Originally published on Football Italiano in August 2008
It has been some sixteen and a half years since Serie A football first graced our television screens in the UK – a decent shelf life for quite a niche product. The footballing landscape has changed dramatically since James Richardson and Co first appeared on our screens, and Italian football has not lived up to the test of time in recent years.
If we go back to that first match broadcast on Channel 4 in 1992 – a thrilling 3-3 draw between Sampdoria and Lazio – we can see why the Serie A rights were an attractive combination to broadcast on UK screens. Channel 4’s Football Italia cleverly found a profitable gap in the market that was created and growing due a number of factors.
Firstly, Sky captured national TV broadcasting rights to the English First Division, taking top flight football off terrestrial TV amidst increasing speculation that a lucrative breakaway super league (originally the Premiership, now the Premier League) was going to form. Whilst Sky’s coverage of English football may have improved access to, and people’s knowledge of, the English game, when the idea of football being broadcast on a subscription based channel initially started, it took top flight football away from the masses.
Paul Gascoigne’s transfer from Tottenham to Lazio that season also raised the profile of the Italian league in English eyes and captured the interest of British fans curious to see how one of the nation’s greatest players at the time would fair in Italy. Although the original transfer of £8m had been due to be completed a season earlier, Lazio were forced to wait when Gazza injured his cruciate knee ligament in the 1991 FA Cup final. This allowed Lazio to negotiate and cut the transfer fee in half by the time Gazza was fit enough to make the move abroad. Despite his injury and the delay of the transfer it was still a massive signing that season as many people thought that he could of the very few British players since John Charles to make a big impact in Serie A.
The British public wanted to watch football on terrestrial TV like they had been doing so before Sky took exclusive domestic league coverage to the satellite audience and Channel 4 cleverly saw that football as a product was in demand, regardless of the teams or leagues on show. Gazza’s move to Lazio raised the awareness of Serie A in the public’s eye just enough to match the two together. All that was needed was confirmation that Football Italia could fill the void left on terrestrial TV created by Sky. Channel 4’s Welsh brother S4C had found small scale success with a European football programme called “Scorio” and although Channel 4 had tuned down the chance to broadcast the programme themselves, its popularity led to development of Football Italia.
In 1992, Serie A was outright the best league in Europe with some of world’s biggest names plying their trade across the peninsula and Italy’s sides dominating the Champions League and UEFA Cup. Football Italia’s coverage brought awareness and coverage of Serie A to our terrestrial screens, in the process creating a whole new generation of British-based Calcio lovers. With limited competition on the Sunday afternoon slot, the show pulled in 3m viewers for it’s first live match broadcast.
However, as mentioned earlier, a lot has changed since 1992. Back then, the Premiership was still a concept and Sky was unavailable to the masses. Spin on to the 21st century and both Sky and their league have rocketed with success. The corporation has moved on from the niche broadcasting service it had started out as, becoming cheaper over time and more widely available (to the point now where it has become the norm – a powerful, mass-market media outlet). By reinvesting profits back into the English game through the television rights and increasing the profile of the English League, it allowed domestic clubs the chance to grow in wealth and stature, eventually able to compete with Spain’s La Liga and – crucially – Italy’s Serie A, in attracting better players, coaches, fans and television audiences. Sky caused the balance of power to shift on a global scale. The English Premier League is now one of the most high profile and revered leagues in the world. As Sky and digital TV became a centre-point in a majority of households and pubs across the country, we reach the point today where top-flight football is available to the masses once again.
Meanwhile, over in Italy and coupled with this shift in demand for the Premier League, we have seen Serie A rocked time and again by scandal. Channel 4 had pulled the plug on Football Italia after a decade due to falling audiences and Italian football had seemingly left television for what many had thought would be forever. British Eurosport took up the rights from the middle of the 2002/03 season after Channel 4’s abandonment, but they too soon stopped showing Italian Football and it was only a joint deal between Bravo and Setanta Sports that was keeping Calcio alive in the UK. However, poor viewing figures on Bravo – which some people attribute to the outcome of the 2006 Calciopoli scandal and subsequent relegation of the league’s most decorated team Juventus – saw the satellite channel terminate their broadcast deal in December 2006.
As many UK-based Serie A fans will know, the 2007/08 season saw Italian football return to terrestrial screens once again as Five won the rights to broadcast live games, in the process rebranding Football Italia as Football Italiano. Sadly though, and despite the final broadcast of the season suggesting that the show would indeed return late summer ready for the upcoming 2008/09 Scudetto championship, Five’s website for the show posted this message on 27 June:
“Unfortunately it is now unlikely that Five will be continuing their Football Italiano television coverage of Serie A for the 2008/09 season. As a result, this website will now be suspended until further notice. On behalf of all the team here at Football Italiano I would like thank you for your support over the last year.”
To date, no offical reason was given as to why the rights were not renewed when it appeared the option was there to do so and given no other broadcaster had stepped in to pick up the rights. From past events a clear pattern has emerged and, despite the early success on Channel 4, the development and subsequent growth of the Premier League has seen viewing figures of the Italian game struggle to compete long term. As numbers slowly dwindled, Channel 4’s advertising revenue would have done so too, forcing the company’s hand in dropping Football Italia from their line up – it could no longer attract the audience it needed to in order to justify the terrestrial broadcasting space. Having become more of a cult show, it’s future was inevitably on satellite and subscription channels where the pressures of advertising revenue were off-set. When Five tried to bring the show back to the terrestrial world they were seeking a return to past days, hoping the high numbers of viewers would return too.
However the problem with Football Italia/Italiano since leaving Channel 4 is that the owners of the rights have not had the resources to, or have failed to promote the format in the right way. There is an argument to say that the changes discussed earlier mean that you can’t keep throwing resources at the format, that there is no place for Italian football on UK screens and that it can’t attract the size of audience it needs to in order to become a success. However, look at the growth in interest in the Spanish game in recent years thanks to Sky and their Revista La Liga show and live Spanish league games. Sky have been in the same boat as Channel 4, Eurosport, Five etc in the past, but have succeeded in generating the right level of continued interest in the leagues they have the rights to. Due to the promotional coverage their games and highlights shows now receive, peoples awareness and interest in La Liga is now at a point where Serie A is seen as inferior to both the English and Spanish domestic leagues. Sky’s example shows that broadcasting and marketing a foreign league can be done.
With Channel 4, Setanta, Bravo, Eurosport and Five all dropping the rights in recent years the figures do not add up for any potential party to bring Italian Football back to the UK. All have fallen in the light of stronger competition, leaving Sky as perhaps the only broadcasting company with the resources and connections in Italy to make the league a real success. However, with live games likely to clash with current Premier League matches (Italy’s main weekly round of fixtures usually take place on Sunday afternoons), it is very unlikely that we will see Sky bid for the rights in the forthseeable future.
Another stumbling block at the minute is the complicated way in which the Broadcast rights are sold and the perceived value of the rights and equality they provide to the league. After 2010, when the sale of the rights returns to a more traditional package product owned by the league rather than the individual clubs, we may see some interest from British broadcasters again, but unfortunately it would seem that the UK missed the boat for the 2008/09 season. Sky are unlikely to see much value in Serie A and the rising cost of the rights will effectively eliminate other parties – perhaps with the exception of Setanta who’s operations in Australia own the rights which could see the future possibility of a joint UK/Australia bid for the rights and broadcast the same show to both countries – an option that would reduce production costs.
All this evidence suggests that Calcio may never return to our screens in the traditional sense. We must remember that time has moved on and we must move on with it. The way we watch and can access TV now is changing and with the future of media advertising seemingly in the online world, we must embrace the potential of online broadcasting. Subscription and pay-per-view sites such as SerieA.tv will, for now at least, be the commercial future home of Italian Football broadcast outside of Italy. Should the format prove successful, expect many other leagues to follow their example.