The Silly Season has not always been the exclusive province of Fleet Street. British television’s summer schedules traditionally adhere to the theory that the viewers whose ratings contributions can be relied upon in the autumn and winter months are busy enjoying themselves outdoors; whether grilling severed segments of animal carcasses at barbeques or gridlocked in traffic jams en route to holiday destinations, watching the telly is supposedly low on the list of activities. The mainstream channels respond accordingly and basically shove all their shit on when they think nobody is watching. Granted, these days it’s not always evident what time of the year one is watching the box, so low have standards sunk; but if you want the worst British TV can offer, June, July and August are the months to tune-in. It feels to me like quite a gamble on the part of programme schedulers, considering the wayward nature of the Great British Summer, though the practice nevertheless persists.
Sport can be viewed as summer’s saving grace from the point of view of TV mandarins, the one guarantee of high viewing figures. Wimbledon is an annual dead-cert, especially if Andy Murray does the business, and then there are always the bi-annual attractions of the alternating World Cup or Olympic Games. Of course, in an era of Sky and other specialist sports channels, pickings are thinner on the ground for mainstream terrestrial broadcasters. In recent years, the BBC has surrendered numerous major events to Murdoch and his ilk, yet it’s interesting to look at how the BBC – more so than ITV – used to juggle its abundance of live coverage.
A glance through some copies of the Radio Times from the summer of 1974 sees live test cricket coverage on both BBC1 and BBC2 in the week that the World Cup in West Germany kicks off, though largely occupying those great swathes of empty hours on the junior BBC channel and only appearing on the senior channel when the schools programmes are finished for the day. When the World Cup begins at the back-end of the week, the teatime children’s schedule is shunted over to BBC2, though normal programming is only temporarily shuffled due to the fact that ITV is also covering the tournament – as was the case with the Olympics up to (and including) Moscow 1980.
A month later, live coverage of the Open Golf Championship and the England Vs India test series is juggled with International Show Jumping (yes, live!) and then Wimbledon. Yet, even though all of these sports are exclusive to the BBC, there is room within a two-channel system to accommodate them all as well as regular programming for those for whom sport holds no interest whatsoever. Other events trumpeted during what the RT keeps referring to as ‘Great Summer of Sport’ include the British Grand Prix, county championship cricket, international athletics, horse-racing and USPGA golf. Quite a line-up to cram into two channels, yet the BBC managed it without intruding too much upon everything else and incurring the wrath of the ‘I don’t pay my licence fee for this kind of thing’ brigade.
During the last Olympics, which were held (how could we forget?) in London, the BBC not only swamped BBC1 and BBC2 with disciplines, but also made use of its red button facility as well as BBC3. The way in which the Corporation’s outlets were ruthlessly utilised for an event that its ancient rival no longer covered seemed to support occasional demands for a specialist sports channel to be added to the expanding BBC portfolio. In 2012, BBC4 was left standing as the solitary Beeb TV alternative to the Olympics overkill, and though I myself (as with many other non-fanatics) was occasionally swept up in the euphoria as the nation’s athletes shot up the medal table, it was nice to have an escape that wasn’t one of the dumb & dumber ITV digital channels.
In the summer of 2012, Jimmy Savile’s posthumous shadow had yet to cast itself across the Corporation, and the era of spineless kowtowing to Parliamentary Select Committees, Murdoch and the Mail hadn’t been envisaged; little did the BBC know what was around the corner during the heady evening of ‘Super Saturday’ at the Olympic Stadium. How things have changed four years on. Timid downsizing is the order of the day. BBC3 has disappeared online and the BBC has to constantly justify its existence. With this in mind, it pours its resources into the great sporting events it still has live coverage of, and the decision has been taken to essentially hand over the entire remaining BBC TV channels to Rio for the next three weeks.
BBC1, BBC2 and even BBC4 have effectively been rebranded as ‘BBC Sports’ for the duration of the 2016 Olympic Games, even though time differences between Blightly and Brazil should mean that most of the contest will probably be taking place live in the wee small hours, thus negating daytime dominance. This, however, is not the impression given via a cursory glance through this week’s edition of the Radio Times. The evidence suggests there is no break in the sporting schedule whatsoever; it’s a 24-hour service. London 2012 was different in that the Olympics were here for the first time since 1948, and the BBC was expected to go a little overboard; but no such excuse can be offered up this time round. Basically, if you don’t like sport, there’s always…er…well, DVD box-sets, I guess.
Leaving the BBC viewer without a BBC alternative is pretty bloody outrageous; but every single second of every single moment of this tournament has to be broadcast by the BBC in order that it can continue to cover the competition every four years, so terrified is it of losing out to commercial competitors. Imagine if it still had access to all the sports it had access to in 1974 – what would it do? I dread to think; but I’ve a feeling that sandwiching them between programmes for non-sporty types would not be an option now.
© The Editor