The Footy Show laces up for its 20th year this Thursday. It has a new timeslot but objectively critiquing the program is something that became irrelevant years ago, the reputation and sideshow of the Footy Show has become bigger than the show itself. Those that hate and criticise the show won’t have their minds changed and the still many people who tune in each week won’t drop off in year twenty. But does its notoriety also overshadow just what an effect this relatively simple TV show has had on footy itself?
First a confession, I don’t think I’ve watched the Footy Show in full for years. In its golden era of the 90s it was a must-watch and that’s not a reflection on the current show it’s just that the landscape was so different. Hardcore footy fans are catered for media-wise in spades – if anything the Footy Show probably caters more for the ‘weekend’ footy fan these days- and that’s fine. Critically it’s not going to break any new ground and I’m sure there will be many cringe-worthy moments in 2013. Truth be told the much alleged sexist undertones have tempered significantly since some high profile incidents and if you compare today to that golden era you’ll see a much less offensive show stuffed with lowbrow humour as some kind of compensation for the locker room talk that once was a feature.
So let’s travel back to 1993 , a time that in retrospect was the spluttering national competition finally on the runway and about to take off. Having said that we were still in a state of media activity that mirrored the 60s. Interstate matches had given life to live broadcasts on Sundays but apart from that it didn’t look much different. Panel match review shows sat on Sundays with the same format they’d had for 25 years. Radio was confined to the weekends, TV was the same, in fact it had regressed. The cult late night Thursday League Teams of which the Footy Show shared a base purpose had been off air for seven years and nothing had resurfaced on weekday television. There was no Fox Footy, no SEN, no web, no social media, Dermie guesting on Ernie and Denise was about as close as footy came to visual media outside of the weekend. The newspapers were the source and even they were far less in volume of content about footy.
When Channel Nine seemingly at the last minute threw its Sunday Footy Show panel on to the Friday night before Grand Final night in 1993. It was a riot with the panellists spending a couple of hours throwing their cheapest gags around at each other around the natural GF build-up and excitement. A Grand Final special is one thing, but it must have given a vote of confidence to go ahead and do it every week in 1994.
The show started in 1994 and has been a Thursday night fixture ever since. It was the golden era for the show – it was fresh and it had no competition as far as footy television went. The basic format was talking about the weeks games and generally a special guest who was generally a past great that gave it a sportsman theme. Basic but it worked.
The changes that it brought to the football landscape however were stark. Building players as something beyond the field was the most obvious one. The initial intake of regular player guests were extremely well-picked, perhaps a touch of luck involved too. It was before the management of media which gave players freedom, we were pleasantly surprised that these players were human who liked a joke. It is no coincidence of that first group of players from the early years, Watson, Brereton, Lyon and Dunstall all still play extremely influential media roles 20 years later. Others like Craig Kelly and James Hird are still playing major roles in other areas.
The unmasking of players on the Footy Show had a direct impact on the popularisation of the game with females. Sure, there’d always been a strong female following of the game, but as a teenager growing up there was a marked change in the 1993-94-95 time period, footy was something for the boys before then and then all of the sudden teenage girls were just as passionate. Maybe the Essendon Baby Bombers Mk II that rose in 1993 had a similar impact in attracting teenage girls but the Footy Show broke ground in providing something that was not watching a game of footy (Channel Seven didn’t allow game footage) but was entertainment. It appealed to females who saw footy as a weekend male thing, they were allowed in on it now. My mother would never watch a game of football. She watched the Footy Show religiously. If it could covert her it could convert those many females who did have a curiosity but didn’t have an avenue. Ironically it was seen as a blokey show, but perhaps lifting the lid on the locker room was the greatest thing to bring the mainstream female population to footy.
Friday night footy has long been the pinnacle of the footy week, what is sometimes forgotten is that it was not an overnight success. It started in 1985 with two matches, saw 6 in 1986 and then with the advent of the national competition it jumped to 17 in 1987. It then reduced to 13 in 1990 and in 1992 only 15 of the 24 rounds featured a Friday night match. 1992 is a good case study, those 15 matches drawing an average of 22,559 fans along to them while 5 games drew less than 10,000. The numbers were propped up by an 88,000 blockbuster for a Collingwood v Essendon match. Typically a lot of these matches were North Melbourne versus low-drawing interstate teams, often the least appealing match of the week. These were the days of live broadcasts for interstate Friday games but still for matches played in Melbourne, fans in Melbourne received a truncated highlights/replay package at 9:30 by which time the live match had just about finished. It’s hard to believe but apart from the odd final and sellout, this was the way Friday night games were showcased on television until the end of 1994, where still only 15 of the 24 rounds featured a Friday night match. 1995 was the year Friday night footy took its place that we now recognise, Channel Seven went to an 8:30pm delayed full broadcast of games that meant fans could watch it ‘as live’ if they wished. Big games were scheduled and a bunch of classics were played including a Richmond v Essendon draw, and now we had 20 of the 22 rounds featuring a Friday night match. Of course a bloke named Wayne Carey strutting his stuff every few Fridays might have played a part too. Despite going to the new broadcast times that would make it much easier to stay at home on a Friday night crowd jumped from an average of 35,000 per game in 1994 to 39,000 in 1995.
What does all this have to do with the Footy Show? Is it just a coincidence that 1995 was the year it became king, the year after the Footy Show debuted? The huge ratings numbers that the Footy Show pulled in on a Thursday night must have had some effect on the confidence of Seven and the league to push for better matches and a new format. If they were watching in droves on Thursday why wouldn’t they back up to watch the real thing on Friday night? The hardcore footy fan and the causal footy fan had assume a routine of settling in and taking in footy Thursday night, and what was the most immediate reaction that fan could have from the excitement the Footy Show generated. That’s right , attend or watch Friday night footy. It’s not often that you get a couple of hours of TV promotion for nothing, but that’s what the AFL and Seven got off the back of the Footy Show and Friday nights became the winner. Aside from growing a broader audience it helped build a new footy week of which Friday assumed the jewel in the crown.
The media explosion that followed the Footy Show is perhaps the most visible example of the effect it had. Footy-tainment was the new buzz word, Channel Seven have tried it in various forms without any success for 20 years. More telling perhaps is that
Seven did green light ‘Talking Footy’ in 1995, a show that was very different to the Footy Show but may never have seen the light of day without the success of the Footy Show. It ran for many years , it spawned On the Couch and shows like Footy Classified , AFL 360 and indeed you can trace most of the Fox Footy roster’s lineage back from here. The Footy Show may not have created the new landscape that sees SEN, Fox Footy and saturation media coverage but it certainly unlocked the gates.
So while we deride it and criticise it, we must recognise that it lived up its boast of being ‘More Than a Game’ – so much so that it changed the game.