Review: BT Sport’s Life’s a Pitch

It may be affable buffoonery, but BT’s impressive commitment to the long haul is evident at every turn.

Des Kelly picks up a brick.

You could be excused for mistaking the slab for something left behind by the construction staff who, three months into the BT Sport project, are still putting together the finishing touches to the Stratford-based studio.  

Instead, with little over an hour before the cameras roll, Kelly is working out how to incorporate the foam replica into his panel-based magazine show Life’s a Pitch.

As production staff gather material for the 10pm broadcast and Kelly tucks into a sparkling water, panel guests, former Arsenal striker Kevin Campbell and rugby union institution Brian Moore, arrive in the green room to watch the second half of Chelsea’s Carling Cup meeting with the Gunners at the Emirates. The result of the match will shape much of the discussion throughout the show.

Despite only striking towards its fiftieth live broadcast, Life’s a Pitch has already developed a reputation for the unusual. It is a wonder that both men look so relaxed.

Former Tottenham manager Harry Redknapp, not always one to play up to his wheeler-dealer public image, agreed to open up the first show of the series with a tongue in cheek interview through a car door. From there the shows have simply grown wackier.

Kelvin MacKenzie was superimposed onto a turnip to give Graham Taylor a measure of revenge for a Sun front cover printed after England failed to qualify for the 1994 World Cup. And, with Halloween only two nights away, Kelly reveals that Martin Keown’s appearance later that week will be marked with each of the studio audience wearing masks depicting the former England international.

All of which is little more than affable buffoonery but the creativity is certainly preferable to Sky Sports News trying to fill their 24 hour schedule by asking Ray Parlour to do intellectual battle with Guillem Balague to decide whether or not the Premier League holds the best players in Europe.

When all is said and done, however, Life’s a Pitch isn’t reinventing the wheel. The combination of guest discussion and video highlights seasoned with a sprinkling of irreverence is an instantly recognisable concept, although the commitment to firing out four live broadcasts a week, each dedicated to a variety of sporting topics, is not something replicated elsewhere.  The rules of the game are slowly shifting.

When BT’s venture into sports broadcasting was first announced in 2012, the project drew no small amount of scepticism as the telecommunications giant was entering a vastly competitive arena with no channel platform nor established collection of major television rights to hitch their wagon to.

Over the last decade and a half that particular formula had failed a number of broadcasters who believed that a service focussed on a partial share of the football broadcasting pie was all that was needed for a sustainable business model.

Inside a year, however, the idea of BT presenting a credible challenge to Sky as the pre-eminent force in UK sports broadcasting is no longer a pipe dream.

While their initial commitment to front line sport is relatively modest, a huge investment has been made in production quality. This stretches from the customisable glass sports arena on the studio floor, all the way to recruiting the best possible presentation talent across each of the network’s major sports.  

The star of the BBC’s Olympic coverage Clare Balding has another avenue to spread her wings with a weekly show of her own and Jake Humphrey has been poached to front up the Premier League package. Austin Healey, Lawrence Dallaglio and Matt Dawson are kingpins of the rugby broadcasting team and Anne Keothavong and Sam Smith front up coverage of the WTA tour.

The constant stream of live broadcasts are exhausting - there are three on this particular Tuesday night alone - but in lieu of some of the more attractive live sport available elsewhere, the desire to create organic programming is essential.

As Life’s a Pitch draws to a close, the panel reviews the following morning’s sports pages, with a paper delivery boy throwing the bundle of headlines across the set for Kelly to catch.

Inevitably, however, the paper toss doesn’t always go to plan.

In September, Murray Walker came in to make a first television appearance after a prolonged period of poor health and delivered a poignant interview.

The show’s executive producer Mark Aldridge reveals his concern at pushing the envelope too far with a 90-year-old Walker on the panel. (“Just imagine if we’d hit Murray with the paper...”)

This fear clearly hasn’t transferred to all of Kelly’s guests. I ask Campbell if he is worried about how exactly that brick will be used when the show goes live.

“I’m from Brixton,” mutters a pensive Campbell as Juan Mata puts Chelsea 2-0 up against Arsenal. “I’ve been bricked before...”

Life’s a Pitch airs at 10pm every Monday to Thursday on BT Sport 1

 

Special delivery: Brian Moore catches the nightly news. Image: C1 Photography

You can follow Cameron on Twitter here.

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How can London’s mothers escape the poverty trap?

Despite its booming jobs market, London’s poverty rate is high. What can be done about it?

Why are mothers in London less likely to work than their counterparts across the country, and how can we ensure that having more parents in jobs brings the capital’s high child poverty rates down?

The answers to these two questions, examined in a new CPAG report on parental employment in the capital, may become increasingly nationally significant as policymakers look to ensure jobs growth doesn’t stall and that a job becomes a more much reliable route out of poverty than it is currently – 64 per cent of poor children live in working families.

The choice any parent makes when balancing work and family life is deeply personal.  It’s a choice driven by a wide range of factors but principally by what parents, with their unique viewpoint, regard as best for their families. The man in Whitehall doesn’t know best.

But the personal is also political. Every one of these personal choices is shaped, limited or encouraged by an external context.   Are there suitable jobs out there? Is there childcare available that is affordable and will work for their child(ren)? And what will be the financial gains from working?

In London, 40 per cent of mothers in couples are not working. In the rest of the country, the figure is much lower – 27 per cent. While employment rates amongst lone parents in London have significantly increased in recent years, the proportion of mothers in couples out of work remains stuck at about 12 percentage points higher than the rest of the UK.

The benefits system has played a part in increasing London’s lone parent employment rate. More and more lone parents are expected to seek work. In 2008, there was no obligation on single parents to start looking for work until their youngest child turned 16. Now they need to start looking when their youngest is five (the Welfare Reform and Work Bill would reduce this down to three). But the more stringent “conditionality” regime, while significant, doesn’t wholly explain the higher employment rate. For example, we know more lone parents with much younger children have also moved into jobs.  It also raises the question of what sacrifices families have had to make to meet the new conditionality.  

Mothers in couples in London, who are not mandated to work, have not entered work to the same level as lone parents. So, what is it about the context in London that makes it less likely for mothers in couples to work? Here are four reasons highlighted in our report for policymakers to consider:

1. The higher cost of working in London is likely to play a significant role in this. London parents are much less likely to be able to call on informal (cheaper or free) childcare from family and friends than other parts in the country: only one in nine children in London receives informal childcare compared to an average of one in three for England. And London childcare costs for under 5s dwarf those in the rest of the country, so for many parents support available through tax credits is inadequate.

2. Add to this high housing and transport costs, and parents are left facing a toxic combination of high costs that can mean they see less financial rewards from their work than parents in other parts of the country.

3. Effective employment support can enable parents to enter work, particularly those who might have taken a break from employment while raising children. But whilst workless lone parents and workless couples are be able to access statutory employment support, if you have a working partner, but don’t work yourself, or if you are working on a low wage and want to progress, there is no statutory support available.

4. The nature of the jobs market in London may also be locking mums out. The number of part time jobs in the capital is increasing, but these jobs don’t attract the same London premium as full time work.  That may be partly why London mums who work are more likely to work full time than working mums in other parts of the country. But this leaves London families facing even higher childcare costs.

Parental employment is a thorny issue. Parenting is a 24-hour job in itself which must be balanced with any additional employment and parents’ individual choices should be at the forefront of this debate. Policy must focus on creating the context that enables parents to make positive choices about employment. That means being able to access the right support to help with looking for work, creating a jobs market that works for families, and childcare options that support child development and enable parents to see financial gains from working.

When it comes to helping parents move into jobs they can raise a family on, getting it right for London, may also go a long way to getting it right for the rest of the country.