The Football League: Not for free on TV?

Boxing Day 2011, BBC1, Match of the Day followed by the film, ‘The Guardian’. That can’t be right can it? It should be the The Football League Show, shouldn’t it? Of course it should. The Christmas football fixture list is one of the busiest of the season with matches squeezed in to accommodate the various Bank Holiday days. With it being approximately halfway through the season and the number of extra games played in a short time, Christmas can be a pivotal point in a club’s season.

The non-showing of The Football League Show prompted bemused viewers to tweet the show’s presenter, Manish Bhasin. His reply when asked about the unexpected lack of any programme on Boxing Day was, “it’s a budget decision i’m afraid…”. This response was quite shocking. Surely a regular programme, for which the BBC has had to pay rights to transmit, would be budgeted into the overall costs for the whole year. This then started further speculation that The Football League Show had been axed and wouldn’t be appearing again. Bhasin came back onto Twitter to reassure fans about it’s immediate future but left them with doubts about the 2012-13 season, “Not sure where these rumours have come from the FLS has NOT been scrapped! It’s on till May and who knows maybe even longer…” adding afterwards, “I feel your frustration believe me.”

Budget cuts have already been made this season with the cutting of the token woman on the show. Since it began fans where able to email, text or tweet their views through to the show for a chance for it to be read out by Lizzie Greenwood-Hughes or occasionally, Jacqui Oatley. This part of the programme was quietly axed at the start of this season.

So that was Boxing Day and it should have been a one-off, except it wasn’t. On New Year’s Eve, a normal Saturday in footballing terms, once again there was no The Football League Show. Perhaps this could be forgiven as it always runs over past midnight and I’m not sure all stay-at-home New Year’s revellers would’ve appreciated football highlights rather the chimes of Big Ben. So fast forward two days to the cheeky extra New Year’s Day Bank Holiday on Monday, 2nd January. With a full fixture list of 35 games in the Football League there can’t have been any excuse not to put on The Football League Show. Well, it seems that once again the budget won the day and instead after Match of the Day the BBC chose to show another film in the form of ‘Point Break’. A classic, yes, and one of my favourite films, but still it should have been The Football League Show. A further look through the schedule and it revels that The Football League Show isn’t back on until Saturday 14th January. That’s means that the Football League matches played on Saturday 7th January get missed. Understandable maybe because there were no Championship matches and a shortened fixture list in both Leagues One and Two due to the FA Cup.

So what does the BBC have to say about all of this? Apparently, “The Boxing Day and 2 January fixtures are outside our contractual obligations.” Nothing about budget constraints in that statement except it seems the BBC may have got a bit knocked off the original contract or paid extra in previous years to show Football League highlights over Christmas. The BBC spokeswoman went on further to explain, “Many factors come into pay when planning the busy Christmas schedules and we were unable to schedule a programme for New Year’s Eve. To address the shortfall, we will be doing an additional programme later in the season.” This is thought to be on Easter Monday when once again a full Football League fixture list will be played and therefore quite rightly, highlights should be shown.

If the BBC are still committed to The Football League Show for the rest of the season what are their plans for next season? As of yet it nobody seems to know. Sky have already struck a deal for £195m giving them Football League rights for the next three years but nothing has been sorted with any of the free-to-air TV companies. ITV has a full roster of football with rights for the FA Cup, certain England matches and European cup competitions. To bid for Football League rights at the moment would not make any sense. It struggled to find a good time to show it in when they had the highlights before, opting for after the event, morning after slot of 9.25 on a Sunday morning. Channel 5 seems happy enough with it’s Europa League coverage and doesn’t want to add to it.

In terms of contracts for Football League rights there now seems to be two sections – live matches and highlights. Sky have secured a full package of live matches, including the play-offs at the end of the season, Carling Cup and Johnston Paint Trophy matches plus highlights. For the BBC is seems the days of live football have now past as a BBC spokesman confirmed, “Given the current financial climate and the internal strategic review being carried out through Delivering Quality First, we were not in a position to be able to make a competitive bid for the Football League live TV broadcast rights. We look forward to continuing our coverage of the Football League to the end of the 2011-12 season when our contract expires.” The Delivering Quality First is a cost-cutting initiative that has been instructed by the Mark Thompson, the Director General of the BBC. In short BBC Sport have had their rights budget cut by 15%.

Even though The Football League Show always plays second fiddle to Match of the Day and is shown at a time favouring the just-in-from-the-pub crowd and early night insomniacs, even when Match of the Day isn’t on, it still attracts around 2m viewers each week. But with no lucrative advertisers to appeal to is it really worth it? Showing an old film, like what they did over Christmas, may not get the viewers in, but at that time of night do the BBC care or need to justify themselves?

The current deal, which runs from 2009 through to the end of this season, was made in November 2007. The BBC back then were obviously keen to secure the rights by bidding so early. They did so in collaboration with Sky and jointly paid £264m for the privilege to do so. This dwarfed the previous deal which was worth £112.5m. Although Sky have paid £195m for their package it does leave a shortfall for the Football League clubs that benefit from the deals. The Football League Chairman, Greg Clarke is still hopefully about the future it seems, “This has been a challenging climate in which to negotiate television rights, given the state of the economy and the lack of competitive tension in the sports broadcasting market. I am confident that our clubs will take heart from seeing such a significant ongoing investment in their competitions, despite a reduced level of broadcasting income, as it provide financial certainty in uncertain times.”

Greg Clarke may be confident for his clubs but the future of The Football League for free-to-air viewers is looking very bleak.

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