SNATCH OF THE DAY

The finest football has been reserved exclusively for ITV viewers, kicking off with the first live, big-name Football League clash this Sunday. Greg Dyke, Director of Programmes at London Weekend Television, told PAUL DONOVAN how he won the battle of the ball

Greg Dyke scraped one A-level. He was sacked from Marks & Spencer. He stood for Labour on the GLC and the Tories swept in. By the time he was 30 he was unemployed and it didn't look as if he would be making much of his life.

Then he went in to television and one of the most meteoric careers in contemporary broadcasting took off.

From a humble reporter at London Weekend, he rose to edit the Six O'Clock News. He saved TV-am from an early death, unleashing Roland Rat and Anne Diamond and collecting a £20,000 bonus for boosting the viewing figures to over a million. TVS poached him away. LWT asked him back to the capital as its director of programmes, one of the biggest jobs in ITV. Bottom to top of his profession 10 years. Dyke - short, bearded and energetic - has now pulled off his most startling coup. As the chairman of ITV Sport, he has masterminded the £44 million, four-year exclusive deal with the Football League and thus scored the winning goal in a battle which threatened to tear the game apart.

It means that from this week, ITV viewers will be able to see more top-quality soccer. There will be 21 live League and Littlewoods Cup matches each season, of which at least 17 will be on Sunday afternoons. And Dyke promises the games will be presented with new flair and imagination.

'I think we've shown that ITV can get its act together, than we can fight and win,' says Dyke, with a triumphant grin.

He is talking in his twelfth-floor office on the South Bank, overlooking the Thames in spectacular style. It was in this same room that predecessor, Sir Michael Grade, tried his famous 'Snatch of the Day' move to wrest soccer away from the BBC in 1979, until the Office of Fair Trading cried foul.

Then, it was a straight fight between only two broadcasting organisations. Now, there is a powerful newcomer - British Satellite Broadcasting, which next year promises to start beaming down three new channels from space. Dyke's achievement is all the more impressive in that he has effectively out-manoeuvred not one rival but two.

Like all financial negotiations, the details are very complex. But the outline is simple enough.

ITV and BBC, jointly, used to pay the Football League £3.1 million a year - half of which went to the First Division clubs, the rest being apportioned among clubs in lower divisions - in return for being able to televise their matches. That contract came up for renewal this summer.

Then BSB, who had been secretly talking to the League for months, threw in their bombshell of an offer: exclusive coverage in return for what could amount to £200 million over ten years. It was the first time that the newcomers (who will be in direct competition with ITV for advertising revenue) had tried to capture one of the glittering prizes of the system which BBC and ITV have had all to themselves for so long.

Dyke was determined that the rival bid should not succeed. 'They were going to be in control of football and there was no way we were going to allow that,' he says. He pulled in David Elstein, Thames TV's programmes director and Chairman of ITV Sport before him. They consulted barristers and started to pore over League rulebooks. 'I also went to Michael Grade for advice. We're both on the board of Channel 4 so see one another regularly. He said whatever I did, I should keep the IBA on my side. It was something he forgot to do with his abortive action nine years ago.'

ITV also asked the BBC to help resist the BSB offer. They refused, so ITV decided to go on its own. The Corporation then joined forces with BSB in making a joint offer to the League.

ITV, now on its own, then played the card which was to have such impact on the course of the struggle. Secret approaches were made to the chairmen of the five top clubs (Arsenal, Liverpool, Manchester United, Everton and Spurs) to see if a deal could be forged with the First Division alone. The offer was £1 million to each club, each year. 'If we got the rights to the five most popular clubs, then the League wouldn't have much to sell BSB, would they?' says Dyke with brutal honesty.

The five became seven and then ten. When the news broke, there was uproar about the so-called 'Superleague' and Football League officials obtained a High Court injunction preventing ITV signing a seperate contract with the big, starry clubs of the First Division. BSB upped its offer. So did Dyke, by a few more millions, under advice from Arsenal's David Dein. BSB and the BBC later withdrew amid angry outbursts about 'negotiation by auction' and signed a seperate deal with the Football Association which organises the FA Cup competition. ITV were left the winners with the 18 top Football League matches; the Littlewoods Cup semi-finals and final, as well as the FA Cup Final.

In the middle of the all this heated, high-powered jostling, Dyke felt sufficiently confident to go off on holiday to the Greek island of Skiathos with partner Sue, and their two sons and two daughters aged from 11 to one. 'Only my personal assistant Fiona had my phone number. No one else. For 10 days, I spoke to nobody.

'There was only one phone box where we were, next to the boules area. I kept on popping into it towards the end of the holiday. I rand Fiona and asked here to get either David Elstein or John Bromley, the Head of ITV Sport, to call me. David rang from Belgium where he was on holiday to tell me BSB had pulled out.

'I think some of the other holiday-makers, most of whom were British, did wonder what was going on. I didn't dare tell them that I ran a TV station for a living. That's fatal. Everyone is an expert on television. Anyway, Sue and I celebrated with a lot of bad Greek wine when we heard BSB was out.'

He returned, much tanned, two days before the deal was formally signed in London's Cumberland Hotel on 8 August.

Reflecting on his socceer coup, Greg says: 'Even though £11 million doesn't sound like much when you consider ITV's annual programme budget is £400 million, we will still have to trim costs elsewhere. Cutting wrestling, darts, gymnastics and bowls would save about one and a half million pounds. We may have to cut back a bit on drama and entertainment.

'I would say that £5 million of that £11 million was to defend our own territory.' He pauses. 'There has been a lot of whingeing from the BSB but it's really very simple. They lost. And we won.'

Simple or not, there's no doubt that Greg Dyke will have scored with ITV's football fans.'


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