This is an abridged version of a story told in much greater detail on Simon’s blog Big Match Action. You should really go and read that in full if you enjoy this taster.
Your television options for August 22nd 1964 started, if you were watching BBC1, with “A Change Of Identity”, the third part of Doctor Who‘s eighth serial story “The Reign Of Terror”. That was followed by Juke Box Jury, family western The Travels of Jaimie McPheeters (starring a young Kurt Russell and Charles Bronson), Dr Finlay’s Casebook and Club Night, the latter featuring the sort of variety acts the post-Beatles explosion was about to wipe off the map. The independent upstarts began their evening with Lucky Stars featuring the Dave Clark Five, Kenny Lynch, Dave Berry and many others you’ve never heard of, followed by their own western series Outlaws, the second series of Opportunity Knocks, the 1954 film Green Buddha and what would seem to be the final episode of Peggy Mount sitcom The Larkins. Over on arty BBC2, meanwhile, there was a documentary series on The Great War, an adaptation of Hugh Walpole’s Judith Paris and a Dora Bryan review.
And right in the middle, at 6.30pm, something called Match of the Day.
Semi-professional football had first appeared on the nascent BBC in 1946, but the FA and Football League went to great lengths to protect their intellectual property, seeing the medium’s growing popularity as an outright threat rather than the promise of a new outlet for the emerging game. The longstanding fear had been, and to an extent would be for a good few decades yet, that the ability to watch the big matches from home rather than in person would lead to a mass exodus from grounds. Such fears seemed to be confirmed in 1950 when, at the end of a season which had seen the first post-war fall in total attendances, Arsenal’s Cup final win over Liverpool coincided with a significant drop in crowd numbers at league games that day in London and Birmingham, the two areas BBC transmissions could be received. As a result the 1951 Cup final had only its second half broadcast live while that season’s England v Scotland coverage was scrapped altogether, in both instances due to a full League programme taking place on the same day.
The 1953 Matthews final changed perceptions in all sorts of ways – it was the last time a full League programme took place on the same day as the showpiece event – and after the 1954 World Cup was broadcast the authorities became slightly more amenable to the service. In March 1955 a Football League conference was told by its president Arthur Drewery that the BBC had enquired about televising games but opinion was still divided. Nevertheless Sportsview, launched the previous year, became the first regular programme to feature Football League activity, and in summer of that year the League gave approval for the BBC to broadcast recordings of up to 75 of its games as long as they were shown after 10pm and ran for no longer than five minutes each. No price for the deal was made public but the League did announce that clubs whose games were shown would receive a five guinea facility fee. The first edition of Saturday Sports Special went out on 10th September, Luton Town 2 Newcastle United 0 being the first League game to be seen on television in any form.
Within a fortnight of that groundbreaking moment the BBC found itself with competition. Independent Television launched on 22nd September 1955, to quite some criticism – Lord Reith himself had earlier remarked “somebody introduced smallpox, bubonic plague and the Black Death; somebody is minded now to introduce sponsored broadcasting into this country” – but with clear ambitions, not least to show England and FA Cup matches live to some degree. A few months before its launch minutes for the Football League management committee annual general meeting had noted, much to their opposition, that “a commercial organisation” had offered £1,000 a match to televise games in London.
In early 1956 a League plan into reversing falling attendances had noted with alarm “the growth of television has meant sometimes two matches being televised in one week and during the last two seasons the spectator has shown definite signs of what has been called ‘football indigestion'”. Even so, they were open to listening that summer when the ATV franchise covering London at weekends made a £40,000 offer to the League for the rights to show the second halves of 35 games of local interest live at 6.15pm on Saturday nights. As the management committee mulled over the offer the BBC decided, according to an internal memo by head of sport Peter Dimmock, that “to televise League football every Saturday is not in the best interests either of the sport or of the televising authority”. Subsequently the Midlands’ weekday company ATV added an extra £10,000, topping up with cover of up to £60,000 to cover resultant falling gate receipts and £2,000 as compensation for players having to remain away from home overnight.
Perhaps seeing this as a direct challenge to the cosy status quo, the BBC were stung into making their own offer of twenty Saturday night games and twelve midweek games for a total of £37,000 (it’s unclear whether these were to be live or recorded). The League management committee recommended the clubs accept the ITV offer anyway. The clubs, who would often go their own way in TV deals over the years, voted against it 38 to 10, adding that the whole issue of televising League games live should be deferred indefinitely.
The League were still hesitant about how coverage might affect attendances, hence the stringent limits on how much Sports Special could show; in March 1959 they had even approached the governing bodies of other sports, including horse racing and rugby league, attempting to get them too to prevent their events going out on television against their own product. It was here that the strict regulations on between what times live football could be shown on Saturday afternoons were established and still remain in place.
The commercial channel still saw themselves as being in the stronger position when dealing with the League, as there was the ability to include an advertising campaign as part of any deal. In August 1960 ABC Television, a venture set up to run the Midlands and northern services at weekends by the owners of Pathe News, bit the bullet. At the start of that month it tabled a £142,000 offer for the rights to televised floodlit League matches on Friday and Saturday evenings that whole upcoming season. The agreement contained provision for all League clips to receive a share, appearance fees for players and compensation for any turnstile shortfall. A BBC spokesman claimed they had known for some time about the proposals and had made several representations of their own but had been told the League preferred the independent, advertising-funded option.
The spokesman added surprise that the negotiations had taken place away from the FA and League’s television sub-committee set up to regulate the amount of football televised, and the reported price “seems absurd for the type of matches because it will merely increase the cost of all television football sports fees.” Regardless, the League and ITV reached an agreement on 26 live games, kicking off at 6.50pm, with the last ten minutes of the first half and the whole second half broadcast nationally without interruption, plus up to seven games televised on weekday evenings. After negotiation with the sub-committee acceptance was granted for a £150,000 offer for twenty games.
The first live match in London was planned to be Arsenal v Newcastle United on 17th September, but Arsenal withdrew co-operation in a letter to the League that accused them of unwillingly signing the club up to a “most unconstitutional and frankly alarming (scheme)… the rewards are paltry compared to the losses which are certain to be sustained throughout the game.” Within a week 21 other clubs had expressed support for their stance and criticism of the League, despite League chairman Alan Hardaker’s entreaties that televising the game live would bring the missing millions back to the stands.
Regardless, on 10th September ABC and ATV combined to show the second half of a Division One game between Blackpool and Bolton Wanderers was shown under the title The Big Game, Peter Wright being commentator on the historic event. Unfortunately it was a dull affair, won 1-0 by the visitors, in front of a lower than expected crowd of 17,166. Blackpool secretary Richard Seed charitably put that down to “Bolton fans not wanting to get caught up in the illuminations traffic”, but that was enough of a signal for the League to pull the plug on ABC’s plans for the forseeable future. That would remain the only league game to be transmitted live on British television until 1983.
Further arguments led to the first half of the 1961-62 season being wiped clear of Saturday Sports Special but what games did appear live on TV were proving a hit – the second half of Spurs’ win over Benfica in that season’s European Cup semi-final second leg, shown live in most ITV regions, would at 7.4 million homes remain the biggest audience for a match involving club sides for six years. For the following season Tyne Tees and Anglia launched regional highlights programmes, Shoot! and Match of the Week respectively. The former scheduled 25 minutes of highlights on Saturday nights at 11pm, while Match of the Week, which had exclusive rights to thirty League games, varied between Saturday nights around 10.30pm, Sunday afternoons and late Sunday nights seemingly on a whim before finding a permanent home at 10.35pm on Sunday nights. Anglia’s offering was also notable for what TV Times described as “new ground broken. For the first time on television, tactical moves on the field are analysed.” That was achieved by commentator John Camkin and director Bob Gardam (who would later be handpicked by Jimmy Hill to oversee LWT’s The Big Match) using the time before Sunday broadcast to study the match recording in detail using Anglia’s closed circuit television system and cut new commentary into that had recorded at the game.
While ITV were generally content to leave regular coverage up to those two regions, the BBC were going through a year of comparatively piecemeal coverage beyond England and Cup finals despite ongoing advances in videotape, editing and multi-camera coverage, Saturday Sports Special now pretty much only existing on FA Cup weekends. The job of getting football back into prime position was left to Brian Cowgill, who had in eight years risen from outside broadcast production assistant to head of sport via producing Sportsview and helping conceptualise its successor Grandstand. On 20th April 1964 the BBC launched its second channel, BBC2 intended as openly more highbrow and eclectic, and Cowgill saw his chance. Invited to pitch a sporting brief to controller Michael Peacock he expressed his desire to see regular football return to Saturday television.
Soon afterwards Cowgill set about trying to convince a still reticent Football League that the product under their jurisdiction needed a shop window. One of his strongest hands was how games could now be shot on videotape rather than directly onto film, allowing for much shorter processing time and making them ready for broadcast far quicker and in greater detail, as well as eliminating the prospect of missing goals while reels were changed. Two videotape machines could be pressed into action, one to record each half so that editing on the first half could begin while the game was still being played in order to get it all on air from less than two hours after the final whistle. It took quite some months to come to an agreement but in the end thirty-six matches per season in a 55 minute evening programme going out no earlier than 6.30pm was agreed on at a cost of £20,000 for one season. The only request made was that the game to be featured should not be made public until well after that day’s games had kicked off, a regulation that lasted into the 1980s.
Three days before the first programme FA secretary Denis Follows threw a sizeable spanner in the works, claiming no such deal had been agreed with him and its details were so different from what they themselves had agreed to, that being thirty minutes of footage not before 9.30pm, that maybe it should have been subject to more stringent talks before being passed by the League. The next day a joint statement admitted that as a contract had been signed it had to be observed, although the BBC would keep an eye on the timing.
And so it came to pass that on 22nd August Radio Times could herald a new programme promising “the best of league football brought to you each Saturday at this time”. A side panel enthused about how “today for the first time soccer fans can watch a feature-length version – as opposed to a potted ‘highlights’ version – of a regular Football League fixture”, while Cowgill promised football could now “fall in line with BBC2 policy by offering ‘depth’ treatment of our most popular sport” as opposed to the Sports Special policy he characterised as “a machine gun succession of goal-goal-goal”. The new channel’s 625-line system allowed for greater scope and clarity, meaning more of the action could be caught and wider angles used to catch more of the passages of play.
Only 20,000 people watched the first broadcast, fewer than were at the match, though the home fans couldn’t have seen it anyway as the potential audience would have to be London-based and be able to receive the new UHF pictures, and Cowgill was of the opinion anyway that to bring regular action back onto television would require a specialist soft launch. Such advances weren’t entirely welcomed even by those who were theoretically benefiting, some clubs still attempting to block any further interest and the League complaining almost from the start that the matches chosen were unrepresentative and biased towards the capital, surely an inherent pitfall given nobody outside London could see the channel until the Midlands BBC2 transmitter was switched on in December. By then BBC Enterprises had sold the coverage to fourteen countries, the OB fees almost by now paying for themselves.
Still, those who could see it were keen, and that first season included a good range of action as it ran every Saturday except for the day of Winston Churchill’s funeral. Champions Manchester United were featured eight times, including their final two fixtures. Under a League agreement three programmes were devoted to Division Two, including both promoted clubs, and one week a Division 4 game between Oxford United and Tranmere Rovers was featured with commentary by Sportsview‘s Frank Bough.
Having gone right through that first season, the start of 1965-66 saw the BBC come up against an immediate roadblock. There was no coverage of the first six weeks as the League and the BBC failed to agree on what would be shown, when and for how much, many clubs fearing the effect on attendances. Match of the Day returned in October only after a £25,000 a year agreement was hammered out, but now limited to after 10pm and 45 minutes long, and then with the League having overriding power about exactly what was shown. At least the channel, and by extension the programme, was still picking up a more widespread audience. A greater than expected demand for UHF sets in the north-west was put down to people wanting to watch football, a demand that led to the show being moved to BBC1 on Sunday afternoons on FA Cup weekends. That summer of 1966 the World Cup gave football in Britain another plateau and MOTD was permanently moved to BBC1 for the start of the season, the first week sending the cameras to Upton Park to see West Ham’s three World Cup heroes… except that the original plans for that week were for Anfield. Contracts were still being agreed on a season by season basis and by the time 1966-67 started Liverpool were one of four teams who had refused to sign up, the others being Everton, Burnley and Bolton. According to Cowgill those clubs had an eye on setting up a breakaway league of their own bound by neither Hardaker nor collective television agreements in favour of ITV-like individual arrangements, but that particular dispute was resolved within months.
As for TV rights, the solution initially agreed on by the BBC and Hardaker, who still held the upper hand with regard to deciding which teams should be shown, was that the programme would just go on without them, and so a £33,000 contract for exclusive Saturday night rights was signed. The clubs eventually gave in, Burnley appearing as early as late September, but it would be the new year before the reigning champions let the cameras and trucks into Anfield. As for the switch, it was later revealed to actually be less out of new audience altruism than BBC controller of programming Huw Wheldon hearing erroneous rumours that ITV were planning to launch a networked football show fronted by Billy Wright. He and Michael Peacock, who having helped launch the show on BBC2 was now controller of BBC1, decided the best way to head them off would be to reluctantly move football from the still restricted range of BBC2. So it switched channels, the audience and scope exponentially grew, and football as a pillar of the entertainment schedules was established.
For the full story of pre-Premier League football on television, read Big Match Action!