Soccer Saturday 

1 May 2007

To non-football fans, watching a group of former players sit around a television studio and report on matches they’re watching a monitors in front of them hardly seems like an enjoyable way of spending Saturday afternoons. But up to 400,000 viewers regularly tune into Sky Sports to watch such a programme, and it’s probable that the success of Soccer Saturday helped contribute to the recent demise of BBC One’s Grandstand.

Of course, this being television, copycat versions were bound to spring up. ITV has long since given up, but the BBC is still plugging away with Score, which can be found on its interactive service on Saturday afternoons.

For those who haven’t seen either programme, the format is simple. A panel of three of four ex-players comment on the matches they’re watching, reporters at grounds around the country provide updates from other games, and the latest scores are constantly updated on screen.

An apparently simple format but as a football fan I found watching one to be an entertaining way of passing a Saturday, while the other was simply frustrating. And, like so many occasions when the BBC decides to copy one of its rivals, the original is still the best.

Soccer Saturday is superior on every front. It’s more entertaining, and also has much better presentation of the information than its BBC counterpart.

For those who don’t want to be tied to watching and listening to a succession of goal flashes and brief updates all afternoon, it also works perfectly well as in either sound only or vision only. So, for example, I’ll often listen to music and watch it with the sound off, or just listen to it while surfing the internet.

Score seems to work less well as an audio-only or visual-only experience – the former because too much time is devoted to bland chat, the latter because the information is poorly presented. Perhaps this is nitpicking and the BBC would argue that Score is designed to be watched and listened to, but doing one or the other is the sort of thing that the BBC’s supposedly vital MP3 generation is probably doing.

Both programmes utilise a split-screen approach, but Sky’s is clearly the better designed, as the BBC’s alternates between providing too little information and a cluttered approach that looks too messy.

Soccer Saturday splits the screen into four main areas. The top 2/3rds of the screen are occupied by either the studio or a reporter at one of the grounds, and the latest scores from the English and Scottish leagues or cups. On average these cycle around every 90-120 seconds, which compares favourably with watching the updates on teletext or the internet.

Below these two areas are a ticker with the latest scores and goal scorers which sits directly above the section carrying the four most recent incidents – goals, red cards, half-time scores and results.

From a presentation point of view, Soccer Saturday is interesting as, while the afternoon’s matches are in progress, it only runs commercials in the main programme area of the screen with the latest scores and updates remaining on-screen throughout.

The BBC employs a similar approach but makes a poorer use of the available space. Yet ironically, Score is made in widescreen while Soccer Saturday is, like the rest Sky Sports News’ (where it’s also simulcast) output, still in 4:3.

Most of Score’s screen is taken up by the studio, but since the programme is 4:3 safe, this means the extra space at the sides of the screen is effectively wasted.

Like Soccer Saturday, Score displays the four latest incidents, but the BBC chooses to scroll these down, while Sky’s appear at the bottom of the screen and scroll upwards.

Which approach is better is perhaps down to individual taste. I’ve been watching Soccer Saturday for far longer, so it’s possible that I’m simply more used to its approach. It can certainly be argued that Sky risks having the latest score lost in the overscan area, but this seems unlikely as the latest score appears higher than the BBC News 24 ticker does following the recent revamp. Anyone who’s losing information on Soccer Saturday probably has a faulty or incorrectly set up television, whereas those losing the News 24 ticker are just suffering from the BBC arrogantly designing the channel for LCD and plasma sets.

Score also has a ticker but bizarrely this is at the top of the screen. It’s possible that they want to make their programme look like less of a copy of Sky’s, but when its own news channel places its ticker at the bottom of the screen it does seem like rather a strange decision.

The BBC’s policy of 4:3 compliance even stretches to the ticker, which is firmly confined to the safe area of the screen. It even wastes part of this, as a quarter of the ticker is taken up by the BBC Sport logo, which seems unnecessary since it’s not as if viewers can channel surf onto an interactive channel and need to be told what they’re watching.

No doubt the BBC would argue that the logo is necessary, but why not move it to the left of the 16:9 frame and run the ticker across the rest? 4:3 viewers would be better off than at present (since they wouldn’t have the logo), and 16:9 would probably have a ticker that’s twice as long as the current one.

Apart from an on-screen clock – which is allowed here despite the digital delay that saw clocks before the news scrapped – the BBC only employs other graphics when it goes to one of its reporters around the country. Consequently, apart from goal flashes, the ticker is the only place where the latest scores appear, although the ticker can take up to 50% longer to cycle around than Soccer Saturday’s.

When Score does go to a match for an update, the BBC graphics boys can’t help playing with their latest toys.

These reports replace the studio output with two new sets of information. On the right, we get the score, goal scorers and details of any red cards. The box on the left usually displays one of three things – a Match of the Day style ‘zoom’ into the ground from outer space, match stats or the latest scores from other games in the same division.

On Match of the Day it’s becoming repetitive to see the zoom before every set of highlights (and I find its use on several Doctor Who stories to be even worse), but when the viewer is already looking at the ticker at the top of the screen and the latest scores at the bottom, it’s just an unnecessary distraction. And, since only Premiership grounds have been set up on the system, grounds outside the top flight have to make do with a slower zoom into a less close-up view which shows that Chester is somewhere in northwest England and Norwich somewhere in East Anglia.

Alternatively, we get either the match stats – which don’t really serve much purpose in this context – or an all-too-brief look at the other scores in the division. Since most of the match reports are from the top divisions, fans of lower league clubs are probably better off watching Sky as their team’s scores will almost certainly appear more regularly.

Sky’s presentation also scores in other areas. During the match reports, goal scorers and red cards are clearly identified separately, whereas the BBC has an annoying policy of listing red cards after a player’s name, with (RED CARD) after the time of the incident. If the player had scored earlier in the game, it’s quite easy for someone unfamiliar with this practice to assume that the player actually scored twice before being dismissed. (Well, I did the first time I saw it, anyway).

The BBC also fails to realise that the latest scores should be the programme’s main focus. Consequently, it will use the ticker for non-football headlines from earlier in the day and, on one occasion while I was writing this article, spent several minutes just before half-time dropped all the latest scores and scores in favour of promoting various forthcoming sports programmes. Soccer Saturday might occasionally do this as well, but unlike the BBC, this only replaces the studio part of the screen. To drop the whole lot just seems like utter madness to this viewer.

A recent proposal from Sky would see Sky Sports News dropped from the Freeview platform (it’s a pay channel on cable and satellite), leaving Score as the only Saturday afternoon soccer programme for many viewers. If this does happen – and I for one hope it doesn’t – I hope that the BBC at least recognises the programme’s shortcomings in time for next season, as I can’t imagine wanting to spend Saturday afternoons watching the programme as it currently stands.

A Transdiffusion Presentation

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