Pundits too cosy on Gabby’s sofa

TV review by Steven Downes

Just what is Inside Sport for?

The BBC programme returned for a new series earlier this month, its titles revamped and music changed but more marginalised and minimised, shunted to a graveyard, post-11pm slot on a Monday night, and barely lasting 30 minutes.

Perhaps the biggest change under new programme editor Alastair McIntyre has been the elbowing aside of journalists Steve Bunce and Des Kelly, plus that oddball who once worked on the Daily Sport, to be replaced with standard-issue BBC ex-pro pundits.

This, McIntyre says in justification, is in order to “freshen up” the programme. So, who is on the sofa with Gabby Logan in Week 1? None other than Alan Hansen. This Monday, we had professional Scouser John Parrott. Given the lateness of the hour of transmission, these are changes presumably sponsored by the national anti-insomnia league.

One of the reasons that shows like the SJA’s Sports Programme of the Year, Sports Week on Radio 5, and Sky’s Sunday Supplement, tend to be livelier than the run-of-the-mill, old pals’ acts of broadcast sports punditry, has been the sparky input of the likes of Martin Samuel, Paddy Barclay and Kevin Mitchell.

And it was in this respect that Inside Sport did sometimes offer something a little fresher. The use of sports journalists who were prepared, at least occasionally, to be critical of sports stars, or to step over the broadcaster’s party line with certain sports, despite careful BBC considerations about television rights, was one of the few things that Inside Sport had going for it in the earlier series.

The absence of Kelly, Bunce and Tony Livesey (for it is he) has been noticed by the viewers, who have complained long and hard on the BBC’s own blogs, even though these often carry all the sanitised sincerity of a Gordon Brown apology.

Among the more recent comments have been:

“The replacement of Steve & Des is nothing but a joke. They did a great job of making the show seem real – now it just seems like yet another talking shop.”

“The journalists did offer something different – and arguably can analyse things much more objectively too.”

“Sorry … the show lacked something this week. It was all a little too cosy… Please have at least one journalist each week to add some weight to the discussions.”

“I fail to see why it still is called ‘Inside’ Sport. The Inside bit, I thought originally, was meant for the programme to be investigative and perhaps a bit controversial, where live sports broadcasts couldn’t be. And when the programme started it came out with some good stories. I can remember Matthew Pinsent doing some good investigations into things like Chinese training of their young Olympians and Dwain Chambers’ drug taking. These were good programmes and having jounalists in the studio allowed serious and honest opinions on these controversial issues.”

Also missing from the new series is the review of the back pages and Premier League football highlights. So now, in the shortened format, Gabby Logan’s highly stylised, pre-recorded interviews are almost all the programme has to offer, making it even more of a “vehicle” for this expensively hired talent.

Logan’s interview technique divides opinion – and over more than whether or not one should use a seatbelt when seated in the back of a moving vehicle.

Inside Sport this series has not been must-see TV. Week 1’s brief feature on the world’s richest sports stars was derivative (they did at least admit that their research depended entirely on thumbing the pages of Sports Illustrated), predictable and as lame as Tiger Woods before his knee op. As the programme’s viewers have complained, the interview with Gary Neville and Ryan Giggs would have sat comfortably on Football Focus.

This week, ahead of the snooker world championships, the set-piece interview was with a player who has not even qualified for the Crucible. Logan interrogated Jimmy White by asking him about his “genius” and probing why “people love Jimmy White”. Did someone say “cosy”? Paxman she definitely is not.

Editor McIntyre writes that, “Finding the right mix is always tricky… to me the guests really need to add to the films and the features, otherwise you could easily produce this programme a la Panorama“.

This is a curious dismissal: given the flagship news programme’s successful investigative exposes on football, both dodgy transfers and FIFA corruption, and Olympic bungs, some would consider it a bit of a breakthrough were BBC Sport ever to produce a programme half as successful as Panorama.

Steven Downes is a past winner of the Royal Television Society award for sports news.

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