Summer in Australia means Brits packed onto Bondi beach, soaring melanoma rates, an increase in the number of blowflies by a magnitude of ten thousand or so (there are admittedly plenty around already) and cricket on the telly. Ever since Kerry Packer upset the self-interested world that was Australian cricket back in the late 70’s, that has meant cricket on Channel Nine. This year marks the 35th that has seen Channel Nine monopolize television coverage of the sport down under. The first chinks in Nine’s reign have recently begun to appear however, and as we sat down to watch the first Test at the Gabba, we were left wondering, like many others, whether this would be the last time we would be introduced to a summer of cricket by the immaculately presented visage of Richie Benaud and his gang of hangers on.
As we have touched upon previously on this site, Channel Nine have been in deep financial poo for some time now. They recently only barely escaped going into receivership, and even then remain in a precarious position. Even with such bona fide rating hits as “The Nathan Lyon Gardening Hour”, and “Come Dance with Boonie” in their stable, Channel Nine have found themselves outdistanced by some of the more forward thinking stations in the land, who have hit upon the fact that wheeling out celebrities who weren’t even all that popular in their heyday (sometime around the mid 40’s) to present an endless succession of lifestyle and variety programs isn’t exactly the path to ratings success anymore.
Which should sound familiar to anyone who has been subjected to Channel Nine’s cricket coverage anytime during the past twenty years or so. Those in charge might claim that their coverage remains true to traditional values and their viewers’ expectations, but the truth is that Channel Nine’s cricket coverage is positively anchored in the stone age. The same old heads offering the same old boring opinions, year after bloody year. With Cricket Australia’s broadcasting rights up for renewal next March, this summer seemed to promise a shakeup of Nine’s presentation, as they desperately try to stamp on the fingers of their competitors, and prove to the kids that they are still the hippest crew in town. Considering that the current value of the broadcasting rights package stands at about Au$300 million, with the increase in competition Cricket Australia can safely expect the new deal to be worth two or three times as much (by way of comparison, both major football codes in Australia recently sold their broadcasting rights for well over Au$1billion, which is about 13 quid or so). Channel Nine have some convincing to do to prove they are the still the best hands for the job.
The summer began with a great deal of promise. Not only are Australia hosting the world’s best Test team, with a chance of overhauling them if they win the series, but casual interest in the sport has peaked in recent months. One of the very few good news stories over the past year for Channel Nine (other than the fact that they still exist of course) was the ‘Howzat! The Kerry Packer Story’ mini-series. A dramatization of the World Series years, it rated through the roof, and introduced a whole new audience to the game. Nine would have been hoping to build upon that over the course of the Gabba Test. Unfortunately the rubbishness of the Australian bowlers and the intervention of the always wonderful Queensland weather rather undermined their case. It’s hard to convince anyone of the magic of Test cricket when you are watching Rob Quiney barely manage to roll his arm over before tea on the first day.
The Channel Nine commentary team isn’t so much set in stone as included as part of the Australian constitution, but a small adjustment was required this summer owing to unfortunate absence of Tony Greig. In his stead came Glenn McGrath, and if you previously harbored doubts as to ‘Pigeon’s’ abilities as a commentator, they were justified almost instantly. The ‘banter’ on offer as the other commentators tried to rile him over the intelligence of your typical fast bowler was excruciating in the extreme. McGrath suffers from the same problem that afflicts many modern cricketers, and is doubly true of most in the Nine commentary box, in that he is unable to voice a comment that is in anyway controversial. Years of media training inflicted upon him by an administration nervous about the bad publicity that threatens everytime a cricketer actually speaks his mind have taken their toll on McGrath. He spent his time merely offering qualifications and avoiding direct answers. Even simple questions such as ‘Who has the best bowling attack?’ were carefully avoided, with the comment ‘the South Africans certainly have a good bowling attack’, qualified with ‘but I think our guys are pretty good as well’. Great. Thanks for that Glenn, but we don’t think Peter Siddle would exactly break down in tears if you offered the opinion that Dale Steyn was a slightly better bowler than him. He even avoiding criticising Australia’s woeful first day bowling efforts, suggesting that whilst they ‘lacked consistency’ they still ‘bowled well’. It’s one or the other Glenn.
The other innovation introduced in this year’s coverage was ‘The Desk’, Channel Nine’s belated nod to modern technology by jamming what looks like a stripped back Coleco Mini-Arcade system into an IKEA coffee-table. The obvious inspiration is the ‘Third Man’ segment that appears during the Sky coverage, where usually one of Michael Atherton or Nasser Hussain appears in the box to offer some little titbit of tactical insight. Unfortunately for Channel Nine none of their regular commentators possesses anything that could be remotely considered as ‘tactical insight’, being primarily employed based on their ability to flog tat during drinks breaks and say complimentary things about the pretty ladies that the cameramen pick out of the crowd. So instead they are forced to rely on this piece of technical wizardry so complex that it couldn’t possibly be put in the commentary box in case Bill Lawry accidentally spills his tea all over it. Which means that what otherwise might have been in interesting segment (although certainly less entertaining than just letting Ian Chappell draw lines all over the screen again) simply becomes an intrusion.
Despite those ‘advances’, perhaps the most unappealing aspect of Nine’s coverage remains in place: a terrifyingly incestuous relationship with advertisers. From Mark Nicholas discussing Victoria Bitter’s latest rebranding in a banterific ‘disco vicar’ manner to the relentless plugging of official memorabilia priced at obscene levels and the life-threatening obsession with winning a year’s supply of KFC, it’s never possible to forget that money talks at Channel Nine. A negative opinion (i.e. David Warner is actually rather shit) wouldn’t please the sponsors. After all, what would they do with all those $595 (plus p&p) Powerhouse lithographs if he was dropped?
But despite the continuing lazy, sycophantic state of Nine’s commentary, our money would be on Richie’s ghostly face filling our screens come the start of the Ashes next November. Probably on the back of a promise to provide an unprecedented depth of coverage by employing 7,000 Spider Cams to follow the action at any one time.