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Friday, 16 August 2013

The Premier League's REAL big two

'Jake f*cking WHO?'
It might feel a bit 'same shit, different year', but there are changes afoot for the ways in which pundits will be boring you to tears this season. And it might even be an improvement. Dan Clark looks forward to the return of the Premier League.

The scene is set: ‘Here we go, here we go, here we go’ will be heard from the comfort of my living room couch this weekend as the sun rises on yet another glorious new Premier League season. And of course this new 24/7/nine-month festival of football will all be delivered in crisp high definition with every angle covered, the best up-to-the-minute reaction and all the talking points covered. At least that’s the Sky Sports version.

But just as this season there is a wind of change blowing through the clubs at the summit of the ‘best league in the world’, so is there an equally intriguing landscape shift taking place among those with the great power and responsibility to broadcast it. And here, in the very best traditions of that hallowed art form, is the trailer (imagery included).

*DRUMS* BT Sport has emerged *slow-mo players out of the tunnel* to take on the Sky Sports powerhouse in what looks to be a titanic clash for long-term dominance *explosion behind the Premier League trophy*. Sky Sports for the past two decades has had it all its own way *footage of goal-after goal-after goal-after goal*: like the media equivalent of what would have been if the Third Reich had been unopposed in its unstoppable rise to power *tanks; Hitler at a rally (obviously)*. Rivals have come and gone with bloody noses *horror challenge by Lee Cattermole/Ben Thatcher*, such as Setanta and ESPN, but all the while, Sky Sports grip has tightened uncompromisingly *Lee Bowyer grabs Keiron Dyer*. But now, an authentic challenger in BT has sailed onto the horizon *apocalyptic stormy seas, lightning, Jamie Redknapp on a ship dressed like Russell Crowe in Master and Commander*, and if the changes in Sky Sports line-up and content are anything to go by, they are genuinely concerned *fade to black. Fade in white text* ‘Don’t miss a moment’. Wow.

Since its launch night two weeks ago, I’ve been keeping a curious, close eye on what BT Sport is going to look like. And the early results are promising. While Sky Sports likes to present itself as the polished performer, the serious individual with expert analysis and exclusive access, BT Sport is unapologetically positioning itself as a bit of a lad, with a no ties, unpredictable, loose collar delivery. And it works.

Jake Humphrey has held himself impressively so far, while the pundit line up featuring the likes of Michael Owen, David James and Owen Hargreaves complement the laid back vibe. You trust this mob to manage without an autocue (YOU, LINEKER). Whereas ESPN always gave the uneasy impression of broadcasting from a cupboard box masquerading as a studio, and Setanta the air of a teenager copulating with themselves in their bedroom with footsteps already audible on the stairs, BT’s site at the Olympic media centre gives the impression of authenticity and a grand scale. There’s a feeling of longevity here.

With ESPN and Setanta, you couldn’t escape the feeling they were imposters who had got lucky with a couple of two-bob Premier League games to show a couple of times a year. BT, on the other hand, has got 18 of the hallowed ‘first picks’, something Sky Sports has had a monopoly on since the Premier League’s inception, and perhaps an explanation of why they’re sitting up and taking note after having it all their own way for so long.

There’s also the critical factor of BT already offering an established platform in the UK via their phone and internet services. So, unlike the motley crews of ESPN and Setanta, BT already boasts a dominant profile ‘over here’. Their reach extends to millions of UK households already subscribing through their other products – who get BT Sport for free (for now). It’s not going to slip away quietly into the night.

And Sky Sports has picked up on this. You could even say they feel threatened. To counter attack the BT Blitzkreig, Sky have broadened their football coverage even further with new programming such as the Saturday Night team talk, an admittedly oddly-named 30-minute preview of the 3pm games at 2.30pm, quite literally featuring Jamie Redknapp. They’ve also introduced the Weekend Warm Up on a Friday night as well as expanding the Super Sunday programme from a 1pm start to 12.30pm. The Saturday Night Football also features a ‘live audience’ who will interact with Redknapp and the presenter.

Sky introduced the live audience idea for their hour-long Premier League preview show, which aired last week. Sadly, it fell flat as a pancake as the panel featuring the likes of Souness, Merson and Redknapp attempted to banter and joke – unfamiliar ground (at least on-air where restrictions on what you can call each other are tighter). Sky Sports is a serious venture though – and the fact they’re trying to adapt reflects the sea change.

Meanwhile, BT aired their preview show last Monday night and it ran double the length of the Sky Sports version at two hours. Like Sky, it also featured a live audience, but unlike Sky, it came across that they were actually meant to be there. The programme flowed effortlessly and for once, every team in the Premier League was given proper discussion as opposed to the usual contenders. That felt genuinely refreshing. The panel – Owen, Steve McManaman, James and Hargreaves – debated engagingly with humour and interestingly, scribbled notes on bits of paper on the studio desk, suggesting a bit more thought and planning than the mob we’ve become familiar with over the last 20 years. A nice little sketch featuring Michael Owen pretending to commentate on his greatest goals whilst in an empty recording studio punctuated the advert breaks well.

There’s a playfulness and creativity here. BT has also unveiled a raft of sport shows such as Life’s a Pitch with Des Kelly and a Danny Baker and Kelly Cates venture to put some meat on their digital bones.

Sky seems to be responding to the content threat with a kind of ‘more is more’ ethos. Gary Neville has been an absolute revelation since being plonked into the Monday Night Football studio. His forthright and intelligent analysis has had rivals at the BBC and ITV wincing into their autocues. Hansen and Lawrenson really do resemble dinosaurs, as we suspected they might, when confronted with the reality that a bit of preparation and cerebral insight REALLY DOES pay off.

So what does Sky decide to do with this winning formula? They parachute Jamie ‘one day he’ll definitely be a manager’ Carragher into the equation in the hope it will be a football analysis dream team, the Chas and Dave of the football broadcast world.

Except, if the Monday night football preview show which aired earlier this week is anything to go by, it might be a case of not just too many chefs, but that one is crap and doesn’t even know how to plug in a microwave. Carragher’s new to be fair but he was, in the words of Alan Brazil ‘erm, struggling.’ When faced with a colossus like Neville and those incessant and raging nuances, Carragher looked decidedly lightweight under the new floodlights of his career as a pundit. Though Sky is attempting to answer the challenge from BT, there may be a few false steps in the quest to stay ahead.

So while there are as yet unwritten dramas, spectacles and a whole load of empty fluff to dissect as we welcome in yet another Premier League season, there is an alternative battle line being drawn and it will be just as fascinating to learn who comes out on top over the next few seasons.

For now, Sky holds the cards with its strength in numbers and choice of games (118 to BT’s 38) but the Champions League broadcast rights will shortly be up for auction. Everything up until now has been a skirmish. But only once bidding for that gets under way will we get a true picture of the threat BT poses over the long term.

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