Thursday, January 27, 2011

Replays from every angle

"Sky Sports is not inherently sexist. It is something that is a leftover from when we started."

Apparently, that was something of an apology, an explanation by Sky Sports' Richard Keys on talkSPORT of why he and fellow Sky football presenter Andy Gray had a less-than enlightened conversation about female assistant referee Sian Massey. The conversation was meant to be off-air, but somehow a recording made its way into the public domain.

As last weekend unfolded, additional evidence surfaced of Gray and Keys demonstrating behaviour that Sky would come to deem "unacceptable". By Monday, Gray had been sacked and by Wednesday, Keys had fallen on his sword, figuratively speaking. You might say "who cares?": after all, this is just a juicy media story - the perfect media story, actually, combining celebrity, sex and salacious scandal. It has, however, unleashed two separate debates. Firstly, the issue of sexism. Ironically, Sky can be credited with the modernisation of televised football and probably football itself.

When, in 1991, Sky successfully bid £474 million for the rights to broadcast the inaugural four seasons of the Premier League, it not only bid way over the top to secure those rights (leaving fellow bidders trailing by some considerable margin), but established a pattern that Rupert Murdoch's media interests would replicate elsewhere. David Hill, the ebullient Aussie who masterminded the Sky bid for the Premier League, went on to do the same for Murdoch in the US, where he was the architect of Fox Sports hijacking NFL American Football coverage from the CBS network using the exact same tactic.

Sky brought a brash new approach to live football coverage, turning its Sunday afternoon broadcasts into "destination TV", and introducing another American institution, Monday Night Football, to British audiences. Keys - a refugee from TV-am - and the ex-Everton and Scotland forward Gray were installed as the faces of Sky's football coverage, presenting a more laddish appeal than the BBC or ITV style, and clearly targeting Bloke At Home or Blokes Down The Pub.

When the Premier League rights came up for renewal a few seasons later, Sky - once again - pitched up a whopping bid to retain them, somewhere in the region of £700 million. Move on to the next renewal, and their [successful] bid exceeded £1 billion. With each successful bid, Sky consolidated its influence over the Premier League. The notion of football matches kicking off at 3pm on a Saturday or 7.45 on a Wednesday evening disappeared for good, as the broadcast schedule started to dictate the fixture list.

Money talks, clearly, and by now you'll be making the connection between Sky's dominance of football coverage, the money it has been prepared to pay for it, and the money sloshing around the Premier League itself. All those mansions in Cheshire and Surrey, WAG holidays and the parade of blingmobiles parked outside club training grounds have been funded largely through television revenue.

Sky not only revolutionised football financially, but also the football debate. It innovated where rivals like the BBC and ITV had not. Sky introduced 13-camera match coverage, generating multiple angles from which to see every goal, every tackle and, significantly, every disputed decision over and over again. This saturation created armchair referees and saloon bar linesmen, unsolicited second opinion and unprecedented pressure on the actual match officials getting every decision right. Barely a weekend goes by today without a referee's judgement being called into question over some disputed penalty, red card or offside decision, all thanks to the greater availability of media.

It's ironic, then, that this week's kerfuffle is the result of unguarded moments being caught on camera and on audio. Neither Keys' or Gray's behaviour comes as a shock to anyone who knows their reputations. A long-standing media rumour suggested that Roger Mellie, Viz comic's foul-mouthed and profoundly misogynist "Man On The Telly" was strongly based on Keys' somewhat 'earthy' vernacular. Gray's iffy history with women has been lengthily documented by the tabloids this week, and I can certainly concur that when I worked at Sky, I regularly witnessed Gray acting the star and in particular, chatting up anyone in a skirt, which must have been hazardous for some of his fellow Scotsmen.

Whatever your view of their behaviour, Keys and Gray's departure has certainly been accelerated by the apparent ready availability of audio and video material of the duo being boorish. Arguably, their behaviour has been no different to anything else witnessed in a pub on a Saturday night, but that doesn't make it any more acceptable for Sky who, as a modern employer and publicly traded company, must maintain a spotless reputation as an organisation of the highest ethical and moral standards, and a positive, inclusive place to work. This, of course, doesn't reflect the fact that Sky has appeared to have an editorial policy of promoting female presenters of the "phwoar" variety for its sports, news and entertainment channels, clearly aimed at appealing to the 18-35 year-old male who represents the bulk of their target advertising audience. That, by the way, is not a sexist comment. Just take a look at Sky's presenter roster.

The issue of whether a woman can be an assistant referee or even the 'man in the middle' (yeah, I know...), shouldn't even be in question. The interchange between Keys and Gray about Sian Massey may have been Neanderthal, and may have been no different from conversations going on in every pub since this issue first surfaced, but it's irrelevant. If Massey is good enough to boss the line, then she's good enough. End of discussion. A match official's chromosome content shouldn't really make any difference (and I'm going to swerve clear of that rabbit hole about men and women in sport in general).

What truly is murky is why this has become such a media storm in the first place. Why so much content has been released to the press, ironically condemning Keys and Gray to trial by video replay. The conspiracy theory doing the rounds is that, with Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation looking to wrest total control of British Sky Broadcasting (despite his dominance, Murdoch has always been a minority shareholder), Sky could do without any reputational diversions. As it is, there have been all sorts of hints and suggestions over David Cameron's relationship with various Murdoch executives, as well as the disastrous way Vince Cable was removed from the process to approve the  takeover.

Knowing the individual reputation of the two presenters involved, it was probably only a matter of time before something like this happened. Television stations - like newspaper offices - are notoriously leaky sieves, and the release of video of Gray being lewd towards a female presenter didn't have to travel far to reach the surface. 

Perhaps Sky were even looking for a reason to change anchors of their football coverage? It's been 18 years since Keys and Gray first came on air, heralded by Simple Minds' Alive And Kicking, and until this week, pulling in £2.3 million a year in salary between them would have made them easy targets for change. As I know from my own experience, when there's a target on your back at Sky, someone will find a reason to pull the trigger. The trouble is that Keys and Gray made that reason just too easy to find.

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