An exhibition at the Science and Media Museum in Bradford puts the spotlight on the role broadcasting technology has played in shaping our sporting memories. Chris Bond finds out more.
The famous words, uttered by the BBC’s Kenneth Wolstenholme as Geoff Hurst rocketed in the fourth and final goal in the dying seconds of the 1966 World Cup final at Wembley, have become the stuff of legend: “Some people are on the pitch! They think it’s all over… It is now.” But would we remember this iconic moment in the nation’s sporting history to the same extent if it hadn’t been televised? Almost certainly not.
TV and radio have shaped our collective sporting memories for decades and a new exhibition at the Science and Media Museum in Bradford explores the close links behind broadcasting technology and sport, highlighting some of the game-changing innovations along the way.
Action Replay runs until the end of September and includes rare artefacts such as equipment from the 1948 London Olympic Games, which is being exhibited for the first time, and the camera that captured Britain’s first colour TV images.
It looks at the story behind the UK’s first television outside broadcast which took place from the Epsom Derby in 1931; how the Wimbledon championships and snooker drove the introduction of colour television in the 1960s, and more recent developments such as ‘Ref Cams’ and the growth of so-called eSports.
It also looks at some of the quirkier sports-related broadcast stars including Paul the Psychic octopus –the invertebrate correctly predicted the winners of six matches at the 2010 World Cup – and football commentator John Motson’s famous sheepskin coat. Roger Mosey, the former head of sport at the BBC, opened the exhibition and says sport has long been at the forefront of driving technology. “The BBC did its first ever radio commentary in 1927 and when they started colour TV they launched it with Wimbledon 40 years later. So there’s always been this thing where sport has been the catalyst for technological change.”
Mosey, who comes from Bradford, headed up the BBC’s coverage of the 2012 London Olympics – a daunting prospect given this was arguably the biggest sporting event Britain had hosted since the football World Cup. “When we did the Olympics we had this idea that radio came of age in 1936 with the King’s abdication and 1953 was when television came of age with the Queen’s Coronation. So we saw 2012 as being the digital moment when sport became available across different platforms, and we very much saw it as part of the story of broadcasting progress,” he says.
“In 1948 the BBC covered what was then a record 68-and-a-half hours of live sport. In 2012 we wanted to do every single sport live and that added up to 5,000 hours of live television.”
These days it’s big sporting events, along with Royal weddings, that tend to top the viewing figures. “Twenty six million people watched England’s World Cup match against Croatia and it shows that sport is one thing that still brings the nation together. Thirty years ago it was the EastEnders Christmas special and forty years ago it was the Morecambe and Wise specials. It used to be comedy and drama that brought the nation together and now those audiences have fragmented sport has taken their place.”
The advent of colour TV was a big moment in sports broadcasting particularly for snooker, with the BBC launching Pot Black on the back of it. Today, innovations are being introduced all the time. “All the progressions from colour into HD and ultimately super HD is it brings the sporting experience right to the viewer. But it’s also about other developments such as mini-cameras in the ears of referees, or bike riders helmets,” says Mosey. He points out, too, that technology has its limitations. “3D hasn’t really taken off. It can work quite well in a sport like boxing where you have a confined area but it doesn’t work well in a big stadium. 3D football just looks like it’s being played by Subbuteo figures.”
The exhibition charts these changes, as Elinor Groom, curator of television and broadcast at the museum, explains.
“The UK has pioneered new technology throughout the history of sports broadcasting, and that spirit of innovation continues today.”
For the Epsom Derby in 1931, they were breaking new ground. “The inventor John Logie Baird took along a caravan filled with spinning drums, gaskets and valves and other pieces of equipment that he’d bodged together to capture the races for the first time,” says Groom.
The museum has worked with the likes of BBC Sport, Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Museum, Sky Sports and the National Football Museum to offer a glimpse behind the scenes and reveal the tricks of the trade.
“We look at how cameras have become smaller and how they’re now being used in all kinds of innovative ways. At the same time there’s still that spirit of invention and Heath-Robinson attitude to making things work because they can still go wrong,” she says.
“When we think of our favourite moments in sport, it is almost impossible to think of them in isolation from the commentary, camera angle, slow motion or freeze frame that magnifies the action and delivers the drama. Technology has changed the way we experience the world’s biggest live events, and in the age of TV on-demand, online streaming and competitive digital gaming, live sport continues to bring people together.”
■ Action Replay runs at the National Science and Media Museum until September 30 and is free to enter. For more details visit www.scienceandmediamuseum.org.uk.