Media headhunter’s view on Sky & Public Serving Broadcasting

I am writing this at 9.15pm on a Monday night simply to avoid the agony of watching Andy Murray in the US Open final on Sky. Not because I dislike Murray: I am one of his most ardent supporters. But I can’t bear the tension. Let me know how it goes.

Instead, I am listening to Test Match Special while England play South Africa in the second T20 international. It’s been cut to nine overs apiece, so I haven’t got long. This after watching coverage of the Olympic parade through the centre of London on BBC1; and following on from Channel 4’s coverage of the Paralympics, which finished yesterday.

A glut of sports, then. But one thing strikes me – the excellence of the coverage across all channels. With the single exception of C4’s coverage of the Paralympic marathon (no cameras outside the Mall? Really?) it has been superb. And the model is Reith’s prescription for the BBC: to inform, educate, and entertain.

Of course, we expect this from the BBC and C4: public service broadcasting (PSB) is a constitutional commitment for both organisations. But the critics of Sky give it little credit for the innovations that have helped improve sports coverage across all channels – and, in this media headhunter’s view, have also fulfilled the remit of public service.

According to Ofcom’s website, PSB is “refers to TV programmes that are broadcast for the public benefit rather than for purely commercial purposes. These programmes include local news coverage, arts programmes and religious broadcasts.” It is odd that their definition doesn’t include sport – given that some events are defined by Parliament as being ring-fenced for terrestrial channels only – and it begs the question what happens to these rules now that Sky Arts (a ‘purely commercial’ channel) is thriving.

Of course, Ofcom’s definition is full of holes: Reith’s definition was much more precise. If a programme seeks to inform and educate as well as entertain, it is serving the public interest. So, in the run-up to Murray’s match, Mark Petchey’s excellent analysis of why Djokovic would suffer more in the blustery conditions was in the finest of PSB traditions.

It is the formula that Sky has applied throughout its stewardship of sport in the UK. And it has a massive knock on effect: Channel 4’s cricket coverage owed a lot to Sky, as does BBC’s introduction of new technology on MOTD. Until Sky, there was very little technical analysis of players, tactics, and technique. Any programme without it now looks lame: and this is invaluable material for young players, amateur coaches, and spectators.

Almost certainly, this need to explain in simple terms the complexity of sport led to the standout innovation of Channel 4’s coverage of the Paralympics: LEXI. Sky’s multi-channel approach – and digital bandwidth – was also the model for the BBC’s 28 channels of Olympic sport. Sky’s capture of Formula One will doubtless lead to further innovations in rival broadcasters.

When I was growing up, traditional PSB broadcasters felt they had fulfilled their remit simply by showing the FA cup or the Wimbledon final. It was great to see, of course, but we didn’t learn a great deal.

A perceived tenet of PSB is that it must be universally available. But without the challenge that commercial, non-terrestrial, channels have presented, sport would have been poorly served. The public would have been informed, and sometimes entertained, but not educated.