The Fall of BBC’s ‘Sportscene’ and Why It Matters
Scottish Review, April 18th 2013
Scottish football matters to lots of us. Its images and halcyon images define many of our lives – the Lisbon Lions in 67, Rangers in Barcelona in 72, Aberdeen in Gothenburg in 83, the Jim Baxter keepie-up and the Archie Gemmell run.
When you think of English football one of the many images that might spring to mind is ‘Match of the Day’ and this may include its current opening credits. You would not say the same of the current BBC Scotland version of ‘Sportscene’.
Once upon a time ‘Sportscene’ and STV’s ‘Scotsport’ were part of our national fabric. There was Archie Macpherson anchoring one and Arthur Montford the other. They became national icons, figures of respect, learnedness and even in some strange way, of a Scottish sense of male style.
Decline has mirrored our national game – long, steep and, looking at the moment, irreversible and without the will or capacity to seriously change.
‘Scotsport’ became so bad in its last run that it was almost near genius. This was the era of Sarah O, Grant Stott and Andy Walker, alongside the fake terraces inhabited by I assume real, rather than fake, fans who would lean against the barriers and give their vox pops on the issues of the day. Lots of us thought this was a low for how our game was represented on TV. How wrong we were.
Then ‘Sportscene’ won the contract to show SPL games and ‘Scotsport’ packed up their bags and folded. Not all of the current ‘Sportscene’ is bad. Rob MacLean does a valiant effort as presenter but that is about all the good that can be said for a programme that doesn’t even tell you who its editor is in the closing titles – which must be illustrative of something.
What then are the main problems with ‘Sportscene’? First, it’s not on Saturday night anymore (cup days excepted). It’s on Sunday before ‘Match of the Day2’. Thus, schedule wise it is between ‘MOTD’ Saturday and ‘MOTD2’. What does that say? Not worthy of Saturday box office. I guess it isn’t shown on Saturday because the contract the BBC has signed is for restricted viewing rights versus SKY Sports, but why is this the case when the Beeb have paid millions for such rights?
Second, there is the length of the highlights. These are embarrassing. Basically it is the goals and a couple of incidents in each game. And it looks and feels terrible, compared to ‘MOTD’ highlights and the ‘Sportscene’ and ‘Scotsport’ of yesteryear. Some dim-witted football fans have actually said the short highlights are due to showing bits of all six SPL games, but ‘MOTD’ can manage longer extracts from up to ten games; so that’s not the reason.
Third, games are shown with no real introduction, no setting up and no team line-ups; a cost cutting exercise I imagine. Then for most games we don’t even get the privilege of a post-match manager interview I possibly because that would involve resources.
Fourth, one of the great things about ‘MOTD’ is the football punditry which has taken understanding and appreciation of the game to a new level. Love or loathe Hansen, Shearer and Lawrenson, and everyone has their pet hates, but they add insight and an intricate knowledge of the game.
What does ‘Sportscene’ give us? It has a complete lack of proper football punditry. Whereas ‘MOTD’ has invested long term in building up an audience rapport with Hansen etc. instead we get inarticulate young footballers in one of the two guest slots. I imagine because they are cheap or don’t ask for a fee. One recent lad from Inverness Caley could barely string a sentence together; the same was true a few months back with Celtic assistant manager Johan Mjällby who clearly didn’t have a thought in his head on anything bar Celtic.
Fifth, the biggest crime of ‘Sportscene’ is that of talking the game down. After watching an Aberdeen v. Motherwell ‘highlights’ a month or two ago, Rob MacLean commented that ‘we struggled to get twenty seconds of highlights out of that’. Similarly the recent Dundee v. Dundee United cup match, which was a good old-fashioned game, saw MacLean declare that ‘it was not a very good match’, something many of the papers disagreed with. ‘MOTD’ does not do that; ‘Sportscene’ as many fans know does it all the time.
Sixth, then there are the awful graphics and opening credits. ‘MOTD’ places itself in a proud history of the game since the BBC started covering domestic English football on TV.
‘Sportscene’ has been going since 1975 but its antecedents go back longer. BBC Scotland started covering football in 1945 with ‘Sportsreel’, but where is BBC Scotland’s sense of its own history? Think of the panoply of glorious and not so glorious images they could choose from, leaving aside the over-exposed images cited at the start of this article.
A ‘Sportscene’ which understood its place as part of the history of the game, and its own role as a curator, would have opening credits reflecting that. Maybe mixing some of the great Hampden nites of olden days, such as a Joe Jordan header, with say a Scottish team in Europe in the 1960s tormenting opponents, such as Dundee or Dunfermline, and a couple of domestic highs which weren’t all about the ‘Old Firm’. You wouldn’t think watching “Sportscene’ that BBC Scotland had a rich, or indeed, any kind of football archive, would you?
Finally, and most importantly, ‘MOTD’ makes people feel proud of their game. It talks it up, is filled with a love, enthusiasm and history of the game, and produces insights and decent football packages.
‘Sportscene’ for all our domestic game’s undoubted limitations and problems detracts and diminishes from our game. It cheapens it and makes it seem something to be embarrassed by. Every football fan I know and speak to feels the same, so why has this been allowed to happen?
One of the reasons has to be found in the contract that BBC Scotland signed for SPL highlights. It is so restrictive in terms of what they can show, the length of highlights, and when they can show them. Why has BBC Scotland which is a major financial supporter of the game, agreed to such an awful contract? It has leverage with the football authorities, despite the power of SKY and ESPN.
The bigger issue is the state of BBC Scotland, our ‘national broadcaster’ which has not just in football, but across so many areas, lost its way. This is an organisation suffering financial cuts and staff redundancies, and which is struggling with the independence debate and wider Scots society, to reflect, understand and represent back to us the society we live in. It had lost its way before the current challenges, ‘BBC Scotland’ existing in only name and as one former insider told me, ‘BBC Scotland is a complete fiction’. It is an institution whose senior management look to hold the line, do London’s biding for them, and keep the ‘restless natives’ at bay. STV are hardly any better.
The sad state of Scottish football on our TV screens may seem a marginal issue to many but it is about much more than a game. Instead, our mainstream broadcasters, BBC and STV, have been failing us for years, and delivering second rate, unambitious programmes which don’t come from the best of our culture or inspire us to think we come from the nation of imagination, creativity and invention Scotland still is. That’s why the state of “Sportscene’ matters. And yes it would be good to see some of those Joe Jordan headers some of us remember from our childhood again gracing our TV screens. We can but dream.