The rules governing the independent production quota have largely forced indies out of the running when it comes to covering live sporting events, but attitudes to contracting out of house may now be changing, writes Lucy Rouse.
Terrestrial TV channels may be crammed with sports coverage - whether that be world superbikes or the omnipresent football coverage - but watch a frame of live action on the BBC or ITV and it's a safe bet that it hasn't been produced by an independent.There are exceptions, of course. TWI produces all BBC2's snooker coverage and Chrysalis covers bowls for the BBC, TWI has produced "sports specials" for ITV like Muhammad Ali Through the Eyes of the World, while Venner Television covers the Tour de France for the commercial network.But none of these sports have the profile or following of football, covered in-house by the BBC and Carlton/Granada's ISN, nor rugby, also done in-house by the BBC. Even Formula 1 coverage, much loved by advertisers looking for a male audience on ITV1, is produced through a joint-venture, Mach1, which is part-owned by Granada alongside Chrysalis.One sports producer estimates that less than 5% of the 1,300 hours of sport broadcast by BBC1 and BBC2 every year is indie-produced. Part of the reason why indies play such a small part in the sports schedules of the two main terrestrials is the mysterious "75% rule", enshrined in the definition of the independent quota (see box). Pact chief executive John McVay says: "It's one of the anomalies of the way the 25% independent production quota was set up."The loophole dates back to broadcasters' lobbying efforts in the wake of the influential 1986 Peacock report, which recommended a 40% indie quota. That was gradually whittled down to 25% with certain areas such as news, acquisitions and live programming excluded.However it came into being, the principle still leaves McVay fuming: "The idea that indies can't do live sports coverage is patently nonsense. Indies can supply any major programme if they get the opportunity to do it."TWI produces around 6,500 hours of sports programming each year for various broadcasters, including live coverage of the Ryder Cup, cricket and global tennis championships. TWI chief executive Bill Sinrich says: "Live coverage is the sharp end and the best part of what we do, so it's disappointing to be told it's an area that's less likely to go to an indie."Both the BBC and ITV feel that keeping live sports coverage in-house is a safer bet than letting contracts go to indies. BBC sport head of programmes and planning Pat Younge says: "We're mindful of the quota. But we have to look at what we're delivering. If the BBC failed to deliver the Grand National, the public wouldn't care why."Besides trusting the inherent expertise of the in-house sports team, the BBC believes it is better placed to exploit its own technological developments, such as the Hawk-Eye ball monitoring system used in this year's Wimbledon coverage. The BBC is often already the host broadcaster for an event, so often it doesn't make sense to hand over production to an outside entity. ITV expounds similar arguments. An ITV spokeswoman says ISN was specifically set up by Carlton and Granada "to service the channel's sports needs". She also explains the Formula 1 joint-ventures, saying: "These are huge operations to mount - that's why they end up as co-productions."Not all indies are disturbed to see so much sports coverage remain in-house. Chrysalis deputy managing director John Wohlgemuth says: "It's fair enough - the BBC and ITV have large sports departments and they are good. They also pay a lot for their sports rights so they have a vested interest in looking after them."Nevertheless, Wohlgemuth admits that Chrysalis could match the BBC or ITV in-house coverage and, in the past, the company has lobbied (unsuccessfully) for a change in the quota rules to allow live coverage to qualify.Now, for the first time, there are signs that attitudes to indie-produced sport may be changing, within the BBC at least. The corporation is putting 33 hours of darts coverage out to tender to increase the sport department's contribution to the overall indie quota, which is BBC-wide rather than genre-specific, and which the BBC has failed to meet for two years running. "Darts is a self-contained event and that makes it easier to produce," says Younge.Yet the move may not be entirely selfless. McVay explains the Communications Act requires Ofcom to ensure the BBC meets a 25% indie quota for each of its channels and that it commissions the same range of programmes from indies as it does from its in-house producers. But whether it's forced by Ofcom or voluntary, any change in policy which sees live BBC sports programming up for grabs is welcome in the indie sector. Television Corporation chief executive Jeff Foulser, whose group includes sports indie Sunset & Vine, says: "It's a great opportunity for all indies to produce meaningful sport for the BBC."It remains to be seen, however, whether Ofcom and the Communications Act bring about a similar shift in attitude at ITV.THE 75% RULE EXPLAINEDThe rule derives from a follow-up to the 1990 Broadcasting Act, the Broadcasting (Independent Productions) Order 1991 which, among other things, defines which independent productions can qualify to fall within a broadcaster's 25% indie quotaThe 1991 order excludes from the qualifying hours any programme which is more than 75% live and where the rest of the programme hasn't been made by the BBC or an indie It's thought the rule was created to ensure live coverage of international events, broadcast in the UK as part of a global feed, didn't count towards the indie quota. There's even speculation that the rule was drafted to avoid the BBC's Grandstand being caught in the quotaWhatever the rule's raison d'etre, few sports producers are aware of it. They just know that indies don't make a lot of live sports programming.