Saturday, May 17, 2008

Jonathan Pearce, A Billion People & Several Sleepless Nights

Sometimes, comments that I have seen on the television or in the papers take lodge in my head, sit there and fester. About three weeks ago, though, a comment made on the television has started to overtake my waking hours, and it's a comment that, in an almost abstract fashion, says about as much as you need to know about the modern game in Britain. I have to say that I don't watch "Match Of The Day" as much as I probably should these days (I normally manage to catch a couple of live matches and "Match Of The Day 2" on Sunday nights) but, three weeks ago, when Chelsea played Manchester United, I thought I should make an exception. I'd been to a match that afternoon and had missed the drama unfolding live, but even I realised that this was quite an important match in terms of deciding the outcome of the Premier League title. So, cue Gary Lineker and his strangely cheap looking shirts, and the "Match Of The Day" studio, which is half-way between the flight deck of the Starship Enterprise and the Duty Free shop on a cross channel ferry. Gary winked conspiratorially and took us over to Jonathan Pearce at Stamford Bridge.

What happened next is what has been troubling me for a few weeks now. To put no fine a point on it, as the players were coming out onto the pitch, Pearce stated that "almost a billion people are watching" the match. Over the next couple of days, I had a look around to see if anyone else had picked up on this statement, but they seemed not to have done. On the Monday after the match, I took the unusual step of buying almost all of the daily papers, but no-one mentioned it. I started to think that maybe he hadn't said it at all. It all ended up in the slightly farcical sight of me frantically downloading that episode of "Match Of The Day", to confirm whether he had said it or not. He had, and I've got the proof. As the players come out onto the pitch at Stamford Bridge, Jonathan Pearce says, "nearly a billion people worldwide are watching this brunch crunch". Leaving aside the linguistic clunkiness of the phrase "brunch crunch" for a moment, this is a statement that really managed to get under my skin, and I'll have a go at explaining why.

The thing is, it's untrue, and it's untrue in several respects. Firstly, in spite of considerable amounts of debate in the letters page of "When Saturday Comes", the BBC still sends its commentators to at least its featured match. It is, therefore, safe to assume that Pearce's commentary was "live" - that's to say, it's what he said as the teams came out onto the pitch. Out of curiosity, how could he conceivably had any clue what the television audience for this match was? Indeed, global television audiences aren't just exceptionally difficult to predict. It's very, very difficult to state even days after the event what the global television audience for something was. For example, the largest ever global television audience for a football match (and, yes, I will be coming back to this) was for the 2006 World Cup Final between France and Italy, which was reported variously as being watched by between 500m and 750m people. The fact of the matter is that no-one knows what the global television audience for that match was.

Secondly, it is clearly an over-exaggerated figure, plucked, it would appear completely from thin air. As I noted above, the highest ever television audience for a live football match was between 500m and 750m, for the 2006 World Cup final. I'm not saying for a second that there is no global demand for the Premier League, and neither am I saying that interest would be slight. However, to suggest that between fifty and one hundred percent more people would be watching this match than World Cup final strikes me as being hyperbole of the first order. I recently read an article on the UEFA website which speculated on a global television audience of "over 100 million" people. Was Jonathan Pearce suggesting that more people are interested in the Premier League than in the Champions League? Nine or ten times more people? I mean, surely all Manchester United and Chelsea supporters know that the Champions League is more important than the Premier League, don't they?

Finally, I scanned the papers on Monday morning, and no-one mentioned the global television viewing audience at all. I'm almost certainly alone in this viewpoint (and I may be slightly old fashioned in this respect), but I do rather feel that football commentators are, ultimately, journalists and, as such, have a duty to at least tell the truth, as opposed to plucking random figures from thin air because they sound impressive. So, a splash of hubris, a dash of hype, and all built on an arbitrary figure that was plucked from thin air and almost certainly bears no relevance to the truth. How apt, for the Premier League.


_f said...

There was an article printed in the Indy in January this year that took a critical eye to the claims that the Arsenal v Man Utd game in October of this season was watched by a billion people. Some figures had been released that said that the biggest TV audience for a sporting event in 2007 was, in fact, the Brazilian GP with 300 million people watching, followed by the CL final with around 250 million. The Super Bowl did really well too. It made the point that FIA, UEFA and the NFL make sure that their product is available free to air, to maximise exposure. The Premier League actually fares very badly, mainly because it's stuck on pay-tv in lots of the world. In China, where it used to draw it's biggest audiences, it's moved from CCTV (the free to air government station) to a cable channel that essentially no-one subscribes to who happened to offer more money. The Spanish league is still available on CCTV, which seems like a very good business move to me.

_f said...

Oh, and I heard Motty mention "500 million people" for the Cup final today, which is a bit optimistic.

The most amazing aspect of the Pearce claim was the fact that it'd need a sixth of the population of the world to be watching. One in six people! For a game that, ultimately, decided nothing!

Allan Brown said...

There is no way that Pearce made this up. Someone from the Premier League will have briefed him; they may well have briefed others who took a more circumspect line, but the figure came up during the 'Super Sunday' earlier in the season and is all part and parcel of the way in which the League reinforces its globalness ahead of its Englishness. This gives the League ammo in its constant battles with its clubs (look how successful we've made the league!), the FA (we're so much more popular then you!), UEFA (and you), FIFA (and you too) and finally, anyone who'd object to playing games abroad. Those antis just don't get globalisation, baby. Never mind the quality, feel the global width.

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