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The Age

Optus lines up for goal

Author: Ashley Browne
Date: 11/03/1999
Words: 772
          Publication: The Age
Section: Green Guide
Page: 12
THE DEATH OF OPTUS Vision's Sports AFL late last season was mourned by footy nuts. To steal a quote from Roy and H.G., too much football was barely enough.

But the truth was that despite our obsession with footy, particularly in Victoria, a dedicated football channel was a commercial disaster. And when Channel 7 announced the formation of a new dedicated sports channel on pay-TV to replace the ailing Sports Vision, the days of wall-to-wall football on our TV screens seemed destined to be over.

C7 was formally launched on 1 March, and moves into full swing later this month when the new AFL home-and-away season starts. The new station's programming won't entirely satisfy football desperates - rugby league and union, basketball and soccer also get a look in - but it should cater more than adequately for those of us who care about little else than AFL between late March and the end of September.

Steve Crawley, the executive producer of C7 knows well enough not to meddle with a winning formula. To that end, there will be at least 30 live and exclusive games to the station this year, including one game each Saturday afternoon beamed into Melbourne, up to three replays of every match played the previous weekend and the continuation of the popular panel shows of the past three years - Monday evening's Footy Feedback and Thursday evening's Footy Focus.

``I grew up with rugby league and I hate to use the word `religion', but Australian football really is a religion," said Crawley last week. ``No other sport in the world will get as much coverage during its season than will AFL footy on free-to-air and pay-TV this year."

The major change since last season is the live Saturday afternoon games, played out of, and beamed back to, Melbourne. The AFL has long discouraged live football in Melbourne, to protect both its gate and the myriad of suburban and country football leagues that play their matches at that time. But this tests the boundaries like never before, and it will be interesting to see whether a steady diet of Collingwood, Carlton and the other Melbourne-based clubs finally gives Optus Vision's subscriber numbers the kickalong they apparently need.

The AFL has another reason to be pleased with C7. The station recently won the right to provide content to Austar, the pay-TV service that is particularly strong in rural New South Wales and Queensland, which gives the AFL a formidable weapon at its disposal as it seeks to spread the gospel into the heartland of rugby league.

``The game will be getting to a hell of a lot more people," Crawley says. ``Optus hasn't been available to a lot of people in regional areas, so football hasn't been able to go head to head with rugby league. But all country areas will now get to see the AFL."

There will be subtle differences in C7's footy coverage when compared to that of Sports Vision. The exclusive pay-TV games will revert to being produced by Seven, rather than Vuecast, the production house headed by David Barham. But Vuecast will still be responsible for the Monday and Thursday panel shows, although Footy Feedback has undergone a few changes, with Tim Lane vacating the host's chair for Talking Footy, and Dermott Brereton and Gary Lyon forced to stand aside because of their arrangements with Channel Nine. Robert Walls is the new host and Stan Alves and Stephen Silvagni new panellists along with Age football writer Rohan Connolly, who has been retained. Like Brereton and Lyon, Walls and Silvagni are also linked to the Nine footy stable, although perhaps they are being allowed to straddle the two networks because of their lower profile.

But no matter who fronts them, Crawley is keen for them to remain the sort of shows that diehard football fans won't want to miss, and discussions are well under way for further club and fan-based shows. ``That's going to be the beauty of C7. We don't have to be all things to all people like network TV. If something doesn't appeal to them at a particular time because it's not about their club, they know that if they tune in later, they will find a show that they do like.

``I don't think TV needs more spic-and-span productions hosted by your regular TV types. We can take more risks here - our words and our ideas are what will give us our credibility."

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