FA Cup: Q&A with BBC’s head of football Mark Cole

The FA Cup makes its much-celebrated return to BBC Television this season and the corporation’s lead executive for football Mark Cole has given his insights to Sport On The Box about the BBC’s extensive coverage plans.

Having won back free-to-air rights to the FA Cup from ITV in a four-year deal running through to 2018, the BBC recently unveiled a wide-ranging mix of plans as part of its attempts to revitalise interest in the world’s most famous domestic cup competition.

BBC TV will be airing at least 16 live FA Cup matches every season in an arrangement similar to the previous ITV deal, which guarantees that the top pick of live matches will be shown on free-to-air television throughout the entire competition.

But the BBC’s coverage doesn’t stop with the live games or traditional highlights shows, as the corporation will introduce a number of new innovations that they hope will drive forward TV coverage of the competition and boost its popularity, which many from within the game feel has waned, as a result of many factors, in recent seasons.

New innovations include access-all-areas coverage at the grounds for each live match, interactive Final Score programmes and Football Focus roadshows, as well as moving the draw to a prime time slot on Monday nights and basing it at various venues across the country, while another key part of the BBC’s plans is the extra prominence it is promising to give to the early rounds of the competition.

Football fans will not be able to avoid the action over FA Cup weekends from now to the final at Wembley on May 30 next year, as the corporation pulls out all the stops in its attempts to restore this great British sporting institution to its much-cherised former glory.

One of the BBC bosses at the forefront of revamping the FA Cup’s television output is Mark Cole, who is the corporation’s Lead Executive for football coverage.

Mark has worked behind-the-scenes on a variety of sporting events and familiar programmes as both an editor and producer throughout his career with BBC Sport, including Match of the Day, Football Focus, the Open golf championship and BBC Sports Personality of the Year.

Ahead of First Round Proper weekend on November 7-10, Mark spoke to Sport On The Box about the BBC’s plans in-depth and what fans can expect to see on their screens this season as part of corporation’s bold plans to revamp the FA Cup.

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Follow Mark on Twitter: @markcolebbc

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SOTB: The FA Cup has been absent from BBC TV screens for six years. How much have you and the BBC team been looking forward to it coming back?

Mark Cole: Hugely. We’ve all been talking about it for the past 18 months now, so to finally be at the point where it’s about to come onto our screens is great.

We put a lot of effort into the pitch process and spoke to the FA at length about what we thought we could do in terms of new ideas and innovations to help improve coverage of the competition.

Pretty much all of what we promised in our original pitch will hopefully be delivered on, so we’re all really excited and looking forward to getting it all off with a bang over first round weekend with a huge amount of output, which we hope will bring in big audiences.

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In essence, what are the key changes to FA Cup coverage that fans will notice this season in comparison to the previous TV deal?

The extra prominence that we will give to the first and second rounds of the competition are a big part of our plans and as a public service broadcaster we really want to reach out to every fan of every club if we can during this period.

Our three key elements are the live game, which will be in a primetime Friday night slot in the early rounds, we’ve got Football Focus, which will be going on the road to a selected club each round during the competition, so we’ll be going from Warrington on the Friday to Weston-Super-Mare on Saturday lunchtime over first round weekend alone!

Then there is the draw on Monday nights, which we are also taking around the country, so we will be in the National Football Museum in Manchester for the second round draw, then in Hull for the all-important third round draw, so we’re really trying to get across the country throughout the whole weekend and reach out to as many fans as we possibly can.

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One stand-out innovation is the new interactive FA Cup Final Score show on Sundays. How will the new format work?

When it comes to our live games, you pick one and you hope you get lucky, but with the new interactive Final Score show on Sundays, where we have eight or nine games kicking off simultaneously, there is a greater chance of catching one of the big headline-grabbing upsets.

The new programme on Sundays gives us the unique chance to show goals on the screen as the go in across all our featured 2.00pm FA Cup games, as well as dip around the grounds and follow the story of the afternoon’s action, so I think that will be really good fun to watch.

Sky do something similar with their Champions League coverage and we feel the format is ideal for the FA Cup, so we’ll have the chance to drop in live during exciting parts of the game, such as penalties and free kicks, which takes things up a notch from a normal Saturday Final Score show.

We’ll have a few of our reporters in-vision at the grounds and you’ll be able to see the matches going on behind them as they report live on screen, plus we will also get to speak to the managers at various points during the games, so we are really looking forward to seeing how it all comes across on screen on Sunday.

It’s amazing how millions of viewers are gripped by the Saturday afternoon results shows, where fans watch the BBC Final Score or Sky Soccer Saturday pundits talking about the action they are watching themselves on a monitor, so we’re really interested to see how our new FA Cup show will go, where we will be able to talk about and illustrate the action as it happens.

The format is also great news for the clubs themselves as they all the featured teams on the FA Cup Final Score show will receive £12,500 from the FA, so for the likes of Gosport and Braintree it will provide great exposure on many levels.

I’m sure there will be things we pick up on the first show and perhaps change for future shows, but we’ve piloted the show and we are really impressed with the format, so fingers crossed for Sunday.

 

Will the FA Cup Final Score format be used beyond the opening rounds of the competition?

With regards to future rounds, if the format works then we will certainly consider bringing it in for the third and perhaps the fourth rounds of the competition.

By the nature of the way the fixtures are scheduled this year, with a full round of Premier League fixtures on New Years Day, there will be a lot of games on Sunday over third round weekend on January 4-5, so there is a potential for it to return then, but we would need to sit down and talk to the clubs and the FA about it and that is stage we have yet to reach.

At the moment we’re focussing on delivering the best show we can for the first two rounds and show the clubs and the FA that this is a format which works and the fans like, but there certainly is the possibility of using it over third round weekend, when Premier League and Championship clubs enter the competition.

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How important will the role of the BBC’s wide-ranging digital outlets and social media channel be in the corporation’s FA Cup coverage?

One of the things we’re trying to push is the fact that all the goals from Saturday’s games will be available to watch on the BBC Sport website in the evening, which we hope will all be put up by at least 10.00pm, depending the availability of the footage. 

Our social media teams will be working with the clubs so that as soon as the highlights from their game has been uploaded onto the site, then we contact that club and they can then tweet out the link of the clips from the game to the fans following their social media networks.

There is no traditional Saturday night highlights programme for the opening rounds, though we do have a show on Sunday tea-time, but the fact the probably most of the goals will be available to watch on all our platforms so soon after the final whistle is really positive step forward.

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Regarding match picks for live FA Cup games, how will the arrangement now work under the new shared TV deal with BT Sport?

The arrangement is slightly more complicated than the previous ITV deal, in that the order of live match choices for third and fourth pick games, as well as first and second-choice replays, alternates from round three onwards.

Essentially though, the first pick of live games from every round are guaranteed to be shown on the BBC, with BT getting more live games as part of their deal, so it evens itself out as they get the extra quantity of games and we have the choice of the top game from each round.

The great thing about the first round was that there were seven or eight great ties to choose from, most pitting non-league sides against Football League opposition, so we have the task of picking the best tie for our live game, as well as choosing the games for our Final Score show on Sunday.

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There is always much contention between fans over the match choices that TV companies make for live matches, particularly in the FA Cup.

Can you give us an insight into how the BBC comes to choosing live games for each round?

It’s one of those things that sounds very simple but can occasionally be a bit of a minefield on so many levels, with regards to scheduling, demands from the clubs, fans, police, etc.

The approach I take is very similar to one I used when I was editor of Match of the Day, in that all you try and do is simply pick out which match would the majority of neutral fans want to watch the most.

You take in a lot of things into consideration, but so often it is a gamble as to which match makes a good and engaging cup tie, one that people are going to want to switch on to watch and that won’t be over as a contest in the first 15-minutes. 

Some you get right, others you get wrong, but its good in the early rounds that you can pick from a really diverse range of ties.

For example, our first live game features Warrington, the lowest ranked side in the competition who play in a rural ground, up against League Two opponents in Exeter City; and no matter what happens in the game itself, there is a strong story there that we feel will resonate with fans at this very early stage in the competition.

In later rounds, its no secret, of course, that the likes of Manchester United and Liverpool deliver large audiences, but for us, unlike our colleagues at ITV and BT, who have commercial pressures when picking these games, it is not just about showing the match that will bring in the biggest ratings.

We want to try and get some of the more traditional romantic FA Cup storylines across into our coverage where possible, but that said if we have the choice of screening one of the big Premier League derbies that the draw may offer in the later rounds, then we would choose that as it is most likely to be the game that most fans will want to watch, so its a balance between those two aspects.

Our ideal scenario, in the third round for example, is a bumper game between two Premier League heavyweights, while our other tie would feature a lower league team up against a team from the top flight or the Championship, but again there is no exact science as you get some right and others wrong during the competition.

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Another idea to help boost the profile of the competition is the launch of January FA Cup month. What does the BBC have in store for viewers here?

This is an idea which we came up with in our original pitch to the FA which is an idea largely based on March Madness in the American sport.

The BBC has six live FA Cup games during the month of January, along with a huge amount of support programming from our traditional football output such as Football Focus, Final Score and Match of the Day.

But January FA Cup month will essentially see the BBC commit to bring extra FA Cup-themed content to audiences across all out platforms on every single day of the month.

These range from special editions of tea-time quiz Pointless, which some of the BBC team filmed this week, to guest appearances on The Graham Norton Show and other primetime BBC TV brands, which we’re really focussing on to help push the FA Cup during the month of January when interest in the competition is perhaps at its greatest.

We also have a special BBC Three documentary looking at the 50 greatest FA Cup moments, so we are really pushing out our FA Cup content at every stage of the competition, whether it be during extra prominence of the early rounds, or in January when the momentum of the competition really starts to get going when the top-flight teams enter, then the third part of our FA Cup drive will be ahead of the final itself next May.

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It is fair to say that the FA Cup has gone through its peaks and troughs over the last decade or so, on a number of levels.

What elements do you think are key to restoring the prestige of the competition to somewhere near its former status?

I think all the basis of our ideas serve as a reminder of how important the competition still is to players and fans across the country and we look at using any way we can to push this message through.

We’ve put together a film with Danny Murphy as part of the BBC’s Get Inspired series, which goes out during the live game, in which he went back to Crewe Alexandra to chart his FA Cup story, from playing in the first round under Dario Gradi to playing in the Liverpool team which won the trophy,

The team has also been filming with Thierry Henry and talking to him about what the FA Cup means to him, from his days of watching the FA Cup final as young boy growing up in France, which goes to show that the competition means so much to everyone who has watched it or had the fortune to play in it over the years.

We’ll also be reinstating some of those much-cherised FA Cup traditions, such as wall-to-wall coverage on FA Cup Final day on BBC One, just like the old days, as well as the draw on Mondays, so all these things we hope will remind people of the competition and its importance.

The fact that managers are now under pressure to win a trophy is perhaps good news for the status of the FA Cup and they starting to wise up to the fact that winning the Cup can go a long to securing their own future. You only have to look at Arsene Wenger last season, as without that Wembley triumph he would still be under enormous strain from the fans to end Arsenal’s long trophy drought.

But with the BBC, as well as BT, working together with the FA in a three-way partnership, I hope we can remind people of what the competition is all about and hopefully that will come across on screen.

The BBC has got a really strong working relationship with all other the major UK football broadcasters, whether it be ITV at the World Cup and European Championships, Sky Sports on the Premier League, or now with BT Sport on the FA Cup, and we’ve been very open with BT about our plans and we see them complimenting our coverage rather than being direct rivals.

We also share on-screen talent, such as Robbie Savage, Michael Owen and Rio Ferdinand, across both networks, so it’s a really strong partnership between us and one which we value hugely, but we will also be bringing in new faces such as key managers and current players who have made their mark on the competition, alongside our newly established Match of the Day regulars like Phil Neville and Danny Murphy, to make sure our output stays fresh and appeals to the widest possible audience, so hopefully that will come across when our coverage starts.

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Follow FA Cup 1st Round weekend across the BBC – CLICK HERE for SOTB’s full TV guide

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