act as the host broadcaster. In broadcasting such relationships are rare, if practically non-existent.

But the All England Club realise the work the BBC has done throughout many years, and the importance of terrestrial television exposure, especially if the desire for a British winner is to be satisfied.

Credit should be given to both sides – in recent years the BBC have been forced to make sure they treat sports they broadcast well, and they have learned their lesson.

The All England Club have ensured that one of the crown jewels of every British sporting summer remains available to all. Pay-tv sports broadcasting can play a role – a chance for dedicated coverage, but some things need to be kept available to all, Wimbledon is one of them.

Oh and if anyone is concerned – a British man won Wimbledon this year. At the same time as the tennis tournament, the club’s other, now rather less prominent, championship takes place – in croquet.

This year’s winner was an 80-year-old British man. Now BSkyB, you can’t get the tennis, how about exploiting a specialist audience for the croquet?

A Transdiffusion Presentation

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