RTE give Derry the cold shoulder

 

There are only two things you need to know about the men (and they are invariably men) who control the provision of television sports coverage on this island. One is that in a tight corner money is generally the bottom line. The second is that the only thing that frightens them more than not making money is losing viewers because that translates directly into lost advertising revenue. Any decision in relation to television coverage is invariably guided by one or both of these golden rules of broadcasting.

That is the context in which the see-saw saga over the coverage of last Sunday's All-Ireland hurling quarter final between Galway and Derry should be viewed. The particular way in which it all unraveled as voices of protest were raised increasingly loudly tells us much about the current state of play and parlous relationship between sport and the televisual medium. Much of it is uncomfortable and unedifying for all concerned.

First things first. The eventual result of last Sunday's game at Croke Park is irrelevant. When the final whistle was sounded just after 3.30pm it mattered little whether Galway's margin of victory was one or 21 points. The spurious argument advanced when the initial decision not to televise the match live was announced was that the contest was likely to be so one-sided as to make it unattractive to the great viewing public.

This was merely a diversion, a smoke-screen and an insulting one at that. It is also something that can be exposed with ease by citing a relevant and recent example. When Kilkenny and Wexford won through to the Leinster final earlier in the summer the perception right from the point that the pairing was known was that Kilkenny would win and win comfortably at that.

The gap between the two sides at that time was considered much to wide to bridge and Wexford prepared for the final staring defeat in the face. When, though, did RTE form the view that in light of the mismatch they wouldn't bother showing the game live and might squeeze in some highlights later on Sunday night? It didn't happen.

The parallels can even be widened. Consider applying the logic to any number of other events. Would a World Cup qualifier between the Republic of Ireland and say, Andorra or Luxembourg be considered worthy only of edited highlights because of the perceived inferior quality of the opposition? Was it ever argued that none of Istabraq's races should have been covered because he was winning with such embarrassing ease? Or what about a Rugby World Cup finals game between Ireland and Japan, an encounter that Ireland would be expected to win with considerable ease? Had any of these propositions been advanced by a broadcaster on this island there would have been howls of protest. And rightly so.

It was not even as if this decision was one which had been taken in relation to a game of little or no significance. An All-Ireland hurling quarter final is, in theory at least, the third most important occasion in the game's entire calendar. Much more worthy, for example, that any number of National League finals or, if one wants to extend the argument, that any of the provincial finals. And that includes Munster. To even contemplate treating provincial champions like Derry in such a derisory fashion simply beggars belief.

And the more you look into the whole sorry episode, the less palatable it becomes. There are times when harsh financial realties tie the hands of broadcasters to the extent that difficult decisions have to be made. Quite obviously every event of interest cannot be covered live and beyond that it may not be possible to send full outside broadcast facilities to every Championship or League of Ireland match. In those situations the operation is perhaps based around two or three cameras and the die-hards have to make do with two to three minutes of highlights.

In the main there are few complaints because even the least well educated viewer and consumer will appreciate in broad terms the logistical difficulties that are involved. Indeed, up to last week the Championship coverage north of the border by the BBC and south by RTE was exemplary.

But the first decision in relation to Derry-Galway does not appear to be one motivated by the cost constraint of employing cameramen, a sound crew, producer, reporter and picture editors. Nor was it one governed by the technical problems associated with traveling to a ground somewhere outside Dublin and hiring satellite time or couriers to get the tapes back to base.

The most damning detail of all is that it was already planned to have the the full RTE outside broadcast crew in situ at Croke Park last Sunday to give comprehensive and unstinting coverage to the second quarter-final between Wexford and Limerick. This game had been penciled in for live transmission right from the off and there was never any suggestion that it might fall by the wayside as well.

The only additional element to be factored in was the air-time itself and the revenue from the advertisements was already guaranteed regardless of what was to be shown by RTE instead of the Derry-Galway game.

Is it beyond the bounds of possibilities that the original decision-making process went something like this? The Ulster champions have been the whipping boys of the hurling championship for a decade now and that is not likely to change this year. So why not cut a few corners and save some money, no matter how little, by confining the game to highlights and hope nobody notices.

The only difficulty was that people did notice and quite obviously in considerable numbers because as quickly as you could ask "when's the Championship contract up for renewal?" RTE executed a scheduling somersault and announced it would now deign to provide live pictures of Derry's game in the All-Ireland series of 2001, their first ever as two-in-a-row provincial champions.

But the damage in many quarters had already been done. The clear implication was that at first instance Ulster hurling was considered as inferior and second rate and could be treated as such by broadcasters with scant regard for either the players or their supporters. It was shameful message to send to those who labour to keep the game alive here.