Same but different: How Eurosport and the BBC cover snooker
Producers from Eurosport and the BBC discuss their approach to broadcasting the same events, and the role that technology is playing in their coverage.
It can’t be a bad thing that fans of a sport that Barry Hearn described as “moribund and dormant” when he took control of World Snooker in 2010 are now spoilt for choice when it comes to its television coverage.
Hearn said that “everyone was going through the motions built around a BBC contract” at the time, but signing a succession of long-term deals with Eurosport – the latest of which lasts until 2026 – to show the vast majority of events throughout the season has forced everyone to up their game.
That becomes particularly relevant when it comes to snooker’s Triple Crown events – the UK Championship, the Masters and the World Championship – when both the BBC and Eurosport broadcast the action live.
Eurosport, of course, has significantly less of a natural pull than the BBC in the UK, but has positioned itself as television’s home of snooker.
That 10-year deal agreed with World Snooker in April 2016 has allowed them to invest heavily in a stellar on-screen line-up, featuring arguably the greatest player in the history of the sport, Ronnie O’Sullivan.
Jamie Steward, Eurosport’s Senior Director of Production and Broadcast, hopes that their coverage will convince loyal viewers to stick with them during the three major events, despite the considerable competition.
“We endeavour to have continuity within our coverage across all the events we broadcast, whether the BBC are covering the same events or not,” he says.
“The aim is to build an audience throughout the entire season so that when it comes to the likes of the UK Championship, we already have a loyal fanbase.
"In addition to this, selected tournaments are simulcasted on Quest, also part of Discovery's UK channel network, to help broaden reach and awareness to a free-to-air audience.
“Ronnie, Neal Foulds and Jimmy White, who is such a likeable character and really entertaining in the studio, are the mainstays of our coverage.”
That Eurosport’s live audience across the first three days of this year’s UK Championship was up by 38 per cent compared to 2017 suggests that their efforts are working.
Yet for all of their progress, there is no doubt that the BBC’s on-screen contingent – Hazel Irvine, Steve Davis, John Parrott and others – remain synonymous with snooker’s majors.
While the BBC offer an alternative to Eurosport for everybody, Alison Witkover, executive producer for IMG – who are responsible for BBC’s snooker output – knows that it is their role to capture the occasional fan as much as everybody else.
“Eurosport probably do more technical analysis,” she says, “and it’s a sports channel, so you’re tuning into it because that’s what you want.
“I think with the BBC you’re getting a more casual viewer that might just be flicking through and come across it. We need to appeal to a wider range of people.
“If it’s available on the BBC, people will probably watch it. We’ve got a good core group who are there at every tournament.”
Part of Eurosport’s appeal has been the way it has pushed technology and interactivity to the forefront of its coverage.
Foulds has played the Gary Neville role during this tournament, using the big screen in the studio to analyse the action, while their coverage all-year round revolves around White and O’Sullivan’s practical demonstration of difficult shots between sessions.
Players are also encouraged to take part in social media Q&As after matches, or in small games invented by the production team.
But while Witkover admits that the BBC coverage can’t be as niche, she does explain some of the attempts that are being made to progress the coverage while appealing to a wider audience.
“It’s quite hard in snooker, because it’s quite a small space,” she says. “But we’re always looking at different things.
“We use RiGour technology – which is like the Chinese Hawk-Eye – at the World Championship, and we’ve tried referee cameras and a wire cam, but we need to liaise closely with the governing body on all innovations.
“Say you wanted to try a marked cue ball, you probably won’t get that past them.”
Hearn has modernised snooker considerably since taking over eight years ago, but both channels have an obligation to maintain that reputation with their coverage.
In terms of on-screen talent, that means constantly modernising around consistent favourites such as Davis, Parrott and Foulds.
Witkover smiles as she admits that BBC regular Shaun Murphy’s first-round defeat in this year’s UK Championship has helped her out in terms of scheduling.
“We would have worked around it (had he won), but him going out has made things a little easier,” she says.
“The problem with using current pros – we’ve got three on our team – is that it’s hard to manage if they all do well. That’s why it greats to have that core group as well.”
Not that Eurosport are falling behind.
Steward describes O’Sullivan as “arguably snooker’s biggest name”, and, despite the controversy that seems to follow him everywhere, finds him only a force for good.
“Ronnie is absolutely a pleasure to work with,” he says.
“When he is playing in a tournament he understands that we’d still like to get access to him, so he’s fair on that front.
“He’s box office when he’s playing – in which case Eurosport benefit from the audience there – and he’s box office when he’s sat on the sofa with us.
“He’s an ambitious guy, so to have him wanting to drive the coverage forward has been massive for the last three years or so. We see him, Jimmy and Neal driving the coverage forward long term.
As both a supporter and a businessman, Hearn is sure that the investment and ambition that both channels put into their coverage is pivotal to the sport’s future.
“Eurosport have done an outstanding job for us and themselves,” he says. “It’s the most televised sport on their platform, and it does huge numbers.
“It’s both fascinating and rewarding, I couldn’t be happier. I like watching the game, but I could listen to Ronnie – who is very good, actually – and Jimmy and Neal Foulds talking about it all night.
“But I still see the BBC’s role as fundamental to our sport. They give us that traditional quality, and it’s also a big boost to sponsors like Betway to have these events shown on the BBC, no question.”
“It keeps everybody on their toes – they want to do a better job, and it shows the sport’s healthy.”
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