Within seconds, literally, Steven Thompson has walked through the door, hung up his jacket and taken a seat at a computer, barely saying hello in the process. “Show me the Scott Allan stuff,” he directs the graphic designer sat beside him. Thompson isn’t being rude, though, at least not intentionally. In fact, it’s a moment that reflects the general tone around the production of Scottish football’s terrestrial highlights show, Sportscene.
Not so long ago, the long-running BBC programme was widely viewed as stale. Stagnant. Some even went as far to argue that it had become an illustration of the national broadcaster’s complacency concerning its coverage of the Scottish game. Now, however, there’s a vibrancy, an intensity, to Sportscene. It becomes apparent this comes from the way the show is produced.
The back-and-forth that comes across on camera is evident even in the production suite the Sportscene team sets up camp in every Sunday at Pacific Quay. The energy between the trio of presenter Jonathan Sutherland and the two resident pundits Michael Stewart and Thompson cannot be, and isn’t, faked.
At any given time, Stewart and Thompson are the biggest characters in the room. This is what they’re paid to be in front of camera, but there’s very little to distinguish between their on and off screen personas. Their patter is naturally cruder out of the studio, but the only real difference is the swearing. And the make up.
The swordplay starts before the full team has even turned up. Thompson might have arrived just minutes after midday, but Stewart is late. “When Mikey texts to say he’s at the Squinty Bridge, he means he’s in Edinburgh,” Thompson jokes about his fellow pundit, before turning his attention back to the analysis package being put together on the computer screen, verbally prodding the graphic designer as often as he can.
For the most part, the former Rangers and St Mirren striker is commenting in jest, but there is a genuine restlessness to his teasing. “Come on,” “hurry up,” “are you finished?” At times, Thompson, with all his impatient intensity, channels the spirit of Joey from Friends in that episode when he goes for audition while absolutely desperate for a pee. It’s part of his charm.
The 39-year-old is having trouble working out the formation of a team he’s watching. A quick phone call to a key player on said team soon clarifies things. From that discussion, Thompson changes the focus of the analytical point he was going to make. “There’s only about seven or eight of us in that wee room that spend every Sunday together,” he says. “Going back about three years, you would come in two hours before you went on air, you’d go to makeup and they would pick out some talking points. You might not even agree with the stuff you’re having to sell. Whereas now, we have quite a lot of control.”
As Thompson references, Sportscene was a rather different programme only a few years ago. It was in desperate need of some fresh ideas. It’s something that those involved with the show seemed wary of, taking action to address viewer concerns. Now, Sportscene is punchier, more analytical, and viewers seem to be responding. Scottish football fans have turned their ire to other targets.
“The social media feedback a couple years ago wasn’t good,” admits Eamonn Donohoe, the show’s producer. “Sportscene was getting a bit of a kicking because it’s the most watched football programme in Scotland and maybe it’s a bit of a prism for the way that people see the football in this country. Some of the reasons were outside our control – games used to be covered by two cameras, now they’re covered by four. The coverage is better so the product looks better. But things like empty seats, maybe the quality of football… it felt like they were becoming a reason to kick Sportscene.”
Sutherland, whose five-year stint straddles both the ages of Old Sportscene and New Sportsmen, takes pride in making the show “relevant again.” “It’s still a meeting place for Scottish football,” he continues, “and I think in this increasingly fragmented media age it’s brilliant that we still have that.” The audience was always there for Sportscene, being Scottish football’s only highlights show on terrestrial TV, but most would agree that it is now serving that audience, as broad as it may be, more effectively.
Stewart arrives and almost instantly the rapport between the former Hearts and Hibs midfielder and Thompson, in particular, is apparent. Conforming to stereotype, the first topic of conversation sparked by Stewart is Craig Levein and comments made by the Jam Tarts boss that week. Soon, chat turns to Netflix series the two pundits are currently watching. Thompson takes a break from hassling the graphic designer to give his review of Ozark, very nearly blurting out countless spoilers in the process. Then it’s back to the task at hand – highlighting the burgeoning relationship between David N’Gog and Alex Schalk.
Between Sportscene, BT Sport and Sky Sports, who revised their approach for the start of the season, the entertainment value in the coverage of Scottish football has been ramped up in recent years. BBC Scotland might not have something as bombastic as Stephen Craigan v. Chris Sutton, but the decision to stick with the trio of Stewart, Sutherland and Thompson was a conscious one. One that blew away the cobwebs.
“There was a point when I started Sportscene about five years ago,” says Sutherland, “when it was still on a rotational basis in terms of the pundits that we used and I remember doing my first programme with Steven and Michael. It just felt really good. Over time we all came to the conclusion that it helped the programme to have the continuity of the three of us every week.”
While all three bring their own dynamic to the equation, there’s a particular bond between Sutherland and Thompson. “A bromance?” laughs Stewart, Thompson shifting uncomfortably in his seat to his right. “I think that’s a fair comment.” Producer Donohoe isn’t so keen to enact such a divide. “If I was getting married again they could all be my bridesmaids,” he smirks, diplomatically.
Within minutes, the team are back in their production suite going over the final running order. This encapsulates the spirit of Sportscene, or at least the work that goes into it behind the scenes. There is, what Richard Keys could call, banter, some of it cutting and sharp-edged in its nature, but everyone involved is aware of the preparation required to put on an hour-long show. Stewart and Thompson do their fair share of the heavy lifting.
Of course, there are still areas in which Sportscene is still a target for some. While the earlier live slot of 6pm on Sunday has appeased many, there are still calls for the show to be broadcast on Saturday night, as Match of the Day is south of the border. This is outside BBC Scotland’s control, though, with the current SPFL rights contract stating that highlights of Saturday games cannot be shown before 6pm on a Sunday, and Sunday games cannot be put online before midnight. That the earlier time slot on Sunday isn’t broadcast in HD also irks.
The balancing act between purely showing the highlights and analysing them can also be tough. As Sutherland says, “you have to try and satisfy so many different types of viewers.” Some want more analysis, others want less analysis. “Sometimes you want to look at something in more depth, but the time constraints make things difficult,” Thompson remarks. “Maybe another 20 minutes would help there.” Stewart is quick to point out how a lengthier time slot might actually accentuate the issue. “Yeah, but people might just want more football in that extra 20 minutes.” This is Sportscene’s curse.
The live broadcast goes smoothly, despite Stewart forgetting to reference a number of readied statistics. “I had all these prepared,” he bemoans in frustration as the cameras stop rolling, lifting notes from under the table. All that work for nothing. But at least nobody can accuse Stewart, and the rest of the Sportscene, team of not putting the work in.
Photography by Fraser McFadzean.