Monday 11 December 2017

Director's cut shows exactly where Sky's priorities lie

Play was stopped for five minutes. The stricken player was on the ground, surrounded by medical personnel hunkered down around him.

The Sky Sports television director was a man under pressure. He had choices to make. The images he chose to relay were of various Arsenal players in distress: Clichy, Fabregas, Vermaelen, all with their hands on their heads, looking horrified.

Stoke City's Ryan Shawcross had been sent off for the tackle that left Aaron Ramsey on the turf. Ramsey, lying on his side, looked down at his right shinbone only to see it flopping uselessly on him. His tibia and fibula were broken.

It was the 66th minute of their Premier League game at the Britannia Stadium eight days ago. Ramsey had fallen at the feet of Glenn Whelan, the Stoke and Ireland player. Whelan crouched down and tried to comfort him. He signalled urgently to medical staff on the bench. "Oh that looks horrible. Oh that looks horrible," said the Sky commentator Ian Darke.

Sol Campbell meanwhile was grandstanding, shouting at the referee, then advancing on Shawcross, shouting at him too. Rory Delap placed a consoling arm around the shoulder of Fabregas. Delap and Ricardo Fuller tried to block Campbell as he squared up to Shawcross.

The player looked shellshocked. He lifted the bottom of his jersey and covered his face with it as he walked off; he did this twice. He was evidently confused: instead of walking directly towards the sideline, he wandered upfield back to his own goalmouth where the Stoke goalkeeper Thomas Sorensen hugged him.

The Sky director stayed with this storyline, milking its pathos, relaying Shawcross's long walk all the way to the tunnel. Then he cut to shots of Arsene Wenger and Tony Pulis on the sideline before returning for further images of the Arsenal players.

Sky Sports has built its reputation partly on the multiplicity of camera angles and action replays it offers the viewer. Their visual coverage of any given match is nigh on total. Nothing seems to go unrecorded, not even the most subtle fragment of play.

They are normally lightning quick with a replay.

So as the minutes ticked by during this long stoppage it became obvious that an editorial decision had been made not to show any replays of the tackle. A few minutes later Darke confirmed this. "If you're wondering," he said, "why you're not seeing pictures of that challenge and injury again, we have looked at them backstage and we believe it's very upsetting and pretty sickening."

So the decision was made on our behalf. They looked at the images and decided to censor them. It was a very corporate call. It was highly manipulative too. Human emotion is the holy grail for sports broadcasters -- the agony and the ecstasy of the competitors and the fans. They love it because it's a free shot of EPO for the ratings. So they piled on the images of the distraught Arsenal players and the even more distraught Shawcross.

They didn't show one replay of the tackle at the time, nor afterwards during the post-match analysis. It is, after all, the sort of thing that can have viewers reaching for the remote control.

Wenger spoke angrily about it afterwards, Fabregas spoke with impressive dignity. It was a major controversy that touched on a number of important issues but Sky left a vacuum at the heart of the debate. We needed information, not emotion. We needed to see it to make up our own minds.

How would RTE handle it later that evening on Premier Soccer Saturday? They were almost as timid. They showed it in real time during the match highlights and just once during the subsequent studio analysis. On both occasions they used the angle from the main camera, which was just too far away from the incident to either shock, or inform, the viewer.

Presenter Darragh Maloney teed it up by warning anyone of a "squeamish" disposition to look away now. Sky and RTE may well have been conscious of the need to spare the sensitivities of younger viewers -- both broadcasts were before the 9.0pm watershed. But isn't that what parents are for? And any kid who wanted to see it just had to click onto YouTube

anyway -- the incident has had hundreds of thousands of hits online.

Finally, the BBC decided to treat us like adults later that night. Match of the Day showed three replays during their studio analysis. "We should clear it up," said Gary Lineker, "just to see the degree of maliciousness or the intent on the tackle that Shawcross did or did not (commit)."

The second and third replays were the first close-up angles we got to see that day. The ball was on the deck and available to both players. Ramsey, smaller and more nimble, got to it a fraction faster; Shawcross could be seen drawing his left leg back the whole way, like a 'keeper about to launch a kickout downfield. The Stoke player went in full-blooded. He was late and he was reckless.

But the replays also showed conclusively that he did not go in with his studs up. Which, on balance, probably exonerates him. No amount of replays can prove, or disprove, "intent" -- that most elusive of concepts.

But we'd prefer to see it for ourselves anyway rather than being nannied by some nervous television ninnies, thanks all the same.

Sunday Independent

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