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TV Wrap - Amazing tennis and cricket drama shows importance of keeping sport free-to-air

Elsewhere, viewers were annoyed by the Sunday Game. Again.
Jul 15th 2019, 5:00 PM 21,585 26

NOTHING SUMS UP the happy truancy of the summer than the scrolling message: ‘The News will follow the conclusion of…’

Yesterday’s head-spinning, remote-bashing drama gave us two of them. 

Wimbledon 2019 - Day Thirteen - The All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club A forlorn Roger Federer after yesterday's defeat at Wimbledon. Source: Victoria Jones

The BBC told us their news would follow the conclusion of what proved to be the longest men’s singles final in Wimbledon history, while Channel 4’s was delayed because of their coverage of the Cricket World Cup final, a mammoth finale to a competition that has been going on for about 400 days. 

Okay, cricket at Lord’s and tennis on Wimbledon’s lawns are about as classically British as the Queen or a working political ignorance of Northern Ireland, but their stretching into further time slots should strike a chord with the Irish viewer, given that football began for a lot of us with the deferring of Alf.

(Also, England were captained by an Irishman and essentially drew their way to a World Cup – we should be able to relate to that.)

New Zealand v England - ICC World Cup - Final - Lord's Eoin Morgan lifts the World Cup. Source: Nick Potts

The scrolling message is one of the deep pleasures of life.

Firstly, it tells us that the sport to which we have dedicated so much time is important if it is holding in abeyance the intrusion of real life, and there’s a small thrill in knowing the serious stuff in life has been put on hold for a little longer.

The scrolling message, and the sports it responds to, also fall into step with the slower rhythms of the summer’s endless days, in which time seems longer and more elastic, stretching out across the day to tighten our focus on the present and better relegate our background troubles.

Whereas most sports are either fighting against time or contained within it – track and field athletes race against it, rugby and soccer are governed by a set amount of it – tennis and cricket have already beaten time in the sense that they don’t play to an agreed limit.

Bluntly, matches will be over whenever they are over, and thus the news will have to take its sweet time.

Not that this is forever ideal – the double-quick end to the women’s final forced the Beeb into some extreme filler on Saturday, with Sue Barker spending a solid ten minutes pleading that Simona Halep be filmed embracing her mother.

It’s fair to say that it was a bit of anti-climax when it did happen.

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Meanwhile, the men’s doubles final went on slightly too long for poor Woody Harrelson.

The scrolling message is also a staple of the free-to-air broadcast – satellite broadcasters don’t need it, as they have too many complex options to resolve a clash. 

We saw this in evidence on Saturday afternoon, as Sky Sports’ build-up to Roscommon v Tyrone was shunted behind a red button to allow for the dramatic climax to, eh, Fish-o’-mania.

So it is ultimately a reminder of the importance of showing elite sport free-to-air. Sport will always profit from the largest possible audience – it can unlock the genius latent in a select few and brings the rest of us a bit closer together.

As you might expect, most sports’ broad appeal perish behind a paywall.

The exception to the rule seems to be the English Premier League, but a big reason for its continued success is the enduring genius of Match of the Day, arguably the most comprehensive highlights show on television. 

Even the viewing figures for live Premier League are underwhelming – a piece in last week’s Irish Times revealed that Sky Sports last season pulled in more than two million viewers for games on 16 separate occasions.

That was more than they managed for the two previous seasons combined, and for that they had to rely on an enormous marketing machine, outstanding production values, largely excellent coverage and a record-breaking title race involving Liverpool.

Sky – whose audiences for the Cricket World Cup were reported to be hovering below 500,000 people – struck a deal with Channel 4 to show yesterday’s final free-to-air, and the terrestrial audience for yesterday’s final peaked at 4.5 million people.

It might have been more, had it not been for its clashing with the Wimbledon final, which peaked at 9.6 million.

Unfortunately, free-to-air broadcasters cannot always turn to the luxury of the scrolling message, and RTÉ are today being pilloried for squashing Laois and Tipperary into a 150-second report on their flagship GAA highlights show, having shown the game live hours earlier. 

There’s ultimately no deferring The Sunday Game’s ability to annoy people. 

- Originally published at 14.42 

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Gavin Cooney


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