The BBC director general Tony Hall’s plan to save £30m a year by further shaving the sports budget to account for a squeeze in the licence fee does not come as a surprise. But to many it seems like a further whittling of a pretty slender stick.
The rhetoric is familiar and is perhaps best summarised as the “or the puppy gets it” argument. But the BBC must surely be running out of sports to dangle over the edge.
The fact that we are now down to discussing whether the BBC can save a few pence here and there by ditching snooker and darts shows how parlous the situation has become.
For those who remember sitting up late to watch Dennis Taylor beating Steve Davis in 1985, the absence of the world snooker championships from terrestrial TV would seem strange. Since then, both sport and the media have changed beyond measure. But the BBC ignores the power of sport at its peril.
Formula One will almost certainly go. It will be much missed by petrolheads. But it is getting increasingly difficult to make the argument for spending so much money on rights that only tell half the story of the season and often miss key races.
Sky’s comprehensive coverage is there for enthusiasts and the BBC will likely have to make do with a combination of highlights, radio and online coverage.
The BBC’s original bold grab for exclusive rights now looks like a vainglorious attempt to capture past glories, based on the rationale that it needed to chase young male viewers. It might have been better off saving that cash for battles to come.
It is understood that recent moves to give up half of the Six Nations and get rid of Open golf after decades of unbroken coverage have already gone a long way to saving the £30m required.
Still, in the past decade, the BBC has given up on half of the Six Nations (now shared with ITV), England football internationals, Open golf, all televised cricket and a host of other rights.
Looking at its core portfolio, the cupboard is still far from bare. Olympics, World Cups, European Championships, Wimbledon, half of the Six Nations (albeit few of England’s matches), the FA Cup – all are tied down on long-term deals.
But, aside from the evergreen and ever popular Match of the Day, they are in the main big “event” broadcasts. Increasingly, the BBC is giving up on televised sport as part of its day to day offering.
Given that, it would be a big shock if the BBC wasn’t still in the market for the Olympics as part of a sub-licensing deal with Discovery, which paid a jaw dropping £1bn for pan-European rights – a deal that kicks in from 2022 onwards in the UK.
But the fact that the BBC has now lost control of the destiny of those rights will make it that much harder to market and broadcast the Olympics as an all-singing, all-dancing “one BBC” event in the same way as London 2012 was.
The event isn’t really attractive to ITV for all sorts of reasons – not least the fact it doesn’t really lend itself to endless commercial breaks and eats up a lot of airtime. The biggest threat to the BBC may come from Discovery itself if it comes up with a way to show the Games free to air and foregoes the sublicensing income from the BBC.
We shouldn’t get carried away here. If darts or snooker is no longer on the BBC but instead broadcast on Eurosport or Sky, it’s not quite the equivalent of the ravens leaving the Tower. Civilisations will not fall. But bit by bit the case for the licence fee, for a BBC that not only provides those big national moments but also the stuff that is the warp and weft of everyday life and conversation, a BBC that is for everyone, will also be whittled away.
Athletics is a case in point. It is a sport that has engineered its own downfall in many ways – badly run and badly governed at a global level and now sinking in a swamp of corruption and doping allegations.
But it is also just the sort of sport that the BBC should be cherishing and trying to build an audience for. Likewise, it is madness that in the decade since the England and Wales Cricket Board pulled up stumps and headed for Sky (each side blaming the other) no serious attempt has been brought to bring cricket back to BBC television in some form. Perhaps the latest round of future gazing over a new domestic Twenty20 competition could provide renewed hope.
As an aside, the BBC has never really grasped the nettle when it comes to innovatively covering minority sport online, or encouraging participation. What better case for public service broadcasting and the licence fee could there be?
So while the cuts are understandable, my one question would be: why always sport? In the arts, in drama, in documentaries, in current affairs there are always plenty of people ready to stand up internally and externally to say why it matters beyond audience figures or hard-to-reach demographics.
But away from BBC Sport’s impressive new home in Salford, it is too often seen by some in London as something a bit downmarket, a bit populist, a bit expendable. In many ways it provides an easy way out – it is one area where the market does demonstrably provide. But just because a decision is easy does not mean it is right.
Hall professes to be a sports fan and made all the right noises when the BBC recaptured the rights to the FA Cup, shared with BT Sport, a couple of years ago.
The director of sport, Barbara Slater, is a tough, smart operator. But sport has lacked a heavyweight champion in the BBC’s byzantine corridors of power for some time.
In the circumstances, Slater and the head of TV sport, Philip Bernie, have boxed clever. By collaborating with BT Sport here or ITV there they have managed to retain sports that would have otherwise joined the growing list of departees.
They have been helped by a new age of enlightenment among some rights owners – the Six Nations, the FA and the All England Club among them – where the penny has finally dropped that exposure is as important as income. It is oft-noted that not a single Premier League match has ever been shown on terrestrial TV and yet it is all pervasive and hugely lucrative. But it is the exception that proves the rule. For other sports, cricket being the best example, the downside of lots of lucre has been a gradually diminishing place in the national conversation. On the flipside, the revival of the FA Cup – particularly in the early rounds – shows what is possible.
The sports broadcasting landscape has shifted massively in the past decade. Millions more people now feel comfortable paying handsomely to be super served with 24/7 sport from all angles. There are more shades of grey – if you don’t want to shell out all year round, you can dip in and out with Now TV or take BT Sport as part of your broadband package.
Anyone looking at the numbers can see the BBC has to make tough choices. But to always be putting sport near the front of the queue when it comes to looking for savings seems shortsighted.
Ever since Wimbledon was first shown in 1937, sport has been a central part of the BBC’s story and its relationship with its viewers and listeners. It has provided some of the corporation’s most memorable moments – and it is in those moments that the bond between licence fee payer and broadcaster is formed. Hall would forget that at his peril.