The Television Must Be Revolutionised. 1973

We all want better punditry and presentation levels on television, but don't think this is just a modern day issue.  Welcome to IBWM William Abbs.

The best thing about conducting doctoral research at the British Library – better than the feeling that comes from knowing you’re part of the building’s collective consciousness of inquiring minds, sometimes beardy but often young and achingly well turned-out, and better even than the 45p coffee machine in the lunch room on the top floor – is that you can request just about any book you like on any subject and read it for free. It’s a simple idea but one about which my sense of wonder never seems to wane.

Did I mention I’m doing a thesis on football writing?

Being in the highly fortunate position, then, of studying a topic that I never thought academia would allow me to indulge, I recently spent a couple of days at the St Pancras Reading Rooms looking at old articles from possibly the world’s, and very probably Britain’s, first football fanzine. FOUL: Football’s Alternative Paper (hereafter referred to in shortened form as FOUL, with the capital letters retained out of faithfulness to the paper’s typesetting) ran for only four years during the seventies before its creators ran out of money, but the significance of the 34 issues published between 1972 and 1976 cannot be overstated because so much of the content is relevant to our present football world.

I’m thinking in particular here of FOUL’s assessment of television coverage of the game. While modern day pundits such as Alan Shearer and Jamie Redknapp can be criticised so easily that, were the practice a blood sport, it would be outlawed, such is the effortlessness with which comments by those two men can be shot down, it is perhaps surprising to note in issue 11 of FOUL, from October 1973, an editorial that lays out a four-point plan of action for improving the way football is presented on television.

Each of the plan’s points targets an element of television coverage that remains a contentious topic still, almost forty years later. Whether it’s which camera angles to use and when, commentary style, the contents of highlights shows, or the identity of pundits, it seems that armchair football fans in the seventies were concerned with the same issues that trouble us now. Technology might have advanced and presentation style might have been influenced by broader social changes in the media, but a significant proportion of viewers in the era of Allison and Clough seem to have been demanding changes to television’s coverage of the game that might very well appeal to a lot of modern day fans as well.

For example, FOUL’s plea in 1973 was that “the camera must learn, as the supporter learned long ago, to stop ball-watching.” The fanzine’s praise for two of London Weekend Television’s recent innovations – cameras behind the goal and on the touchline – obviously sounds quite quaint now, but advocating that cameras be trained on defences during games as they remain goalless, and on instances of man-marking, comes across as very similar to more recent ideas such as Sky’s now discarded ‘player cam’ option.

Where fans might be divided now, however, is the direction in which they would like technology to take football. Skycam, the brand name for the camera that whizzes around above the players’ heads on stabilised cables during major tournaments and European cup finals, one day might feasibly allow the viewer to pick their own camera angle. The possibilities that this service could offer for those at home to gain real tactical insight into the game they’re watching are truly exciting, for those fans interested in such things. On the other side, some fans might be happier donning a pair of 3D glasses and enjoying a hyperreal visual representation of a football match without gleaning any more technical detail from the action than they could have managed with their naked eyes.

To understand the crux of this dichotomy between how different types of football fan appreciate the game, and how television coverage might have instigated the split, I again direct you to the pages of FOUL. In the magazine’s opinion, the misconception at the heart of television coverage of the game is “that football should appear on the screen not as Football, but as Entertainment” (capitals retained from the original extract). In this age of multi-channel digital television, Sky+, and the internet, it is easy to understand – if one might play devil’s advocate for a moment – why football might be packaged as entertainment by television producers trying to appeal to a generation of people with greater choice over what they watch and when, with shorter attention spans than ever before too. However, to see the distinction between football as a sporting spectacle and as prime-time entertainment being made nearly four decades ago – addressing television’s inability or unwillingness to acknowledge such a distinction as early as the 1970s – is perhaps more of a surprise.

Our argument is moving towards identifying a split in football’s identity that might have existed all along but needed to be teased out by a medium such as television. FOUL defined football as “often mean, boring, frustrating, and punctuated by bouts of petty viciousness and violence.” However, even during a decade when Leeds’ blend of meticulous preparation and calculated savagery brought Don Revie’s side enormous success on pitches that would turn to mud like the battlefields that the tackling of the era made them resemble, the game could give its fans something conventionally beautiful like Total Football as well.

“Television, by excising the tiresome aspects,” according to FOUL, “allows no hint of the real thing to seep through.” The implication of that point is that ‘real’ football, if considered as the “often mean, boring, frustrating” type of game described in the previous paragraph, is less aesthetically pleasing than television would have its viewers believe. As such, televised football and the experience of watching it in the flesh have become estranged from one another. In FOUL’s opinion, television has made up its own version of the game. “Telly, and the fictionalised version of football it portrays,” the magazine argued, posed an overt threat to the game.

The idea of televised football being no more than an impression – an image – of the game’s reality is easier to understand if we return to the theme of the hyperreal viewing experience offered by 3D television. The format represents depth of field in an exaggerated – perhaps you could even say unnatural – way. This is the fault of the medium not the subject; television never showed us the world as it really is but, when it is being broadcast in 3D, showing football or something else, telly wants the viewer to believe more than ever that they are experiencing what they are watching in the most ‘real’ way they can without actually being there in person. That intention, however, is based on a fallacy. The way we visualise the three-dimensional world is quite different to its representation in the form of 3D television. We could even consider high-definition television’s visual clarity and conclude that it portrays the world with a sharpness and colourful vivacity that our own eyes seldom, if ever, deliver either.

This is not to dismiss the notion that 3D broadcasting and high-definition can indeed make watching television more entertaining. That concessionary point applies to television coverage of football too. Footage of a goal such as Wayne Rooney’s bicycle kick in the Manchester derby is all the more impressive after the player’s athleticism and facial concentration have been accentuated thanks to visual technology. However, such a representation is entertaining primarily in a FIFA 11 sense, in that isolated moments of skill are exciting as and of themselves. That comparison might seem appropriate enough, perhaps, considering the work of the player involved for EA Sports, but this article now repeats the argument that – in the words of FOUL – confusing “Football” with “Entertainment” is damaging for the game.

Where is all this postmodern pontificating about television’s unfaithful rendering of the game leading, you might ask? In short, the knowledge that “FOUL talked about the game’s complicated relationship with television...long before football’s administrators had woken up to the fact that TV might be detracting from, rather than adding to, the well-being of the game,” as Mike Ticher – writing shortly after he had set up When Saturday Comes – explained in his introduction to the 1987 compendium FOUL: Best of Football’s Alternative Paper 1972-1976, is of vital importance to our current cause. FOUL’s pages show us that fans had become aware of problems with television coverage of football so soon into the lifespan of programmes such as the BBC’s Match of the Day (first shown in 1964) and ITV’s rival effort The Big Match (which began in 1968) that the fans’ swift unhappiness points towards TV, as a medium, suffering from inherent difficulties when it comes to broadcasting the sport in a way that will satisfy both the match-going and the armchair-only fan.

With this website being at the centre of the debate over modern day supporters’ dissatisfaction with the way television covers football (and what to do about it), thanks to articles like this one by Juliet Jacques and also this one by the same writer, then IBWM seems like the perfect place for me to add to the discourse by positing the idea that, in taking TV to task, we are just the latest group of fans on the frontline in a battle that has now been fought across five separate decades.

Aside from camera angles, FOUL expressed another grievance based on television as a medium in its four-point plan from 1973. The paper was adamant that only one game should be shown per hour-long highlights package, instead of programmes trying to fit more matches into their time slot so as to be able to show more goals. Interestingly, FOUL thought that the change in format it was promoting was necessary for educational reasons. Goal round-ups and brutally edited highlights of games, so familiar now to viewers of Match of the Day and especially The Football League Show, fail to teach fans “what to look for,” FOUL argued. Specifically, the paper continued, “the pattern of the game, the shifts of emphasis in midfield, the way dominance moves from one side to the other without being reflected in goals – all this would escape notice.”

Of course, the programmes hosted by Messrs Lineker and Bhasin serve a very valuable purpose for fans who find it difficult to get to live games and who follow clubs whose matches are seldom broadcast live. MOTD and TFLS allow such supporters to see the goals that concern them, at the very least. Therein lies the rub, however, for – as FOUL identified – television’s predilection for “showing less football and more goals” lumps the latter in with that dirty word, “Entertainment.” It should be noted that FOUL’s desire for hour-long highlights of games has been realised with Sky’s Football First slot, but only fans of Premier League clubs get the benefit of red-button technology there.

We are left, then, with the problem of punditry. As bloggers including Juliet Jacques as well as Alan Tyers and John Nicholson have pointed out recently, a lot of what passes for comment on television is at best poorly researched and at worst patronising. Again, it is a longstanding problem. FOUL was resigned to saying that “the analysis sessions are a sop” just three years after panellists had been introduced by ITV for the 1970 World Cup. Presenters and analysts have always provoked strong reactions too. Jimmy Hill’s defection to the BBC in 1973 was keenly felt by LWT, FOUL acknowledged, but a letter to the magazine dismissed the former PFA chairman’s performances on Match of the Day rather wonderfully as “nauseous and adolescent rituals of worship.”

What is apparent at the moment, however, is that there exists a body of football journalists – most but not all of which appear on a certain podcast released every Monday and Thursday – who enjoy pretty much universal popularity with those fans unhappy with their counterparts on BBC, ITV, and Sky. Furthermore, the bloggers behind websites such as Zonal Marking and the Swiss Ramble have become almost deities to the hordes of other writers out there on the internet. As FOUL told its readers in 1973, but could just as easily be saying to them in 2011, “now more than ever there is a mistrust of the figures in authority and a willingness to listen to grassroot spokesmen.” Broaden that sense of impending change to incorporate spokeswomen, and you have a manifesto for contemporary punditry that has been waiting 38 years to come to fruition.

You can read more from William at Saha from the Madding Crowd.