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Frank Cottrell-Boyce on TV

Match of the yesterday

There are some obvious gaps in the autumn schedules this year. The first is the football; the second is the present tense.

First, the football. Since it began in 1964, Match of the Day has defined both Saturday night viewing and soccer on the box. Its basic philosophy was that viewing was a substitute for attendance. It was on late because it assumed that you had spent the afternoon at a 'real' match. It also assumed that you were watching with a crate of ale to hand. Only the belief that the audience was exhausted and half cut could explain the presence of Jimmy Hill on the payroll.

The blunt, austere presentation - the limited camera angles, the Alzheimer commentary, the sheepskin coats and nightmare jumpers, the stoic endurance of weeks of banal, defensive play - meant that nobody could mistake this for entertainment. This was sport. It felt live and newsy. The logical development of this ethos was The Match - the genuinely live Sunday afternoon match. For the first time, football had to follow the slots instead of the other way round. Passive reporting was replaced by active staging of the game around the demands of the medium.

The status and popularity of a number of sports have been enhanced, often to a ludicrous degree, by the attentions of television. Darts, snooker, golf, and bowls had plenty of participants but few spectators. In fact they were largely seen as a way of inducing manges and nerds to group themselves into coach parties and go away for a while. TV transformed these grassroots exercises in temporary social cleansing into popular entertainment.

More recently, American football and sumo wrestling were barely understood here until Channel 4 got hold of them. Kabbadi was unheard of. Yet now it enjoys a huge cult in the highlands and islands of Scotland, an Asian women's game now embraced by men in kilts shouting at each other in the Gallic. I have actually seen it played at a Highland Games.

Soccer, on the other hand, had a huge, well-organised spectator base before TV was invented. It was therefore able to resist the scheduling demands of the medium for a very long time. It remained a weekend event and TV remained a spectator at rather than an arranger of games.

Oddly enough, soccer's resistance to the schedule worked to the benefit of the TV. TV was there with the rest of us, shivering on the sidelines. The broadcast assumed the position of the viewer much as it had on Coronation Day, the First Day of popular TV. The broadcast thus shared the viewer's excitement. This is why you yelled at the screen. TV was absorbed into the event. You could get little TV cameramen for your Subbuteo set.

This will not be the approach favoured by Sky. Sky's football coverage is being produced by David Hill. It was his idea to have acartoon duck waddle across the screen whenever a batsman was bowled for nought on Kerry Packer's Channel 9 cricket coverage. He also changed rugby coverage so that it focused on 'bums not balls', in an attempt to get women viewers. The same approach will no doubt be taken towards football, and it will be interesting to see if the pertness of the player's buttocks becomes an item of discussion on the Kop and in the boardroom.

The big match will take up five hours of Sunday afternoons, including interviews in the changing rooms, baths and other erotic settings. Sky also insists upon a Monday night game, which could be a real disaster for club football. There is no doubt that these will be better, more entertaining programmes than Match of the Day. But they will be just that. Television programmes cut together from football footage, not football itself. The sheer incompetence of Match of the Day made it into something of a different order, a part of the more glorious whole, a fellow guest at the feast. Sky will be more enjoyable but less essential.

In fact, the BBC have signed a deal with Sky so that Match of the Day can still go out. But it won't be the same. For a start there will be competition. ITV is putting a season of Schwarzenegger films up against it. This will produce a crisis of British maleness. For two generations Match of the Day has provided a trouble-free site of father-son bonding. Now there will be oedipal struggles around the remote switch with who knows what repercussions for the future.

At its peak, watching Match of the Day was not a choice but a ritual. It made TV into the nervous system of the national weekend and acted as a weekly dose of what normally only happened during natural disasters and royal weddings. Television hegemony.

The only other programme whose time and format remained so ingrained in the fabric of life itself was Top of the Pops. Like Match of the Day, it was both infuriatingly bad and unquestionably crucial. And now a national poster campaign is comparing it to a stale sandwich and Morrissey has declared that it no longer exists. The degeneration of these two institutions has profound implications for the very nature of television.

Television has always been regarded as the medium of the present tense. Until the invention of the VCR, you could not turn back the page. If you missed a classic TV play or goal, you would not see it again until television decided. TV's own drama form - the soap - is predicated on relentless forward motion.

In a very short period of time, all that has changed. It began, of course, with the VCR. This made TV into a more interactive medium, allowing the viewer to reschedule the evening's entertainment, and, more importantly, not to watch TV at all but to watch movies instead. The old familiar box in the corner could suddenly be filled with very unfamiliar images - driller killers, surf Nazis and Emmanuelle. And later, thanks to the camcorder, with weddings, holidays and spouses humiliating themselves.

The image which had once moved forward as relentlessly as the clock could now be slowed, frozen, reversed and stored. Recently this has had an effect on the broadcasters themselves. Television - which never before looked over its shoulder - has been suddenly paralysed by a sense of its own history. Repeats are no longer afternoon padding but primetime anchorages.

I am not talking now about untarnished classics like Bilko or Star Trek or Eintracht v Real Madrid. Look at Wolfie Smith. What can a comedy about a suburban revolutionary possibly mean to anyone under 40? How can you laugh at stereotypes that don't exist any more? The pleasure of the programme is its quaintness. It's a video horse brass. A look at the list of programmes in production shows repeats turning into remakes. STV is presently shooting a new series of Dr Finlay's Casebook.

Part of the power of TV was its urgency, the sense that what you were seeing might never be seen again. Everything was in the present tense. Now everything seems to be imperfect. Top of the Pops and the weekend football coverage were the only programmes left which it seemed important to view at the moment of broadcast. One of the interesting things about all this is that this huge epistemological change has taken place without you having to buy a new set. The old familiar box houses the strange new outlook.

The most radical transformation of the familiar screen took place last Christmas with the colonisation of Britain by Nintendo and Sega. You can hook Nintendo up to your TV and discover that it contains not merely a past but also - space. As you chase Mario the plumber or Sonic the hedgehog through their sewers and woodlands, electronic landscapes open out in front of you. It is impossible to shake the illusion that these landscapes are 'in there someplace', hidden away inside the box.

Playing it the other day, I remembered that I once believed that Bill and Ben lived inside the TV. I cannot imagine my own children believing any such thing. To me then everything on the screen seemed to have stepped into being at the moment I saw it. My children assume that most of the people they see on TV are dead now. What happens on TV happened yesterday. Nintendo, on the other hand, holds out the promise of undiscovered countries, of levels and ploys that only you have seen, of things that do not happen until you make them happen, of a story in which the next paragraph is not written yet.

Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 48, October 1992

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