Terry Duffelen
Thu 19 February 2009

Gioco del giorno

Some People Are On The Pitch speculates wildly about the return of live Italian football to UK TV.

The ratings are in and the Milan Derby, screened on BBC3, attracted roughly 700,000 viewers, which is not bad at all for a digital channel.

For those of you based outside the UK, Serie A has been off the air here in Blighty since Five dropped its coverage last season. So when the BBC announced their decision to screen Inter v Milan last week on their digital channel BBC3, speculation grew on the various Italian football forums as to whether this was a prelude to more regular coverage.

The reasons for broadcasting last Sunday’s game are fairly apparent. Presumably the Beckham Factor was the principle reason behind the decision to give Serie A another chance. However, there is plenty on offer for fans of good football so it’s possible that somewhere in the back of the programme controllers' minds, they may look to screen more games this season.

Continued coverage must also depend of whether 'Golden Balls' stays at Milan. When Channel 4 started to screen Serie A back in the 90’s it was on the back of one man: Paul Gascoigne. Of course back then the Premier League had just started and the Italian League was the best in the world. Nowadays, Serie A is blighted by in-stadium hooliganism, atrocious TV coverage and an outdated image here in the UK of being boring and defensive (an image propagated, in my opinion, by large sections of the pro-Premier League English media).

However, fans of the Italian game would argue that the reports on hooliganism are overplayed (and a touch hypocritical coming from the English) and that the TV coverage for the evening games is much better than the afternoon games which Five covered last year. As for the game being boring, on the evidence of last weekend, that simply isn’t true.

Many Serie A fans argue that if a broadcaster screened the Saturday or Sunday evening games, they would be screening the top games with the best coverage. While there is great merit in this argument, there are some obstacles to the return of Serie A to our screens:

Firstly, the ratings. Screening a Milan game with Beckham in it is bound to attract an audience of some description in England but even 700,000 is not sustainable for mainstream free-to-air channels like Five, Channel Four and ITV. These channels do have smaller digital stations but their respective acquisitions budgets will be tiny. The cost of carrying these games is probably too high for the likes of E4, FIVER and ITV4 given the ratings return even if Beckham played every week (which he wouldn’t).

Secondly, dedicated sports channels are covered for live weekend football in the evenings. Sky have been all about the La Liga for years now. Setanta used to cover Serie A and were in for it again, according to James Richardson, however the broadcaster couldn’t agree a price (apparently).

Thirdly, there’s a global recession going on and broadcasters are affected just like everyone else. It’s unlikely that they are going to take a punt on a League that keeps getting dropped.

What Serie A needs is for a broadcaster to believe in the league, invest in the league and give the league time to bed in with a new audience. Said broadcaster shouldn’t be governed by the rigours of the commercial TV market and should be able to afford to take the risk that the league may not pay off immediately. Ideally this broadcaster will not be commercially funded. Ideally it should be the BBC.

Hopefully, the ratings will persuade the Beeb to give Serie A another crack by screening another game. Perhaps they’ll screen another big match involving Milan followed by a non-Beckham game, ideally the Derbi D’Italia. If people are still watching, then hopefully that will be enough for the Beeb to sign a regular deal next season, assuming they can justify the licence fee expenditure.

Of course if Becks finds himself on a one way trip to LA next month, then the likelihood of seeing Serie A back on our screens would be significantly reduced. That’s why UK based Italian football fans had better hope a deal can be done lest they become condemned to watching dodgy feeds on Justin.tv for the foreseeable future.

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