Monday 10 December 2018

Television review: Even the football is a-changin'

Champions League (BT Sport)

Barcelona's Sergi Roberto celebrates after scoring the winner over PSG. Photo: Emilio Morenatti/AP
Barcelona's Sergi Roberto celebrates after scoring the winner over PSG. Photo: Emilio Morenatti/AP
Declan Lynch

Declan Lynch

There are good reasons why broadcasters have been prepared to pay monstrous amounts of money to secure the rights of football matches.

Here are events which feature people who are truly, seriously talented, and there isn't a lot of that out there any more, on the digital wasteland.

These events are also among the few which can still persuade "the whole country" to watch something at the same time, as it was in days of yore.

And in general, while I'm A Celebrity...Get Me Out Of Here! or a programme about face-lifts that went wrong can arouse fierce passions, they are not quite of the same order as that which could be seen recently, when Barcelona came back from the dead in a game which some didn't even bother to watch because Barcelona's task from the start seemed too great - definitive proof there of the truth of my dictum that "you should never not watch a football match".

That game lifted the spirits of much of the human race, but it must have been a source of even deeper joy to BT Sport, which had just paid about €1.2bn for the rights to the Champions League for the next three years. Because amazingly, those who pay hundreds of millions for these TV properties, are now actually feeling the need to explain such an investment.

Even more amazingly - and I never thought I would write these words - we are starting to hear that there may be a limit to the popularity of football on TV, that it may even be in decline. And that, absurd as it may seem to any intelligent person, there may even be too much football on television.

Now I have always treated any such suggestion with the disdain it deserves, not just on aesthetic grounds, but in terms of the simple arithmetic. I note, for example, that nobody is complaining that there are soap operas on for hours every day of the week, that for lovers of these entertainments, life must be like an endless World Cup.

Certainly I envy them their dominance of the TV schedules, and the endless hours of relaxation which they are enjoying, unlike me and my kind who are often having to pay to view our kind of soap opera, as it were.

But then football is ultimately so much better than most other things on this earth, people will indeed pay for it, and great TV empires have been built on this understanding.

But is it changing? As the great nations of the western world fall to the ambitions of far-right imbeciles, is our great game of football also losing its grip?

Change can be good, of that there is no doubt - the change whereby Sky Sports turned Sunday into Super Sunday was undeniably good, but the change in the way that people are watching football matches, is not good. It is bad.

They are "streaming", which is the internet's way of devouring the football industry as it has devoured most of the rest of our culture. It has also been messing with our attention spans, so that a football match lasting 90 minutes seems like an increasingly big ask.

But then television itself is changing the behaviour of the football multitudes. The Sky Plus machine has enabled the viewers to step outside the old constraints of time itself, to start watching the match whenever we like, to skip the half-time analysis and all the advertising, to fast-forward to the end if the anxiety about the result becomes overwhelming.

Indeed so natural has this process become, there are many who would now attend a "real" football match and find it somewhat artificial, the way it leaves in all the boring parts. They want the "best bits", because the "best bits" culture is all that they know, and all that they want to know.

Immediately, of course, our concern is for the Premier League footballers who might be affected by any downturn in TV revenue, who might be required to live on something south of €100,000 a week, betrayed by the so-called "fans" who think they are being very smart. But in this we weep for all men.

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