Friday 18 August 2017

Television review: Sky's goal-den days are over

  • Super Sunday (Sky Sports)

Former Sky Sports MD, the late Vic Wakeling
Former Sky Sports MD, the late Vic Wakeling
Declan Lynch

Declan Lynch

Last week we lost a deeply influential figure in Irish culture. The news of the passing of Vic Wakeling, MD of Sky Sports, did not make the main evening news, but it should have done.

Maybe Vic wasn't thinking much of Ireland when he went to work on the great project that brought us the Premier League on Sky Sports. But due to that astonishing stroke of luck whereby we have easy access to so much of British culture, his vision changed many of our lives indisputably for the better.

It has even changed the GAA, for whom the concept of selling their games on a pay-per-view basis, would once have been quite far down the agenda at Congress.

It is indeed incredible to think that there was a time in Ireland when Sunday was just… Sunday. When it was not Super Sunday, or Grand Slam Sunday. When people had to somehow find something to do that didn't involve watching English football matches in full, maybe three matches one after the other, ideally wearing the shirt of their team and displaying any other form of merchandising which it was their good fortune to own.

For those of us who grew up in an era when the texture of our Sunday afternoons was defined by Shirley Temple films, this has been a boon.

But someone - mainly Vic Wakeling as it happened - had to imagine that better world, had to know that there was an almost infinite appetite for football on TV, way beyond the Match of the Day highlights or the occasional showings of some cup final that we would solemnly call "the match", because there would be no other matches on for some time.

And it became a world unto itself, this Sky Sports, with its own rolling news service in Sky Sports News that in the best houses is called simply The News. Moreover, it was Wakeling who somehow figured that on Saturday afternoons, with viewers desperate to know how the games were going, we would happily subscribe to a programme lasting several hours which consisted mainly of watching men watching football on television.

Yes we would pay for all this, for the top, top, top action obviously, but also we would pay actual money to see some old pro describing what he is seeing on his screen, because it had all become so desperately important to us - though, of course, football had always been important, it was just that nobody had the nerve or the technology to pump it into our homes in such massive quantities.

Wakeling said he got that idea of viewers watching men watching football on television from Bloomberg TV, figuring that "if people would watch talking heads while share prices scrolled underneath and graphics updated the big business stories, why not with football?"

There was a sense, too, that with the end of the golden age of public service broadcasting, football was one of the few things that still worked superbly on TV in the classic sense whereby "the whole country" would be watching the match at the same time.

And yet it is poignant that the passing of Wakeling should come at a time when the golden age, which he helped to create, is perhaps losing some of its magnificence. Sky itself has given us the tools whereby we can subvert some of its business model by watching the games on Sky Plus; skipping the ads and any other part of the real-time experience that we find too harrowing. And the internet is doing the rest, by "streaming" games which Sky has bought with our money.

Moreover, in destroying the attention spans of much of the human race, the 'net is eating away at our ability to look at any one thing for 90 minutes, when Conor McGregor can get it all done in 90 seconds.

But Wakeling's work has already transformed the nature of our existence. This afternoon is the last of the season, and with no World Cup or European Championship, we will have to get through a lot of Sundays until August comes, and it's all Super again.

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