End of an era for TV sport

 

Sports Stadium, the vehicle that launched a thousand careers in Radio Teilifis Eireann, thrust a select group of faces into the public consciousness: 25 years on from the opening broadcast on September 22nd, 1972, and RTE's former flagship of sports coverage had its commission revoked. Last Saturday marked the final instalment for a national institution.

There was to be no wailing, grinding of teeth or maudlin expressions of remorse, the fate of Sports Stadium had been known for three months. Instead, on completion of the last transmission, the passing of the programme was marked by a party in the RTE Sports and Social Club where former presenters mingled with producers, editors and other staff, recalling the halcyon days. Or were they?

Sports Stadium's first presenter, Brendan O'Reilly, recalls some teething problems. "In the early days, it was done very often on a wing and a prayer. You had to be prepared for all kinds of emergencies. I remember on one occasion that we were going to hurling and up came showjumping.

"It was a recorded piece and was supposed to last 15 minutes, but well before the end, we suddenly switched to something else without me being able to say who had won or, in fact, who did anything. I was left there holding the baby.

"You could imagine the showjumping fans sitting at home saying: `The bloody fool, why the hell doesn't he tell us what's happening in the competition?' - and that would make you cringe."

Saturday, December 20th, RTE canteen 8.50 a.m. Stephen Alkin, the editor of Sports Stadium, assistant editor Brian McSharry and production assistant Dave O'Hagan discuss the day's schedule over breakfast. Friday night's National League Premier Division clash between St Patrick's Athletic and Cork City produced such good football that they decide to extend its designated slot on the programme. They have arranged for launch presenter Brendan O'Reilly to host the last show with Tracy Piggott.

O'Reilly recounts the troubles that he endured with poorly-written scripts. "I remember one script that read Shamrock Rovers beat Bohemians 2-0 at Croke Park. I have that still. Another read, Rod Laver beat Rod Laver in the Queensland Open Tennis Championships. That was a last-minute piece pushed in under the door, seconds before the closing credits.

"It's hard to remember others because you had this tendency of blotting episodes like that out of your mind. No one wanted to make mistakes. There was no scope for excuses. You were out there and if you said something stupid, then the viewers were hardly likely to know that it could be the script."

Saturday, December 20th, 9.30 a.m. Bob Duffy edits St Patrick's 3-3 draw with Cork City at Inchicore. It's designated slot is now eight minutes, with Shelbourne game getting two and the Dundalk-Shamrock Rovers match, just 22 seconds. The voice-over, which Alkin himself provides, will be done at a later stage. Motor Rallying must also be edited.

O'Reilly's tenure, 14 years in total as the programme's presenter following a break after nine, guarantees great sporting memories but, ironically, we first discuss his most difficult day at the office, the horror of Hillsborough.

"It was awful, a day that started with a sense of disbelief that grew into one of overwhelming sadness. I wrote a song about it - Liverpool tears go with your fame. I had to exorcise the memories some way and that was it.

"I remember looking at the crowd and seeing the disturbance, thinking that it was hoodlums. Then we started to hear of people being rushed to hospital and finally, the reports that there were deaths. It was horrific to see the body count come in."

Saturday, December 20th, 12.05 p.m. O'Reilly and Piggott have been in for some time, been to make up and completed a photo call for The Irish Times. Scripts have been rewritten and the autocue updated. Alkin rushes to the dubbing booth to do the voice-over on the Pat's game. Nineteen minutes later and it's a quick dash to the production studio and a rehearsal of the opening sequence.

Athletics dominates the conversation as O'Reilly speaks of highlights. "The day that John Treacy won the World Cross Country Championships in 1978 stands out. It was the first time that Ireland had won an athletics event of consequence since Ronnie Delany and before that, Pat O'Callaghan and Bos Tisdall.

"The great Jesse Owens was the first person that I interviewed. I was in Cleveland, competing in the high jump the previous winter, when an official, standing beside the bar, told me after I had knocked six foot four inches a couple of times: `I think your angle is too sharp'.

"Would ye not think of movin' it out a bit. I did and got over. I did not know it at the time, but that was Jesse Owens."

Saturday, December 20th, 12.34 p.m. On air, producer Max Mulvihill issues final instructions, O'Hagan counts down and camera one focuses on O'Reilly. Two minutes later and a pre-recorded scene-setter with Jim Sherwin and Tony Ward in Bologna ends with Piggott telling everyone that there is half an hour to kick-off: its actually an hour, but no one notices. The retrospective piece about the 25 years of Sports Stadium precedes Soccer Stadium.

Peter Collins takes his place alongside the other presenters. Reading from the autocue he ventures that Pat's are the ones wearing the red shorts - it should read shirts. A simple spelling mistake to which Alkin owns up. He typed it, but the error will only be spotted by the anoraks! It annoys him because "it is avoidable."

O'Reilly concedes that Sports Stadium was at its strongest when it enjoyed the rights to the Premiership. Pyhrric victories financially, simply to be seen trying to compete, have taken their toll.

Sky's development of the sports package has completely transformed coverage placing a huge burden on national television stations. Denied a level playing field, financially, there must be an increasing emphasis on innovation, a more strident pursuit of quality. Ultimately, there must be a tangible commitment to try and compete with Rupert Murdoch's global satellite empire.

A public weaned on, or increasingly exposed to, soccer coverage that extends to 14 cameras, that offers insights from every conceivable angle, will not countenance a two-camera operation that offers as much realism and detail as following a game of subbuteo from 20 feet.

Saturday, December 20, 1.30 p.m. The sound quality from Bologna is appalling, CSI, the London Distributors, for the Italy-Ireland international are being called every name under the sun and there are some helpful suggestions as to what they can do when they come looking for their £9,000 fee.

1.52 p.m. Alkin decides to switch to the BBC commentary because the sound quality is so much better until the situation improves. Part of the problem is that the Italians, at whose mercy they are, have given Sheriwn and Ward lapel mikes which are next to useless outside a perfectly still studio environment.

2.05 p.m. Mulvihill is on the phone to John O'Brien in Bologna asking him to put Sherwin on a land line and they will cue his commentary in again.

Sports Stadium's primary executioner, though, has been the live transmission of the major sporting events on satellite channels which has created a more discerning audience. The programme's outdated format, not a recent conclusion, has finally been acknowledged.

The minority sports, which the programme has championed for so many years, finally proved the millstone that dragged the production to the ratings graveyard. People are no longer prepared to accept an hour's badminton from last week's Irish Championships, or 25 minutes rallying from Killarney, or dated productions of that ilk.

RTE have decided to increase their quota of live transmissions. From January 3rd, a live sporting event will be broadcast every Saturday without fail until after the World Cup in July. There will be less than half a dozen Saturdays when there will be no live action on RTE television.

Alkin, who has edited the programme for the past 12 months, is philosophical about its demise. "Change is difficult to accept sometimes, but I have come to accept the situation." Saturday, December 20, 2.25 p.m. Alkin decides to try the designated sound feed once again, but the quality is still horrendous so 14 minutes later, and its back to the land line.

Immediately after the end of the match, John O'Brien collars Pat Whelan for an interview but in keeping with the day's events from Italy, there are further complications.

Tony Ward's voice can be heard over the interview, so the latter is useless. Mulvihill is moved to mutter about "yellow-pack crews" - a reference to the Italians.

3.18 p.m. The satellite link to Bologna crashes, a situation that the production crew are hoping can be remedied, they want interviews for the results slot.

Alkin accepts that "the dead wood had to be cut away and more resources put into the bigger events so that they can be covered more comprehensively. The ratings for Sports Stadium certainly did not justify the time given to it. We'll have to see how the new format does."

Saturday, December 20th, 4.02 p.m. Confirmation that the link to Bologna has definitely gone and there will be no interviews. Alkin orders that the four tries plus replays be used for the results sequence.

The priority now is to ensure that the programme finishes at exactly 16 minutes and 11 seconds past five o'clock. Minor glitches continue to hamper the denouement of the production but as they reach the finish, a festive air is brought to the proceedings.

The presenters don Santa hats and the voice of the racing and soccer results, Brendan Delaney, is finally introduced to the camera - a fitting curtain call. O'Reilly is re-introduced at the end of the programme, but it is Piggott who offers the final word and the credits roll on cue to the music of Those were the days.

Gone forever.