Saturday night at the 19th Hole, live on BBC One

The economic health of the nation can be measured through many means. The moral health of the nation, what the Nepalese call the measure of national happiness, is far less easily quantifiable. If you’re a tabloid journalist or a middling member of an ITV daytime chat show with a space to fill, though, take one icon of the British high-street and watch the comment sections fill up with thousands of words time, after time, after time.

Across the country, women of a certain age and income level treat M&S as economists treat the daily updates from the ONS (let us avoid the rare moments of men being concerned with Marks, because that did necessitate me searching for the words “Jeremy Paxman” and “underpants”). Confidence in the High Street (future of which should be a future blog post) seems to rest on whether every element of “Marks'” is doing very well or tanking horribly. The first whiff of an unsavoury gusset gets the Fashion columns pouring out into the Business section within ten minutes. There’s no stopping presenters of moving wallpaper television from coming over all “Massacre of first born in Damascus (Reuters)” when the opportunity arises to ask “Is the Per Una range completely ignorant about the shape of an English woman’s bust?”

Consumer confidence can be measured from the reaction to “Which” magazine tutting at an M&S trifle in much the same way as earthquakes off the Pakistani coast can be picked up in California. It is precisely because they occupy such a cosy place by the fire that the middle classes use them as both stable go-to confidence boost and easy tut-tut country’s gone to the dogs easy target. Empires fall, politicians waffle, the middle classes have an opinion on M&S maxi dresses.

If ‘cosy’ is the M&S brand as well as its place on the “High Street”, what to choose as its equivalent elsewhere in British life? I think we all know the answer to that…

Placed in the television schedules as something of an unbreakable habit, a comfort in tough times, and guaranteed hangover cure (for the Sunday repeats, and not always successfully), “Match of the Day” is analogue football in a digital world. And that’s not necessarily stinging criticism, just as shaking your head at the sight of four-dozen canary yellow polo necks is not criticism of M&S. As wiser people have commented many times before, “MotD” has not been designed to compete with SKY or ESPN or BT Sport; nor are any of the pundits required to pick apart each move or tactic beyond anything accepted as a talking point or controversy. If “MotD” is considered ‘safe’ then that’s the programme doing its job…

……And yet here’s the “but”. Roy Hodgson is to appear as a guest/pundit this weekend. Promising? Probably not, and nor ‘exciting’, ‘interesting’, or anything else like that. The “safety” of the BBC’s flagship football highlights programme has long since wallowed in ‘complacency’, and that’s never good. For many years the show has struggled to wander out of the golf club/old boy’s network approach to sports broadcasting, stuck in an era of “World of Sport” and “Grandstand”. There’s ‘safe’ (nodding) and there’s ‘safe’ (shaking head).

“MotD” is the closest most blokes have to M&S; that safe, secure, not always agenda setting constant that for generations would always be guaranteed to provide just what you need at no great cost. Unfortunately, and just as with M&S and their dodgy autumn/winter collections, the BBC has considered ‘no great cost’ to mean more than ‘analysis of the weekend games’. With the Hansen/Lawro dream team, that ‘autumn/winter’ collection was always more ‘permanent winter’. When not content with sounding utterly indifferent to the continuing existence of football as a sport at all, Mark Lawrenson was being picked apart on line for failing to predict any weekend games to within 15 goals or so of reality. And yet he, and professional grump Alan Hansen, brought home the five/six-figure pay checks.

Nobody wants “MotD” to undergo too radical a change, least of all the casual fans/viewers who make up the majority of viewing figures. There are so many post-match analysts out there – not just SKY with their massive fuck-off television screens but blogs, podcasts and Twitter feeds – that the BBC knows nothing good would come from wholesale changes in one go, for just like The Daily Mail with Ed Miliband, going all out to prove a point often ends up looking horrific. Changing “MotD” into the Football Ramble in one leap would alienate, not attract.

That said, the BBC should have learned about the dangers by now (Colin Murray, in general, Colin Murray wine-tasting specifically). What many critics want is the end of the BBC’s very smug and often blatantly lazy old boy’s ties. Whilst not stepping into Keys/Gray territory of over familiar chumminess, the Beeb still manages to create an atmosphere of members club bars, the FA itself represented somewhere in the background, ready to cough and splutter if something approaching direct criticism were to drift across somebody’s lips.

M&S survives by understanding the trends of the day, and then suiting them exactly to their audience’s needs. Their televisual comrade appears unable to do that, either not getting anything changed at all, or making too much of a leap in one go. Being bold and brave means picking pundits from outside the usual cast, allowing more controversial opinions, particularly pointed towards the FA, avoiding the ‘golf club’ presenter/pundit pairings every week to encourage different views.

Consumers flit to where they feel most comfortable. Neither institution, M&S or “MotD”, need to change at all, for loyalty will always win out. But not adapting at all took Woolworths and HMV to the sword, and if the BBC insists that even tinkering might be too much of a change, then I suspect there’s sharpening knives just around the corner.

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