14 years ago the BBC lost cricket coverage to Channel 4 in a move that stunned everyone and in all honesty heralded the end of the BBC being the natural home for many of our top sporting events. The decision to switch coverage away from the BBC caught many off-guard and in the end it did spell the end of cricket as a Free To Air sport. However the move itself was not a bad one as Channel Four showed that when they really want something then they can really go for it.
As a long standing cricket fan this change didn’t mean a lot to me as heck I was only 15 years old. Looking back though I can see how Channel Four really developed the sport for the armchair viewer. The early magazine show was clearly aimed at the younger generation and it was extremely successful. The BBC had covered the sport but had never tried to engage with the next generation of fans. They never tried to keep up with technological advances. They had their core audience and had no desire to grow it. Channel Four saw it differently.
They brought about the snickometer which showed us viewers at home whether a batsman had nicked the ball to the slips. They also brought about the red zone to show if a ball pitched in line on LBW appeals and hawk eye technology to show where a ball would have gone after an LBW appeal. This was all pretty exciting and futuristic stuff compared to what we were used to as fans and I think we can safely say it heightened our enjoyment of the game.
Desktop Richie was also a favourite allowing cricket fans to keep u to date on the scores from the PCs. Basically in the space of a handful of years cricket had gone from a sport that hadn’t moved on technologically at all for what 15 years and having two cameras at either end so you always saw the batter face on to being arguably one of the most modern sports for the TV audience in the world. Quite something when you come to think of the traditions of cricket.
When the deal was announcers Aggers said, “The quality of coverage that everyone in the world, I think, has aspired to as far as the BBC’s cricket coverage is concerned has come to an end at a stroke.” You can safely say he wasn’t a fan but I think it is very clear that Channel Four took the sport to heights that the BBC could only dream of.
Channel Four of course lucked out with the 2005 Ashes and their coverage was not only award winning it was just sensational. An amazing line-up of commentators (which to be fair Sky Sports have pretty much equalled but not bettered) by the end of their coverage saw the likes of Richie Benaud, Geoffrey Boycott, Michael Atherton, Barry Richards, Michael Slater, Ian Smith, Tony Greig, Mark Nicholas and Simon Hughes they had enough distinguished voices to really hit home and have that gravitas.
Sadly by this point they knew – as we all did – that the sport was disappearing to Sky permanently. A new Head of Sport was in place at Channel Four and he was no huge cricket fan unlike his predecessor. Sky spent the big money to bring the sport in full to them knowing it was the largest potential subscriber base behind football. Sky paid over the odds for it knowing that they would pretty much lose money on most of the deal except for the Ashes.
Sky have kicked on with their coverage and some of their features are extremely good. You won’t find me knocking Sky’s coverage (bar Nick Knight – he’s terrible) but there has been no quantum leap in coverage compared to when Channel Four took over the rights.
Since those days Channel Four stole the World Athletics Championships from the BBC and stunk up the joint so bad that the IAAF quickly gave the Beeb back the rights to the 2015 and 2017 events. However Channel Four got universal praise for their Paralympics coverage and have recently taken all the domestic Horse Racing coverage. They had worked hard on Horse Racing for the best part of a quarter of a century and most people will think their coverage is just as good as the Beeb’s and Clare Balding is even fronting it.
That decision though by the ECB 14 years ago today didn’t just change what channel we watched cricket on but it also signalled the end of the BBC being able to sit firmly on their hands in the belief that they would always get all the live sport they wanted. I know they lost Formula One to ITV two years before but the BBC never really cared about the sport. The cricket was the first time it had truly been stunned for live sport and ever since it has had to work far harder to keep what it has and develop not only the coverage but the sport itself and for that we should be incredibly thankful to Channel Four for.
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