Thursday, 14 June 2012

Sport, soccer ... and value?


Is soccer’s Premier League really a £1bn a year business? A billion a year just for the UK market, incidentally - who knows the eventual global value of the next three years.
It’s a 70% hike on the previous price, inflated by BT’s desperate bidding, designed to deny a slice of the league to fellow second-tier competitor, ESPN.
And this morning, there’s been any number of those who care far more about soccer than seems sensible arguing on the airwaves what it should all mean. 
Most seem to agree that what it won’t mean is a better deal for ‘ordinary fans’, cheaper ticket prices or better development of young, home nations players. I’m sure all of that and more is true.
The numbers clearly make sense to Sky and BT – Sky Sports subscriptions form a substantial chunk of BskyB’s £6.6m plus annual take from viewers and doubtless BT hope something similar will come their way. It’ll have to if they’re going to get any return on the £6.5m an hour they’re stumping up.
It’s a classic bubble … but one that’s refused to burst. Yet.
Value
One of the things that the banking and sovereign debt crises have made us all more aware of than perhaps we were is that ‘value’ is more abstract than we thought.
We all know that things are only worth what someone is prepared to pay. We’ve all seen it with house prices, Bargain Hunt on TV and even the price of petrol.
But we have a vague sense lurking somewhere in our minds that the ‘value’ of a sack of potatoes or something that has real ‘work’ in it, like a car, or a doctor’s cure has more intrinsic ‘value’ than a complex financial instrument, the odds on a bet, the cost of borrowing money … and the right to watch a live soccer match.
Now, I’m no soccer fan. For me, soccer has no “transfixing appeal” and therefore the right to watch a live match has no value to me either.
Yet I have to shovel money at the Premier League, money that works through the system and, among other things, ascribes implausible value to a couple of hundred young men and their agents. And creates a business model that’s debt ridden and loss making, and therefore unsustainable in any rational world, for more than half the businesses in the league.            
Here’s why.
I follow three sports. Rugby union, cricket and cycling. If I want to watch any of those live on TV, I have to buy a ‘bundle’ of Sky Sports and Eurosport (though, yes, ITV4 does cover the big cycling events, ‘free’ at the point of delivery and I do get the Six Nations on the BBC) that costs around £300 a year – twice the BBC licence fee.
And since ESPN snatched half the rugby premiership, another seventy quid if I want to guarantee that I can see the games I want.
Fixed price trollies
The vast majority of what’s in that £300+ bundle has no value to me – not just the soccer but that’s the greater and costlier part of it. But I have to pay for it nonetheless to get at what does have some value.
It’s a bit like having a fixed trolley price at Tesco (oh … ok … Waitrose) where the store fills it with £400’s worth of stuff when you only want £20’s worth. And the other £380’s worth has no intrinsic value but has had its price inflated by crazed bidding with the wholesalers.
Of course, you’ll hear the same argument about the BBC licence fee. You have to buy one if you want to watch live TV at all – even if you never watch BBC programmes. Though the way the maths work, you’re likely to end up paying far more for what you don’t watch, don’t value, in a broadband provider’s or Sky bundle than in the BBC’s meagre licence fee.
You could argue I don’t need to watch the sports that I value live on TV. And that it’s up to me to decide whether the price I’m asked to pay is close to the value I put on the opportunity to watch.
That’s true – except for one thing. That price has nothing to do with the value of the sports I do watch and everything to do with the grossly, chronically distorted bubble economics of premiership soccer that I don't watch.
Value and success  
There are two other consequences, too.  
As I imagine we’ll find out again soon, the Premier League is one thing, the English national soccer team another. And that latter really isn’t very good. 
Of all the things the money pouring into top flight soccer has done, improving any of the home nations’ chances of ever winning anything isn’t one of them.
Those who know more than me about soccer tell me the Premiership has little to do with national teams and I’m sure that’s true. But it has to be bizarre that the country that hosts what is apparently the most valuable soccer league in the world can rarely get beyond the last eight in international competitions.  
That does a huge disfavour to British champions in other sports who really can beat the world, who generate national pride instead of sullen disappointment.
My hunch is that during the Olympics, many of us will watch British champions win medals in sports we’ve never seen on TV before – because they’re rarely there or, when they are, they're broadcast when only the athletes and their families are watching.
And these will be champions who, in the early years of their careers, will have had to pay their own way, buy their own kit and compete during their annual leave from their ‘proper’ jobs. 
And though lottery funding has changed beyond recognition the lives of those who make it to the elite in these sports, you can imagine at least some of our gold medallists looking across at an indifferent soccer player breezing by in his second best Ferrari, wondering  whether we really do have any sense of the value of sport.  

Wednesday, 13 June 2012

Time for Birt, v2?

John Birt's hour come round again?
I enjoy reading - and listening to - my old friend and colleague Steve Richards.
But when he writes about his onetime employer, the BBC, something odd seems to get hold of him. That's true of his latest column 'What's needed at the BBC is the rigour of the Birt era' 
It's reasonable enough to speculate on what the kerfuffle over Pageantgate (oh, come on ... someone must have called it that already?) might mean for the search for a new BBC DG. But Steve makes a bit of a stretch when he tells us it proves "the institution is in need of fresh leadership and, arguably, for leadership of any kind at all".
And that one of the things the "fresh leadership" of a new DG needs to do is cull the "tendency for a small, but significant, part of the output to lapse into unconvincing populism".
I don't know anyone inside or outside the Beeb who thinks it got the pageant right. But I've not come across too many who think the rest of the jubilee coverage was anything less than first-rate. I made both clear here and, I hope, on Radio 4's Feedback.
Steve's not far off when he describes it as "misjudged populism". But he's flat wrong when he asserts that what went wrong with the pageant is "part of a pattern, and symptomatic of an inverse snobbery that has infected parts of the BBC since the departure of John Birt as Director-General".
A shiny floor show with an event attached
It's almost certainly much simpler than that.
I have no inside knowledge, but I'd be astonished if the decisions over how to cover the pageant were the result of anything other than a) the realities (people/resources) of covering so many events in so short a time and b) the usual bloody skirmishes between the BBC's feudal baronies.
This wasn't serious old News trying to be funky and failing, like that toe-curling Jeremy-Vine-as-cowboy election feature or the cringingly awful celeb boat party. Once the skirmishes were over, this was always meant to be a shiny floor show made, for the most part, by shiny floor people ... with an event attached. And my hunch is that what came out of the screen was pretty much to BBC One Controller Danny Cohen's taste if no-one else's.
But you'd expect me to bridle at the passage where Steve tries to link what went wrong at the pageant with Hutton via the number of BBC managers: "Those who followed the long trail of complacent managerial emails published during the Hutton Inquiry after the Iraq war will recognise the persistent problem. So many senior managers are theoretically responsible that few, if any, are directly responsible and accountable".
Shamless book plug
It's hard to know where to start with that and you'll have to wait 'til my book Stumbling Over Truth comes out in September to get the full version as far as Hutton is concerned.
But where Steve sees "complacent management", I see a robust defence of free speech and the BBC's right to report well-founded, serious allegations that told a truth about the government's September 2002 dossier.
Thanks to Lord Hutton's decision not to call me to give my evidence, the truth about that defence as well as my decision to put Andrew Gilligan on air in the first place hasn't so far been heard.
You'll just have to take it from me that there was nothing "complacent" about it ... and wait until September to learn why.
BBC "undermanaged"
But here's the thing. Steve's nostalgia for the Birt era persuades him that a Birt II would prune managers and invest those who remained with real responsibility and a "sense of distinctive mission".
Hmmm - that's not what happened the first time around. At least, it's not the way I saw it. The explosion in the number of managers, layers of management and diffused responsibility belonged to the Birt era, not the years of Dyke or Thompson.
One of Birt's early dictums was that the BBC was "undermanaged" - hence the bands of nomadic management consultants constantly camped on our lawns throughout his era.
When I became a programme Editor in 1989, I had two bosses; ENCAR - Editor News and Current Affairs Radio - and Controller Radio 4. By the time Birt stood down I had more than I could count - at least five and I was never sure what most of them did.
Departments were split-up - News from Current Affairs, Newsgathering from Output - and new teams assembled to manage them. Whole new layers of management were inserted into Birt's beloved organograms - Executive and Managing Editors - while the amount of management data we all had to collect and report multiplied many times over. "If you can measure it you can manage it", was another of his catechists' chants.
It's not impossible to be a Birt fan - but not for the spurious reasons Steve cites. Birt's vision in the mid-1990s - the potential of the web - has turned out to be as important as John Reith's in the 1920s when he saw the possibilities of Marconi's wireless. Let's thank him for that while we pray for no second coming.
The lesson of Pageantgate (last time, promise) for the next DG, and for Lord Patten as he works out who it should be, is simple.
It has to be someone who's got the creative track record, peer respect and self-confidence to stand up to the big beasts, Channel controllers and the like, when they propose and commission something so evidently out of tune with the nation's tastes as that pageant coverage.
Fail on that, and the Beeb really is in trouble.          

Monday, 4 June 2012

Pageant Lament

I should have known it would unleash the crazies, but there you are.
The BBC commentary on the Thames pageant was, I tweeted, "lamentable" - wondering at the same time whether I was being "over-critical".
I've been out of the BBC for a year now and suppose I must have forgotten what happens if you make a criticism about the corporation that's intended to be constructive. Stephen Fry - who has a few more followers than me - went further, calling it "mind numbingly tedious ... I'm not saying this in relation to ER II's jubilee - just expected better of the beeb". Though he did go on to reassure us he "didn't mean to upset anyone".
I'm sure he didn't ... but that doesn't stop the crazies whose hatred of the Beeb is visceral and unreasoning, believe it shouldn't exist and that the likes of me and my former colleagues should be in jail. And on cue, they leapt up to bash the corporation, asking "how did Beeb get it so wrong?" or making smart comments like "they've only had sixty years to plan" and that it was "so bad ... heads must roll". And, of course, urging us all to go over to Sky which was "far better as usual".
I did for a while. It wasn't. It was far, far worse. Their commentary lamentable for the same reasons as the BBC's but more so. Vacuous and borderline aphasic: at one point, one of the Sky team told us the Queen was "taking the weight off her teeth". Eamonn Holmes spent what felt like hours comparing the Spirit of Chartwell to a floating Chinese restaurant and seemed to think we were interested in how wet he was. We weren't.
Slow car crash
OBs are never easy - especially when you have absolutely no guarantee that everything is going to go to time. In my thirty years at the BBC, I was on the output end of dozens of the damn things - general elections, leadership elections, state openings of parliament, budgets, D Day and VE day commemorations, Diana's funeral, EU summits. Even the easy ones aren't very easy. And things that looked just great in rehearsal turn into a slow car crash on the day. Add in the foulest weather possible and you have something almost unmanageable.
You can take issue with the kind of programme the Beeb produced, too. It wasn't to my taste but I can see why they did it. The pageant was going to last something like five hours - that's a long time to have a lot of cameras trained on a lot of boats on a lot of river. And it was, after all, a party not a funeral - so it was a perfectly valid decision not to go for a 21st century Tom Fleming and to try to weave in all the other stuff, the parties and babies, the celebs on board the best boats and and and ...
Prepare, prepare and then prepare some more
But that's not what the problem was. It was the commentary.
Every commentator I've ever worked with or spoken to has told me the same thing. To make an event - sporting or national - look and sound natural and relaxed, you have to prepare, prepare and then prepare some more. You can't do it off the top of your head nor can you afford to let it sound like that's what you're doing. And on TV, it's a really bad idea to limit your commentary to what the viewers can see for themselves.
But it did sound like top of the head stuff and rarely told us very much we couldn't see or work out for ourselves.
One of the first newsrooms I worked in was in Pebble Mill, Birmingham. And one of the most important journalists there was an old hand called Barney Bamford. And one of his most important jobs was to keep the 'results book'. That was the book - in those days, a red, A4 exercise book - any commentator or newsreader who had the job of reading the football results could pick up to find those little nuggets like "that's Aston Villa's third score draw this season" or "Wolves have now gone five away games without a goal" or that a particular striker hadn't ever scored playing away from home on a Tuesday evening.
Every commentator on every event needs that kind of preparation in over-abundance; most never gets used. Some do all the prep themselves, others have it done for them. Either way, they have it and carry it with them on paper or in their heads. Or, like Test Match Special, have a Malcolm and a copy of Wisden to hand.
Bottomless bag of information
And that's what was surprising about the pageant commentary. The main voice was Paul Dickenson's - one of the Beeb's finest and most experienced sports commentators. It's impossible to imagine him going into a world championships or the Olympics, say, without a bottomless bag of bits of information about every athlete - indeed, he compares the kind of training a commentator has to do with that of the athletes themselves. It's second nature.
But that's what was missing. Every boat on the river that day had a story - but we heard hardly any. Those stories we did hear rarely went beyond what we could see and far too often, all we learned about what we could see was that it was "iconic". It would have been better, mostly, to have said nothing.
I doubt many Beeb bigwigs are thrilled at the pageant coverage. And there'll be the inevitable inquest that'll look at the whole thing from camerawork to concept, taking in climate on the way.
But I do hope that more than anything else, they get to the bottom of what went wrong with the commentary and find out how what's usually a triumph for the Beeb turned into something, well, lamentable.