Grandstand finish that fails to excite

BBC TV executives yesterday blew the final whistle on Grandstand – its longest-running sports programme. BEN KENDALL looks at the demise of a Saturday afternoon institution.

It brought us England's World Cup triumph, that famous theme tune and of course the infamous “Colemanballs”. Not to forget Gareth Edwards' celebrated try for the Barbarians against the All Blacks in 1973, Red Rum's Grand National wins and Borg and McEnroe's epic battles on centre court.

Now the show that millions grew up with over 48 years is to come to an end - an end precipitated by the age of multi-channel television, interactive broadcasts, internet coverage and live mobile phone updates.

Announcing that Grandstand will be phased out by 2009, Roger Mosey, BBC director of sport, said: “As a brand it doesn't add as much as we'd like to the reputation of the BBC, and it's seen as being more about our heritage than about the opportunities of the 21st century.”

But perhaps his comments miss the point - perhaps it is not the brand that is the problem, it is the product. To put it another way, perhaps it is not the style that needs examining but the substance.


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Few will question the need to reassess the corporation's sporting portfolio. In recent times commercial channels have won the rights to horseracing, Formula One and Test cricket, meaning a three-hour tiddlywinks special would now seem like a feast of elite sportsmanship to Grandstand viewers.

What they will question, however, is the need to scrap an iconic brand. A brand that brought us the likes of Des Lynam, Frank Bough and David Icke.

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Then, of course, there was David Coleman. He was the face and voice of so many Saturday afternoons.

But he is most fondly remembered for such gaffes as: “And there goes Juantorena down the back straight, opening his legs and showing his class”; “We estimate, and this isn't an estimation, that Greta Waitz is 80 seconds behind”; and “That's the fastest time ever run - but it's not as fast as the world record”.

It was this character and inclusive nature that made Grandstand more than just a sports programme and helped it become part of every sports fanatic's weekend ritual.

Bob Wilson, who presented hundreds of programmes, said it was still “an amazing brand name” and was synonymous with BBC sport. The corporation also had a responsibility to cover “wonderful emerging sports” as well as major events, he added.

To blame technology is to miss the point. The show has always adapted to technological advances and, in many instances, was a pioneer.

Originally football and racing results were displayed on an 8ft high board, changed by a man on a ladder. Then came electronic scores and the groundbreaking, but now compulsory, tele and vidiprinters.

It was also the first sports channel in Britain to broadcast in colour, beaming pictures from the 1968 Mexico Olympics to a captivated audience.

Mr Mosey said the BBC would continue to seek out the best events for its viewers but added: “Sport shouldn't be defined by what's on one television channel on a Saturday after-noon, and we want the freedom to schedule more events where viewers want them.

“We're confident about the future because we have a great portfolio of sports rights. BBC Sport has the television rights to the Olympics in Beijing in 2008 and, best of all, to London 2012.

“We have the [football] World Cups from this year until 2014, alongside major UK sporting landmarks like the FA Cup, Wimbledon, the Grand National and Open Golf.

“But we believe we won't serve our audiences properly unless we're ambitious and also free-thinking about the way the world is changing.”

The question now is what does the future hold for Saturday afternoons? Other than festive holidays and occasions such as the Princess of Wales's funeral, Grandstand has appeared every weekend since 1958, bar one.

In 2000, having lost the rights to screen the FA Cup final to ITV, the BBC experimented with My Fair Lady because there was no other sporting event worth showing. It may have to show a little more imagination than that if it is to find a formula worthy of replacing Grandstand in the hearts of the nation.

PROGRAMME FACTS

t Grandstand viewers in the 1980s were surprised to see a punch-up developing in the studio behind Des Lynam. The BBC switchboard was inundated with calls but callers were then reminded of the date - April Fool's Day.

t Grandstand was responsible for possibly the greatest on-air introduction of all time, though there is no record of who said it: “Welcome to Grandstand - for those of you who haven't got television sets, live commentary is on Radio 2.”

t The Duke of Edinburgh fronted the show for an hour on May 14, 1960 in his capacity as President of the National Playing Fields Association.

t During a power strike in the 1960s, David Coleman had to host the programme from a fire escape due to insufficient lighting.

t In 1964, Coleman was sent to cover the return of the Beatles from their tour to America. On hearing the presenter was on hand to cover their arrival, Paul McCartney was heard to exclaim: “Christ, we must have arrived!”

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