Sunday 23 October 2016

Television review: The Open championship is getting less open all the time

* British Open Golf (Sky Sports)
* British Open Golf highlights (BBC2)

Published 25/07/2016 | 02:30

Henrik Stenson being congratulated by his wife, Emma. Photo: Craig Brough/Reuters
Henrik Stenson being congratulated by his wife, Emma. Photo: Craig Brough/Reuters

As you know, it gives me very little pleasure to say how right I have been all along, in fact for many of us there is nothing in the world that gives less pleasure than that.

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So I really hated it, when the numbers came in, and it emerged that Sky's audience for the British Open golf tournament was down about 75pc from what it had been on the BBC. Indeed it was even more disturbing to learn that this year the highlights programme on the BBC reached a higher peak than Sky's live coverage.

It was perhaps the single most disgraceful decision taken by a public service broadcaster in recent times, the BBC's surrender of the Open to Sky Sports.

I call it a surrender because it wasn't just a case of the BBC deciding that it couldn't pay as much money as Sky for the rights, it also involved the BBC just waiving its right to cover the event this year.

There was no great battle here, between the opposing ideologies of free-to-air terrestrial broadcasting and pay-per-view satellite television, it seemed that the people who are running the BBC these days simply are unaware of the deep significance of this unique phenomenon whereby the viewer could watch a sporting event for about 10 straight hours a day for four days, uninterrupted by ads.

There was nothing like it in the world, it really was the last shining symbol of a mighty institution - if in a hundred year's time they are wondering what it was, this thing called public service broadcasting, the BBC's coverage of the British Open would serve as the perfect illustration.

And the BBC gave it away, because it doesn't understand these things any more, doesn't understand either the symbolism of it, or the practical benefit that a young Tiger Woods living in the north of England with little access to the elitist environs of golf and not enough money to pay for Sky Sports, might see this thing by accident on a Sunday afternoon and be captivated.

Sky understands all these things very well indeed, so well that it has worked ceaselessly to acquire this most precious of all prizes, and now that it is done, the relatively poor figures will not cause it much grief.

For Sky it has always been about the principle of the thing, about seizing another of the "crown jewels" of sport, for the BBC in the end it was only about the money. And as for the golfing authorities of the Royal and Ancient, well, they are aware of the arguments in favour of public service broadcasting, but they have probably always viewed their game as more of a private matter.

And there is an odd echo of this in the culture of Sky and other subscription-based operations, a sense that we aficionados are all members of this exclusive club, created for people like us, and - to put it as delicately as possible - not for people who are not like us. Indeed in all of us who maintain a full portfolio of pay-per-view options, who are happy to contribute to the Greatest League in the World and even to some of the leagues which are not so great, there is a certain resentment towards those who get a notion to watch "the match" two or three times a years, and who think they have some inalienable right to get it for nothing.

Sky will argue, with some justification, that its numbers may be much smaller than the BBC's, but that its viewers are far more valuable, they are "better" viewers because they are more committed to the sport that they are watching, they may even be better people all round.

And it knows that it is winning because the mainstream broadcasters insist on treating sport as just another aspect of their multifarious activities, whereas the European Championship showed that sport is one of the few things left on television that still draws a vast communal audience - now the BBC figures compared to Sky's figures for the Open, show that in negotiating with sporting bodies, terrestrial broadcasters are not entirely lacking in leverage of their own.

Sadly they seem to be lacking whatever it takes to use it.

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