Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Sport on Commercial Television: 1955-1992

Below is the successful application I submitted for the De Montfort PhD scholarship on ‘Sport and Commercial Television, 1955-1992’. It is posted here in the hope that it might, in some way, aid my research over the next three years…

In the book ITV Cultures, Johnson and Turnock lament the fact that “ITV has often been marginalized or neglected in histories of broadcasting in Britain” (2005:1). One might argue that this is especially true of sports broadcasting on independent television which, while not entirely absent, certainly appears to place a distant second in comparison with the BBC.

Nor does sports programming feature extensively in the histories of commercial television that do exist; for instance, the subject does not feature in the index of ITV Cultures. Elsewhere the early coverage of sport by independent television has been derided as “sparse, random, and sometimes amateurish” (Sendall, 1982:324).

When discussion of sport on commercial television does appear, the narrative is usually framed by reference to sport on the BBC (Crisell, 1997; Chandler, 2004). Such an outcome might be considered inevitable given the BBC’s established (and, perhaps, establishment) position. From its inception the existence of Independent Television – indeed, its very name – has been defined by its relationship to the BBC. By the time independent television first appeared in 1955 the BBC was already “consolidated in the field” having “developed expertise, equipment, contracts and contracts” (Whannel, 1992:45).

Peter Dimmock, BBC’s head of outside broadcasts in the early 1950s, recognised that the new ITV network could pose a serious threat to the BBC and that sport coverage would be an invaluable weapon. This foresight, coupled with innovations in technology and format, and their connections to sports administration (Collins, 2013:116), provided the platform from which the BBC has built its reputation as a sports broadcaster able to “tap into the national psyche in a way ITV could not.” (Holt and Mason, 2000:103)

Sports programming on ITV and Channel 4 is too important to be relegated to the position of adjunct in the story of another broadcaster, even if it would be impossible to construct a history of sport on commercial television without mention of the BBC. A number of works have attempted to overcome this problem while examining specific issues or historical moments: the rivalry between ITV and BBC (Whannel, 1992:67-86); the 1966 World Cup (Chisari, 2004); and the attempts to introduce American football to a British audience (Maguire, 2011). As important as these works are they paint only a partial picture. The history of sport on commercial television has yet to be written.


Given the scope and scale of an inquiry into sport on commercial television from 1955-1992, it is imperative to structure the research effectively. It is possible to divide the evolution of sport on commercial television into four distinct periods, the beginning of each being marked by significant moments of public policy intervention in the sphere of television broadcasting: the Television Act (1954); the Pilkington Report (1962); the report of the Annan Committee (1977); and the Peacock Committee (1986)

Constructing distinct phases around public policy is advantageous in two ways. Firstly it allows us to clearly identify the nature of commercial broadcasters who, although independent from the BBC and reliant on advertisers for revenue, remain dependent on the government for both its licence and remit. As such independent television broadcasters such as ITV occupy a “hybrid position as a ‘commercial public service broadcaster’” (Johnson & Turnock, 2005:3)

Such periodisation would also allow us to examine the production of televised sport as a social process conditioned by wider political, economic and cultural factors. It allows us to chart the chains of interdependence between government, broadcaster, sports’ governing bodies, advertisers and sponsors, and audience. Furthermore, we are able to identify how these relationships have in turn been shaped by power, status, finance, class and gender.

The TV Act (1954): The economic boom of the post-war period underpinned the rapid expansion of television ownership. Although the majority of the population in the UK would not own a television set until 1960 (Szymanski, 2011:113), demand was outstripping supply by the early 1950s (Haynes, 1998:218) and the “significance of sport for this phenomenal rate of penetration should not be underestimated” (Goldlust. 1988:8).

ITV launched in 1955, comprised of six franchises spread over three geographical areas. Sports broadcasting did not appear high on its agenda. In part this reflected the dominant position of the BBC, but it also reflected the problems inherent in the network’s composition which left it at a disadvantage (Crisell, 2002:127) compared with its competitor. Its regional structure made it almost impossible to secure the type of national broadcast deals required to televise sports, and this fragmentation mitigated the economies of scale available to the BBC. With no centralised policy, sports programming featured sporadically and those “first ITV companies to introduce sport into their schedules faced an upward struggle” (Boyle & Haynes, 2009:39).

The Pilkington Report (1962): The Pilkington Report was critical of ITV’s sports coverage in its early years of broadcasting. Even then ITV seemed slow to respond. Its coverage of the 1966 World Cup paled in comparison with the BBC. ITV offered half the output of their rival (26 hours compared to 55 hours on the BBC) and, where matches were televised on both channels simultaneously, drew a fraction of the available audience (Chisari, 2004).

It was not until 1967 that ITV created a department dedicated to the production of sports programming. This period seems to signal a marked increase in confidence for ITV sport. They jostle for position in the sports broadcasting marketplace with the BBC and attain a certain level of parity. For example the rights to show highlights of football league matches are shared through the 1970s as ITV and BBC operate what has been variously described as a “bilateral monopoly” (Buraimo et al, 2010:462) or “informal cartel” (Dobson & Goddard, 2004:81). The upwards trajectory was not without its setbacks and contradictions. ITV dabbled somewhat farcically with coverage of cricket’s Gillette Cup (Holt & Mason, 2000:109) and provided only minimal coverage of the Olympics in 1976 (Whannel, 1984:31).

The Annan Report (1977): In many ways Channel 4, which began broadcasting in 1982, opened up “new vistas for sports broadcasting” in the UK (Boyle & Haynes, 2009:41). The broadcasting of minority sports on ITV had been the result of experimentation and necessity. Channel 4 were proud to position themselves as niche and it fitted their “minority and controversial” identity (Ranelagh, 1998:56). Coverage that eschewed the “traditional form” (Maguire, 2011a:951) only added to this image.

It would be fair to see these developments as part of the wider trends of globalisation and Americanisation (Maguire, 2011b:969). Channel 4’s weekly magazine package Trans World Sport offered highlights of such diverse sports as sumo wrestling from Japan, Australian rules football, and kabaddi from India; both Gridiron and basketball were ‘traditionally American’ sports, even if coverage of the latter was from a British league. Yet it is important to point out that neither trend originated with Channel 4. The globalisation of sports broadcasting can be traced back to at least the European Broadcasting Union, while concern over American influence on independent television was apparent from the very beginning of ITV (Hill, 2002:105).

The Peacock Committee (1986): There is a certain historical irony in the fact that the Peacock Committee should open the door to satellite and cable television during the period in which ITV was beginning to establish a degree of dominance in the field of sports broadcasting. The BBC still held the rights to broadcast England’s home test matches and key domestic and international fixtures in both codes of rugby. Moreover its coverage of sport global mega-events helped the corporation retain a belief in its production quality.

In this period ITV “began to evolve the strategy of opting out of some major event coverage, whilst securing others exclusively” (Whannel, 1992:51). It had secured a range of contracts in key sports, notably boxing, athletics and, most importantly, football. For the first time in its history the network could claim with some justification, “If it’s live and exclusive it must be ITV sport!” The shift from tacit cooperation to outright competition was not without its consequences. Sports administrators realised the value and potential profitability of their ‘product’. The market in which ITV had fought so hard to establish itself was revolutionising, and market forces would usher in a new era of sports broadcasting.


The nature of this project allows for a mixed-methodological approach. Although the research would rely heavily on archive material there is a potential to incorporate quantitative data, a wealth of secondary source material and, perhaps most interestingly, a series of interviews with key figures involved in commercial broadcasting from (the latter part) of the period 1955-92.[1]

Any attempt to research the history of sport on commercial television is, however, confronted with the specific methodological problems posed by the regional structure of ITV. With the network divided into 15 regional franchises – and, in turn, three of these sub-divided between weekday and weekend programming – the paper records of the various franchisees have never been collected in a single location. In addition, a number of companies that ran regional ITV franchises no longer exist and/or have been subsumed within other companies, resulting in a “relative lack of access to archival material” (Johnson & Turnock, 2005:4). A number of major archives do exist and the following would form the first steps in research: 
  • ·        The ITV archives held at Bournemouth University
  • ·        The papers held at the British Film Institute in their Special Collections
  • ·        The regulator Ofcom holds some paper records for its predecessor organisations
  • ·        The Independent Television Commission Archive Papers (1954-65) held at Edinburgh University Library
  • ·        The archive material available through the Royal Television Society
  • ·        BBC Written Archive Centre

The availability of complete back issues of the TV Times, both online and through the painstaking digitisation undertaken by the AHRB, would also be interesting source material. First published in 1955 these magazines would provide valuable quantitative data in terms of which sports were broadcast (and how often), as well as highlighting regional differences and the overall priority accorded to sports programming. Similarly the figures available from the Television Audience Measurement and Audits of Great Britain organisations can contribute important data regarding the popularity of sports programming on the competing television channels. Newspaper archives would also be useful, as would the innumerable papers, memoirs, autobiographies, and letters left behind by key figures in independent television. Finally it might be possible to conduct interviews with some of those who had roles in the production of sport for commercial television.

Boyle, R., & Haynes, R. (2009) Power Play: Sport, The Media and Popular Culture, Edinburgh University Press: Edinburgh

Babatunde Buraimo, Juan Luis Paramio & Carlos Campos (2010) “The Impact of Televised Football on Stadium Attendances in English and Spanish League Football”, Soccer & Society, 11:4, pp461-474

Chandler, J. (2004) “The TV and Sports Industries” in Rowe, D. (ed.) Critical Readings: Sport, Culture and the Media, Open University Press: Maidenhead, pp48-69

Chisari, F. (2004) “‘Shouting Housewives!’ The 1966 World Cup and British Television” in Sport in History, 24:1, pp94-108

Collins, T. (2013) Sport in Capitalist Society: A Short History, Routledge: London

Dobson, S. & Goddard, J. (2004) The Economics of Football, University of Cambridge Press:

Crisell, A. (2002) An Introductory History of British Broadcasting (2nd addition), Routledge: London

Ellis, J. (2005) “Importance, Significance, Cost and Value” in Johnson, C. & Turnock, R., (eds.) ITV Cultures: Independent Television over Fifty Years, Open University Press: Maidenhead

Goldlust, J. (1988) Playing for Keeps, Longman Cheshire: Melbourne

Haynes, R. (1998) “A pageant of sound and vision: football's relationship with television, 1936–60” in The International Journal of the History of Sport, 15:1, 211-226

Hill, J. (2002) Sport, Leisure & Culture in Twentieth-Century Britain, Palgrave: London

Holt, R. (1989) Sport and the British: A Modern History, Oxford University Press: Oxford

Holt, R. & Mason, T., (2000) Sport in Britain: 1945-2000, Blackwell Publishers: Oxford

Kennedy, E. & Hills, L., (2009) Sport, Media and Society, Berg: Oxford

Kelner, M. (2012) Sit Down and Cheer: A History of Sport on TV, Bloomsbury: London

Joseph A. Maguire (2011a) The consumption of American football in British society: networks of interdependencies, Sport in Society, 14:7-8, 950-964

Maguire, J.A. (2011b) The global media sports complex: key issues and concerns, Sport in Society, 14:7-8, 965-977

Johnson, C. & Turnock, R., (eds.) (2005) ITV Cultures: Independent Television over Fifty Years, Open University Press: Maidenhead

Ranelagh, J. (1998) “Channel 4: A View from Within” in Contemporary British History, 12:4, 53-59
Sendall, B. (1982) Independent Television in Britain, Vol 1: Origin and Foundation 1946-62, Macmillan Press Ltd: Basingstoke

Szymanski, S. (2011) “Jeux avec Forntieres: Television Markets and European Sport” in Tomlinson, A., Young, C. & Holt, R. (eds) Sport and the Transformation of Modern Europe: States, Media and Markets 1950-2010, Routledge: London, pp113-127

Whannel, G. (1984) “The Television Spectacular” in Tomlinson, A., & Whannel, G. (eds.) Five Ring Circus: Money, Power and Politics at the Olympic Games, Pluto Press: London

Whannel, G. (1992) Fields in Vision: Television Sport and Cultural Transformation, Routledge: London

[1] Although not an academic text, Martin Kelner’s book Sit Down and Cheer: A History of Sport on TV (2012) is notable for its combination for archival references and quotations and observations drawn from interviews.

On Writing, Not Writing (and writing again)

I started this blog four and a half years ago. Time flies, eh? Over that time I hope I’ve produced a number of worthwhile, interesting and (perhaps, even) important pieces of writing. I’m delighted that so many people have visited the site, although my stats hardly set the internet ablaze. This is not surprising – a Marxist writing about sport is hardly going to draw the numbers of a page dedicated to porn or cat memes. Yet over the last couple of years I have been writing less and less. Indeed, my output over that time has slipped to such a degree that there are now rumours Theresa May is going to lay me off and sell the site to a Chinese consortium. So what do I do with the blog now?

There was never anything as pathetically managerial as a mission statement but the blog’s premise was simple enough: the intersection of sport and politics was something worth exploring. This in itself was nothing new – others have been doing something similar for a good long while. Still, I felt that I had something to say, even if I wasn’t entirely sure what that was. “How do I know what I think,” asked E.M. Forster, “until I see what I say?”

This personal desire to write was also coupled to a definite political angle. I passionately believe that those of us on the left should have something to say about sport. Millions of working class people play and watch sport so we should be able to offer more than a lazy critique denouncing playful competition as a mirror image of the workings of capitalism. While I’m not arguing for socialists to have a line on half-and-half scarves (they’re wrong) we should, at least, have something to say about sporting issues.

More than that I wanted to produce intelligent and accessible writing about sport. The criticism of Marxism as largely unintelligible to the ‘ordinary’ worker is, like most bullshit, a lie built around a kernel of truth. The left does, at times, feel as though it is speaking to itself with in-house technical jargon and references to long-forgotten texts – but this is nowhere near as bad as one might believe. This blog was an attempt to connect with the sports fan that reads. I am most proud of the fact that this blog has been an open space for anyone on the left to post their thoughts on sport.

Yet I have always found writing incredibly hard. Even the most basic pieces seem to consume an inordinate amount of time and leave me emotionally drained. The available space required to write – both mentally and physically – has diminished. Unable to respond quickly to the big story of the day, and without the headspace required for longer pieces, the blog has dwindled to dormant. Somewhat ironically, given that my impact on ‘the left’ has been just the low side of negligible, the blog had an enormous, unexpected, impact on my life and career. Enough people read my work that I was asked to contribute to books, journals, magazines and a variety of websites. This in turn led to a job teaching the history and sociology of sport at a university in London. Oddly this impacted upon my writing.

Reading and writing are now a means to an end, directed to the production of lectures and slideshows. Add to this the usual slings and arrows, and the birth of my daughter, and one begins to understand why I haven’t blogged since the death of Johann Cruyff. Life, I guess, is what happens when you’re busy making blogging plans.  On the plus-side I now have a skill-set that includes the ability to knock-up a PowerPoint presentation on the train and change a nappy on a park bench.

The less I wrote, the less I found myself wanting to write; the less I wanted to write, the more I doubted my ability to write. This has to change. I find myself wanting to write again. More importantly, I need to write again. Soon I start a PhD with De Montfort University, researching the history of sport on commercial television. Writing regularly is required. Rather than leave this blog dormant there is a change of direction. Instead of starting a new blog, Inside Left will be home to my research and thoughts on that process. While this doesn’t necessarily mean I’ll only post PhD related content, it stands to reason that there will be less in the way of current affairs and politics. And there’ll probably be fewer jokes, which, on reflection, is probably a good thing. Think of it as a strategic repositioning in the climate of post-Brexit uncertainty. Or something.

Apologies, then, for a self-indulgent, self-absorbed posting, though I hope it serves its function. Twenty years ago I asked the jockey-turned-novelist, Dick Francis, for the one tip he would pass on to every aspiring writer. “Know your subject,” he replied. Currently I know more about the frustrations of not writing – and how daunting it is to write again – than anything else. Purpose and habit have to be renewed. As another sportsman, who, like Francis, saw an inexplicable slip clutch defeat from the jaws of victory, once said, “We go again.”