Part Two (1992 – 2002): “I Didn’t Get Off Massively on Saint and Greavsie”

By Chris Hughes

First published December 2002

In 1992 came the most seismic shift in the history of televised sport in Britain. The newly-formed FA Premier League sold its live rights to Sky Sports with the BBC buying the highlights to herald the return of Match of the Day every Saturday night, leaving ITV to make do with the lower divisions and the new Champions League. All of which meant a gap on Sunday afternoons for live top-class football on terrestrial television. Enter Channel 4.

Italian football had been screened live on BSB’s Sports Channel then Sky Sports since 1990, although the credit for the first British broadcaster to cover Serie A on a regular basis goes to Welsh language channel S4C, whose Monday night Sgorio programme originated in 1988. Now, with Sky preoccupied with the whole new ball game of the Premiership, one man had an idea. Incredibly, that man was … Paul Gascoigne.

“Paul is credited by [producer] Neil Duncanson with the idea,” explained Football Italia presenter James Richardson. The notion came around the time Gascoigne was preparing to leave Tottenham to play for Lazio in the summer of 1992.

“Chrysalis and Paul had done Gascoigne – The Fightback [a documentary about the player's return from injury] together,” said Richardson. “And Paul said to Neil that it was a shame that nobody would be able to see his games. So Neil asked the Italian Federation, who said that Chrysalis couldn’t show just Lazio’s games, but they could cover the whole league if they put in a bid. Sky weren’t expecting it and promptly lost the contract. It all happened over a really short space of time, which is one of the reasons I got the job.”

The network had only briefly flirted with football beforehand. Martin Tyler had reported on the 1983 Brazilian Cup Final, while in 1985, Channel 4 carried ITV’s live coverage of a World Cup qualifier between Australia and Scotland. The match kicked off at 9am and hence couldn’t be shown on ITV as it encroached on TV-am’s hours. Ironically, the match took place during the league blackout which had so boosted Channel 4′s NFL coverage.

Between 1990 and 1993, Channel 4 covered women’s football, and in early 1992 Chrysalis also produced an hour-long programme on the African Nations Cup presented by Crystal Palace player John Salako. And who can forget the network’s coverage of the 1990 World Cup … of Subbuteo?

So, having paid a bargain £1.5m for the rights to Serie A, on 6 September 1992, C4 transmitted its first live Italian match – Sampdoria v Lazio. Gascoigne might have still been injured, but a healthy three million people still tuned in. Veteran broadcaster Kenneth Wolstenholme linked off screen, and Peter Brackley and Paul Elliott commentated.

The following Saturday morning saw the first edition of the punningly-titled magazine programme, Gazzetta Football Italia, presented by the unknown James Richardson, who was to spend the next decade linking the programme from a variety of Italian cafés, slurping capuccinos and perusing the Italian newspapers for improbable stories about Roberto Baggio. Richardson’s style was, rarely for a football presenter, witty, urbane and intelligent.

“It probably helped that I didn’t grow up watching a lot of football television,” he explained. “I didn’t get off massively on Saint and Greavsie for example. So there wasn’t much danger of me falling into that trap.”

For the first few seasons, the programme featured regular input from Gascoigne himself. “In terms of Paul’s work for the programme, at the start he was very suspicious of journalists and thought he had enough on his plate,” said Richardson. “But pretty soon he realised that it didn’t take long to do and, indeed, one day said to us that he liked the show because it gave him a chance to put his side of the story.”

Ratings remained healthy for that first season, with the only regular terrestrial alternative on Sundays being ITV’s uninspired regional coverage of Division One games, frequently involving the likes of Grimsby or Oxford. “It’s obvious that the audience [got] very involved because of the football, not because there are a couple of Brits running around,” said Richardson.

“One of the nicest things about [the 1992 - 93] season is that it could easily have failed,” he added. “Then, we’d have looked back and said, ‘Oh look, it’s obvious why: because Milan dominated, it only looked like getting interesting at the end, so nobody really got into it.’ Whereas we’ve had a tremendous success this year, despite the fact that we’ve never been able to put on a match and say, ‘This is a battle for the title’ except perhaps the highlights of the Inter v Milan game. It’s caught on, in spite of the handicap of the most one-sided season in ages.”

Mezzanotte, an extra highlights programme late on Tuesday nights was introduced by Channel 4 in 1993 – 94, and Richardson started to link the live matches from the grounds, although commentator Brackley continued to work from London.

In 1997, Channel 4 covered both legs of the Italy v Russia World Cup qualifying play-offs live, and the network built up to France ’98 with Planet Football, featuring Steve Cram and Simon O’Brien focusing on a different country every week in a series of hour-long programmes from Chrysalis, although the series got later and later in the schedules. The programmes were accompanied by a handful of live matches, including the African Nations Cup final and a Uefa Cup semi-final between Lazio and Atletico Madrid hastily incorporated into the Tuesday night schedules.

But if Serie A was now all the rage, then the popularity of the NFL looked to be in decline. Channel 4 still seemed committed to its fans, however. In 1992, the network covered matches on in a 90-minute programme on Sunday nights at 8.30pm, still fronted by Mick Luckhurst and Gary Imlach, with a Saturday morning magazine programme.

In 1993, however, the main highlights package, retitled The American Football Big Match was shunted to 11pm on Monday, now fronted by Imlach and Bob Golic. In addition, the spectre of the Vicious Boys briefly reappeared when a magazine programme, Trash Talk, loosely centred around the NFL and American pop culture at large, presented by Albert “Trix” Thompson and Tessa Langmead, went out on Thursday teatimes.

The following year, Trash Talk was replaced by Blitz!, Imlach’s Saturday morning magazine concentrating again solely on the sport, accompanying the Monday night Big Match. Extended coverage of the play-offs remained, if now somewhat marginalised, although in 1996 C4 went mad and transmitted an epic seven-hour through the night transmission of both Conference games. But Blitz! and The Big Match came to a close with the 1998 Superbowl, when Channel 4 ended its coverage of the NFL after 15 seasons, and it was left to Sky Sports and Channel 5 to pick up the rights.

The mid’ 90s also saw Channel 4 attempt to revive interest in basketball. This time, however, it was decided to cover the planet’s premier competition, the NBA of America. Interestingly, the BBC had daringly broadcast weekly NBA highlights in 1987 and 1988, although their coverage largely failed, because the programmes were invariably shunted to the early hours of Sunday mornings and were hamstrung by the staid, schoolmistressy presence of host Sally Jones, who seemed completely at odds with the audience and the razzamatazz of the league.

Seven years on, C4 picked up the British rights to the NBA in a three-year deal. Its inaugural coverage of the 1996 season was preluded the previous October by live coverage of a pre-season event at the Docklands Arena involving the NBA’s Houston Rockets and several European teams including the Sheffield Sharks.

The network invested heavily in airtime when coverage of the NBA regular season started in February 1996. Every week the presentation team of Scoop Jackson, Dave Lewis, Carlton Dixon and Mark Webster fronted three distinct programmes. NBA Raw was a Sunday morning magazine programme, while NBA XXL featured complete coverage of the week’s top match, transmitted on Wednesdays around midnight. And NBA 24/7 was a Thursday night wrap-up of the latest action and results.

Basketball fans were well served, with live coverage of the mid-season All-Star Game and the June play-offs. But just as in the mid ’80s, basketball was unable to break out of the margins and take its place as a mainstream sport. Channel 4 continued to apportion plenty of airtime to the NBA for the three seasons of its contract, but in 1998 the competition disappeared from British terrestrial television for the second time in a decade.

Towards the end of the 1990s, it looked like Channel 4 were finally ditching imported events like the NFL and the NBA, and concentrating more on home grown sport. In 1997, the network bought the exclusive rights to British athletics. Channel 4′s previous joint arrangement with ITV came to an close at the end of the summer of 1993.

In the interim, coverage of the sport was fragmented across the BBC and decreasingly on ITV, which marginalised its waning coverage to late night and Saturday afternoon slots. Channel 4′s deal with the British Athletics Federation was intended to train a new spotlight on the sport, and, with meetings moved to a primetime Sunday slot, freshen up coverage of a sport in which Britain boasted a core of successful, young, multi-cultural stars. It seemed a perfect fit with C4.

So track and field returned to Channel 4 in February 1997 with one-off coverage of an indoor European Grand Prix. A commentary team was recruited – Nick Fellows and the likeable Steve Cram, who had been working for satellite channel Eurosport for several seasons, but they seemed to lack the authority of Coleman and Storey on BBC or Parry and Ovett on ITV.

The coverage got off to a proper start in the summer of 1997. Saturday mornings saw a one-hour magazine, the ponderously-titled Channel 4 Athletics, and on 29 June, the network headed to Sheffield to cover its first outdoor meeting under the new deal, which featured a showdown between sprinters Linford Christie and Donovan Bailey. Former Channel Four Daily presenter Joanna Kaye joined Cram as co-presenter, which only served to reinforce the impression that the network’s coverage lacked the gravitas of the BBC.

The second year’s coverage continued in the same vein, with meetings shown on Sunday nights between 6.30 and 8pm, although the magazine programme moved to Sunday afternoons and was retitled Trackside, Sally Gunnell joining the onscreen team. But Channel 4′s coverage of the domestic meetings suffered in the same way as ITV’s always had. Because the BBC had the big occasions like the Olympics, the World Championships and the Commonwealth Games locked up, Channel 4 were unable to tell the whole story. And those big international events were more than enough to sate the appetite of the casual viewer.

And there was another problem. The track and field governing body, the BAF, was in a parlous state. In 1998, it finally went bankrupt, bringing Channel 4′s contract to an abrupt halt. The new governing body, UK Athletics, elected to sign a contract with the BBC. And so did Gunnell and Cram.

In contrast, one sport which had managed to elude Channel 4′s clutches earlier in the decade was golf. During the 1980s, the network had covered all three US majors at one time or another, presented by future Grandstand compere Steve Rider. Now Chief Executive Michael Grade wanted to bring it back, and he had his eye on the big one.

“Internationally there was a lot of dissatisfaction with the BBC’s coverage of the Open golf championship,” recalled Grade. “I discussed it with Mark McCormack, the head of IMG, the agency that handled most of the big stars. He in turn talked to Sir Michael Bonallack, the secretary of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club. All kinds of encouraging messages reached me and I began to get excited at the prospect of making a big pitch. I [was] buoyed by a phone call from Mark McCormack assuring me that the deal was in the bag. He’d been at the BBC presentation and reported that our bid topped theirs by £5m. I strolled confidently into the room. Confronting me were 20 or 30 dour, dull grey men, identically dressed in blue blazers, grey slacks and R & A ties. I died a death. They made it obvious they didn’t like me. Quite apart from topping the BBC’s bid by a mile, C4 was offering to cover junior tournaments, putting money aside for golf scholarships and guaranteeing peak-time highlights. Mike Bonallack rang me later in the day to tell me that the BBC had won the contract. If I’d known the lowest bidder would win, I’d have offered nothing.”

Grade’s magic cigar smoke might not have won over the Pringle brigade, but in the mid ’90s Channel 4 did at least pull off the coup of getting a member of the royal family to front a sports programme – although this wasn’t a first, Prince Phillip having once commandeered Grandstand for an hour in the ’60s to drone on about the Duke of Edinburgh Awards scheme.

Now in 1995, Channel 4 devoted several Saturday mornings to perhaps the planet’s most bafflingly obscure and élitist sport, Real Tennis. “Imagine a squash match set in an abattoir with rules drawn up by Anthony Burgess,” wrote Giles Smith in the Daily Telegraph. “Entertaining viewing? ‘Trust me,’ said our host Edward Windsor – Prince Edward to you. This may look like novelty casting, but in fact [he] was the obvious choice for presenter. For one thing, he’s a player himself and so can be relied upon to know his ‘grille’ from his ‘tambour’. For another, when it comes to explaining obscure institutions, you’d be hard pressed to match a member of the royal family.”

Compiled as it was by Prince Edward’s heroically unsuccessful Ardent Productions, it was no surprise that Real Tennis failed to be recommissioned.

Meanwhile, Channel 4 Racing continued to prosper. In July 1992, it covered the first ever Sunday meeting to take place in Britain, with five races from Doncaster, while The Morning Line eventually expanded to an hour-long programme.

And in 1995, thanks to Grade, Channel 4 covered the Cheltenham National Hunt Festival for the first time. “Our coverage was too seasonal,” he explained. “We had all the summer classics but little in the winter. I knew we had no chance of dispossessing [the BBC] of the Grand National but Cheltenham was a fair target. The man who mattered at Cheltenham was Tommy Wallace, so I took him out to lunch and told him I knew the BBC contract was coming up for renewal – Channel 4 would like to bid. He choked on his soup. They had worked for the BBC for years and it would be an acute embarrassment if I put in a bid. I decided to play it long and wait until the contract approached renewal. Then I went to see some friends of mine who were members of the Jockey Club.

“I told them about my encounter with Tommy Wallace and said that though I admired his loyalty to the BBC, the truth was that Channel 4 was now the main player in the horse racing stakes. Without us, the industry would be the poorer. Televised racing provided the sponsorship that paid most of the bills. Now satellite threatened to divide the sporting community into payers and non-payers. Notice was taken of these points and a competition was set up between the BBC and ourselves to bid for the Cheltenham Festival. We beat the BBC fair and square, winning a five-year contract that added 17 days of racing to Channel 4′s calendar.”

In 1996, C4 unveiled another sporting innovation with television’s first regular through the night sports programme. April 1996 saw the first edition of Nightsports with Imlach, perhaps a vague pun on the old Sportsnight with Coleman title used by the BBC in the late ’60s. Every Wednesday for six weeks the engaging Gary Imlach fronted an experimental six-hour compilation of phone-ins, interviews and imported action, including NBA XXL, ice hockey, golf and syndicated magazine Futbol Mondial. If the programme itself wasn’t an, ahem, overnight success, the concept was at least deemed workable.

So, in January 1997, the idea was reborn as Under the Moon, basically the same format as Nightsports but slightly more raucous and fanziney. For the two years of its life, the programme was anchored every Wednesday night by Danny Kelly, journalist and radio sidekick to Danny Baker. For the first series, Kelly’s co-host was unfunny bald comedian Tim Clark. But for the second series in 1997 – 98, Clark was replaced by the slightly funnier Tom Binns, and the show really hit its stride. It became essential post-late night highlights viewing, for the opening phone-in sequence at least, when callers managed to get on air to question the sexuality of a Manchester United striker and discuss smoking cannabis with a former Liverpool midfielder.

A New Year’s Eve special direct from Glasgow’s Ibrox Park became notorious for the tired and emotional state of at least one of the guests, while Kelly’s suggestion that snooker players were renowned for their taste for cocaine caused guest David Vine to walk off set. And the programme even managed to lure the notoriously media unfriendly Half Man Half Biscuit to perform a set one night. If it all sounds a bit laddish, that’s because it was.

The programme mounted several specials during the World Cup of 1998, but for these editions Binns was replaced by Lisa Rogers, crucially wrecking the dynamic of the show. The series proper returned in the autumn, but was dropped at Christmas 1998.

Prior to Under the Moon, in 1996 Kelly had been involved in The Greatest, Channel 4′s quest to identify the greatest British sporting hero of all time. Presented by Gordon Kennedy, the show involved Kelly and Frances Edmonds nominating and discussing the merits of 20 sportsmen and women. However the series is best remembered for one slight flaw in its execution. As Giles Smith recalled, “Daley Thompson came out tops over George Best … that the winner should be someone actually cited in the programme’s end credits as a consultant on the series is one of those heart-warming coincidences that lift all of our spirits from time to time. That he should also be the author of the book tied in with the series, well that’s just the kind of wonderful magic which only television can bring us.”

In 1999 came the biggest shake-up in two decades of Channel 4 sport. As far back as 1982, the network had expressed a desire to televise first class cricket. Former head of sport Adrian Metcalfe recalled that its first overtures back in the early ’80s had been stymied by BBC arrogance and Lord’s timidity.

“The TCCB had been complaining for years about being ripped off by the BBC so we said we would be interested in covering the midweek games in the Benson and Hedges and/or NatWest trophies,” said Metcalfe. “They got very excited and said it was a terrific idea. “Then the BBC got wind of what was up and pointed the gun at them: ‘If you give it to Channel 4, don’t expect us to cover the Tests any more.’ As if the BBC would drop Test cricket! But Lord’s fell for it, wobbled and the BBC scooped it all up again. We told them: ‘Okay, you wanted an alternative market and we offered it. Don’t come crying to us next time round when there’ll be less chance of us being interested.”

Channel 4 did transmit some cricket during the 1980s, with highlights of a B & H World Cricket one-day series involving the West Indies, Australia and Pakistan on Sunday evenings in 1984. There was also the Silk Cut Challenge, a gimmicky but fun annual contest to find the best all-rounder out of the likes of Ian Botham, Richard Hadlee and Imran Khan. And in 1987, Channel 4 was there when the England women’s team played their first one-day international at Lord’s against Australia.

Now, more than a decade on, Channel 4 were finally on the brink of stealing away with one of the BBC’s sporting crown jewels. In 1998, the rights to English cricket, including the Test matches, went out to tender. Few observers expected the BBC, who had covered England’s home Tests for 60 years, to lose, despite the fact that legislation had recently been introduced which could have enabled Lord’s to sell the Tests lock, stumps and bails to satellite.

Sky had been moving aggressively into cricket since 1990, pioneering live broadcasts of England’s winter tours, instead of the meagre highlights the BBC had previously served up. Sky Sports also inherited the one-day domestic tournaments which BSB had wrenched away from the Beeb, and in 1992 transmitted round-the-clock coverage of the World Cup down under.

If ads were crammed in wherever and whenever possible, Sky Sports more than made up for it with the breadth of their coverage, and the Packer circus-style razzamatazz feared by the county set largely failed to materialise. Sky had managed to allay a notoriously conservative sport’s aversion to commercial television that had lingered ever since LWT covered a Gillette Cup Final in the late’ 60s, only to cut away from the nail-biting deciding final over because it was time for the David Frost show.

Still, nobody reckoned Lord’s would spark a potentially damaging political row by selling all the Tests to subscription television. Most people, including the BBC, believed that Sky would get the “Wimbledon Test”, the match that traditionally coincided with the singles finals in SW19, and the BBC would get the rest.

Unfortunately for a BBC sports department already in an embattled state, having lost the FA Cup final and Formula One, Channel 4 had other ideas. Led by head of sport Mark Sharman and marketing chief David Brook, the network, with its new policy of showcasing British sport, put together a slick and persuasive bid for the main Test package, emphasising how the multicultural audience for cricket meshed perfectly with Channel 4′s remit, and apportioning £13m to promote the sport in a “younger, fresher” vein as well.

So, in October 1998, it was announced that Channel 4 and Sky Sports had jointly won the rights to English cricket in a four-year, £103 million deal. It was heralded, by the Daily Mirror, at least as “The Day BBC Sport Died”.

Predictably there was outrage in many quarters, not least from Television Centre. “We made a large increase in our offer, many times the rate of inflation,” said the BBC. “But there was no way that could match the offer by Channel 4 who were wholly prepared to pay a significant premium. We offered the ECB a range of new programme, market and promotional ideas – but in the end it was all about money.” And BBC radio commentator Jonathan Agnew moaned, “The quality of coverage that everyone in the world, I think, has aspired to as far as the BBC’s cricket coverage is concerned has come to an end at a stroke.”

It’s fair to say Agnew’s response was nothing if not partisan. For years the BBC’s approach to cricket had been flat, uninspired and unambitious, punctuating coverage with repetitive hourly news bulletins, missing the start afternoon sessions to cram in Neighbours, and frequently abandoning chunks of Test matches to cover other sports.

It was also reported that the BBC’s bid team had been somewhat arrogant, as if they took it for granted they’d retain the rights, having to hurriedly put together a promotional video fronted by commentator David Gower after they learned of Channel 4′s interest.

Just as when Formula One moved from BBC to ITV, the fall-out of the deal focused on whether the voice of the sport would be switching channels with it. Test matches would surely be unthinkable without Richie Benaud intoning “Morning, everybody” and watching the odd six fly “into the confectionery stall and out again.” Just like Murray Walker, commentator Richie Benaud elected to make the move.

He’d be linking up at C4 with former Hampshire batsman Mark Nicholas, who had cut his teeth fronting cricket on Sky Sports, and who was now selected as lead presenter by production company Sunset & Vine.

“What he brings is essential gravitas,” Nicholas was to say later of the Australian. “We were concerned about the take on Channel 4 getting the rights and Benaud was a way to neuter that. Once we had him, then, as someone said, we could have broadcast anything as long as Richie was there to say ‘Morning everyone’. He is definitely looser than he was at the BBC where he felt formulaic, and he is funnier too. But his standards never slip. His work is monitored closely by his wife Daphne who watches every ball. If he makes the slightest mistake, he will know about it. If you have to pin me down as to his greatest strength, though, it is his capacity unashamedly to sell his product without being commercial about it.”

In many ways, that first summer of cricket on Channel 4 in 1999 started as something of an anti-climax. Because the opening months of the season were devoted to the World Cup, staged in Britain and covered jointly by the BBC and Sky, it looked like little had changed. Then Sky selected the summer’s First Test against New Zealand as their live presentation, which meant Channel 4′s first offering was strictly highlights only. Still, at least that was one innovation, as the writer Giles Smith noted: “Today at The Test is positioned at a time in the evening when people might actually watch it – a fairly simple broadcasting notion, though one the BBC never really seemed to get the hang of.”

And for the remaining three Tests, Channel 4 broadcast unprecedented live coverage. It usually started half an hour before play, whereas the BBC had normally offered five or so minutes of desultory build-up. The channel remained on air during the lunch break too, for a phone-in, relaxed chat or nostalgia, where the BBC team had slung up an Out to Lunch testcard and shuffled off for a gin and tonic. In addition, the network also introduced The Cricket Roadshow, a Saturday morning magazine of news, interviews and coaching tips for youngsters transmitted from the infield of a county ground, a sort of Swaporama in flannels.

Nicholas and Benaud headed an impressive rollcall of commentators that first summer of Wasim Akram, Dermot Reeve, Michael Holding and Ian Smith. If Nicholas was a little too suave for some, he did at least have the benefit over his BBC predecessor Tony Lewis of relative youth and an open-necked shirt, while still managing to retain an air of bespoke respectability.

In the run-up to the contract, however, many critics appeared to have deliberately misinterpreted Channel 4′s expressed desire to demystify the sport and project it to a younger audience, as Giles Smith suggested: “The programme was broadcast from an entirely conventional, pitchside commentary booth – assuaging at a stroke the fears of those who thought the channel’s project to youthify cricket would oblige them to present the sport live from the dance floor at the Ministry of Sound, with Pete Tong spinning records in the background.”

In the event, Channel 4′s much-hyped technical innovations, like Hawkeye and the Snickometer were entirely practical devices, deployed sparingly only when they had contentious decisions to sort out. Meanwhile analyst Simon Hughes sat in an OB truck throughout, appearing onscreen during breaks in play to demonstrate in detail, say, Darren Gough’s bowling action. One compliment frequently levelled at Channel 4 was that from day one, it looked as though they’d been covering the sport for decades.

The only problem was their commitment to horse racing. In the first summer, the network largely abandoned the Tests on Saturdays after lunch, choosing to go racing for around 90 minutes, with the cricket ending up on the FilmFour channel in the mean time. In subsequent summers, Channel 4 adopted the old Grandstand approach of flicking between the two every 15 minutes or so.

Their contract with the English Cricket Board meant Channel 4 covered the later stages of the NatWest (later C & G) Trophy live, as well as highlights of England’s one-dayers. Negotiations with Sky secured highlights of the winter tours too.

If cricket lovers were in their element with all this wall-to-wall action, cycling fans were less enamoured. Tour de France coverage had continued throughout the 1990s, and in 1994 Channel 4 presented live coverage for the first time when the race briefly crossed the channel to Britain for a couple of stages. But by 2000, the highlights were finally shunted into the late-night ghetto, it was said, by cricket and Hollyoaks. After 16 years, it was to be the last time the network followed of one of the world’s most spectacular sporting events.

Fans of Italian football also had cause for complaint when the Sunday afternoon live games became more and more infrequent. The most telling sign came when Channel 4 abandoned coverage of the title decider in 2001 with several minutes remaining, the match having been disrupted by a pitch invasion by the celebrating Roma fans.

Just 12 months earlier Channel 4 had happily rearranged the schedules when Juventus’ title bid was memorably held up by an Amazonian rainstorm, an afternoon memorable for the sight of Pierluigi Collina inspecting the pitch under an umbrella and the sound of the underrated Peter Brackley switching seamlessly between matches. But now it seemed the network, not for the first time, had lost interest in its one-time favourite sport. The following season, live coverage was abandoned altogether, and followers had to make do with Saturday morning’s Gazzetta and Sunday’s late night La Partita highlights programme.

It was all a far cry from the time Michael Grade was able to eat for free at any trattoria in London at the insistence of grateful Italian restaurateurs. “With 20% budget cuts … C4 maintained they were in no position to improve or even maintain their previous level of payments to the Italian rights holders,” said Football Italia‘s founding producer John D Taylor. Inevitably, at the end of the 2001 – 02 season, Channel 4 dropped Football Italia altogether. “It smacked of a ploy by C4 to offload Italian football coverage while shifting the blame,” said Taylor.

The gap was partially filled by the newly-acquired World Rally Championship, with the network presenting a nightly highlights package of each leg of each race, as opposed to the 25 minutes or so each race used to get on Grandstand.

One final upheaval arrived in 2001. For months, Channel 4 had been plotting with Sky to bring horse racing into the digital age. Between them, they intended to acquire the rights to practically the entire sport. For several years, the rights to races not shown on the BBC or C4 had rested with the subscription-only Racing Channel. Now Sky and C4 intended to launch their own new digital racing channel, but with the lucrative potential for armchair betting through your remote control. The reputation of Channel 4′s racing coverage and the money and technology of Sky ensured their consortium beat off a rather uncertain bid from Carlton, which they planned to tender out races to ITV and Channel 5, to be fronted apparently by “people like Desmond Lynam”, although both ITV and Lynam appeared to know little about their supposed involvement.

The upshot of the new arrangement was that in 2001 the Derby returned to the BBC after 22 years, largely at the behest of the racing authorities. Despite moving from Wednesday to Saturdays in 1995, the Epsom classic, once a major landmark in the British sporting calendar had started to fade, and it was felt it had to return to a mainstream network to restore its glory, and The Oaks went with it. But the following year saw the launch of the attheraces channel, that irritating lowercase title also being applied to the coverage on Channel 4 itself.

And it’s notable that racing is the only sport to have stayed the course for the majority of Channel 4′s two decades. Looking back over that time, it’s possible to identify a discernible shift in its approach from the early years of Adrian Metcalfe and Jeremy Isaacs.

Back then, the aim appeared to be to give us an alternative to the tired old sports like football, cricket and motor racing; to show us something new and fresh, to inspire us to get down the sports centre and thwack a shuttlecock around, or to use sport as a means of enabling viewers to experience and appreciate a previous unseen culture through a spectacle like sumo.

But the inescapable fact is, we actually liked those tired old sports like football, cricket and motor racing. Channel 4 has had to recognise this fact, and amend its remit to cover traditional television sports after all, but in keeping with the channel’s reputation for innovation and intelligence, by doing it in a new, imaginative and in-depth way. Channel 4′s coverage of cricket proved an immediate critical success and has laden down with broadcasting awards since 1999.

In many ways, the network is fortunate that its fortunes are not bound up inextricably with sport in the same way as the BBC’s are – if Channel 4 lost the rights to Test cricket tomorrow, it would be a massive blow, but not the national disaster the media reckoned it was for the BBC in 1998. Yet the network still has an annoying trait of getting bored with sports once they cease being flavour of the month, as fans of the NFL or Serie A will attest.

“Fans of [cricket and horse racing] should take a warning from those who previously followed American football and basketball, the world’s most famous cycle race and Italian football on Channel 4,” said Football Italia‘s John D Taylor. “The channel … managed to marginalise coverage of another of its sporting success stories, American Football, to the point where the diminishing audience became a self-fulfilling reason to abandon coverage altogether.”

Nevertheless, 20 years on from gridiron and basketball, Channel 4′s unique brand of coverage has undeniably become a familiar part of the sporting television mainstream much as once were Frank, Dickie … and the TARDIS.

<Part One