The BBC and ITV’s pundit lineup at Euro 2016 was a mixed bag. Table-clambering debutants like Slaven Bilic were hosed down by veterans like old-man-shouting-at-the-TV Mark Lawrenson, while new faces like Ryan Giggs and Peter Crouch were dead-eyed and listless respectively. At half time of the France vs Germany semi-final, however, the BBC were brave enough to offer up something different and were rewarded. German journalist and author Rafael Honigstein appeared alongside Dan Walker in Marseille and provided concise, articulate and clear analysis of how the Germans could recover. Honigstein’s sparkling cameo was a glimpse into how the BBC and ITV can raise their game when it comes to punditry by doing this more often.
The use of genuine expert for analysis was a small encouragement to viewers who routinely take to Twitter to lambaste both networks’ choice of pundits. It was proof that there are some print journalists who are infinitely more engaging then an ex-footballer when faced with a TV camera. Viewers of Sky’s Sunday Supplement or Match of the Day 3 will know that the Telegraph’s Sam Wallace is superb on television (Wallace, like Honigstein, by the way, are also good-looking and well-dressed, which is a massive plus for prime time) and the status of Henry Winter, now of the Times, as an established star was demonstrated by the Times TV advertising campaign when he was recruited from the Telegraph. Both would have been superb additions for cameo appearances in the way that Honigstein was. So why don’t we see it more often?
Much of it is down to the networks’ expectations of their audience which, as it stands, is far too low. Journalists like Honigstein or ESPN’s Gabriele Marcotti are likely to be found in specialist shows, such as BT Sports superb European Football Show. When comes to prime time networks need to appeal to a huge audience and the largest demographic, which means putting out the most famous faces and names. ‘Who the hell is this bloke’ is the reaction that producers fear the most from the masses. But what Honigstein hopefully proved is that networks can begin to make small changes. They didn’t put him as a main studio guest – they just gave him a few minutes pitchside. That small amount of time would have been enough to hold viewers’ attention: and he had some support.
However, real change is never simple. In any sport, a pundit’s worth is based on their profile, their entertainment value and – coming in last – their ability to communicate. This is perfectly understandable – whether we like it or not, sport, and particularly football, on television is now about famous people and entertainment. But for football the ‘profile’ element is given considerable bias; Glenn Hoddle, for example, resolutely fits only the first category as a former England manager and had a terrible time in front of the camera at the Euros. Robbie Savage has largely got by on entertainment value until this summer, when he suddenly stepped up his game and had an excellent tournament, providing moments of tactical observation and analysis, whilst still being fun to listen to. But too often, pundits are there because of who they are, not because of what they have to offer the viewer.