Thursday night was a watershed moment in the history of British television, and not just because Owen Hargreaves managed to get through a full 90 minutes without getting injured.
The debut of BT Sport was this country’s most eagerly-anticipated channel launch since Channel 5 burst on to our screens in 1997 with a loopy, multicoloured opening night that looked like it was being filmed in the garden shed of an LSD addict.
BT’s premiere was by contrast a slicker, more serious affair, fronted by everyone’s favourite Sunday School helper, Jake Humphrey, and staged in the channel’s brand new studios at the Olympic Park. Everything had been turned up to 11 – the lighting, the gravitas, even Humphrey himself.
His liberal use of superlatives, coupled with frequent declarations of “I can’t wait” or “I’m so excited”, hinted either at a healthy slug of first-night nerves or an industrial-sized vial of poppers.
There was a grinning studio audience, plenty of celebrity cameos – brand ambassadors Rio Ferdinand, Michael Owen and Martina Navratilova all made an appearance – and some slightly stilted video-link banter with Clare Balding, still at Glorious Goodwood and still holding a Channel 4 microphone.
“We would love to have you here this evening,” Humphrey entreated. “We are missing you.” Give the woman a chance, Jakey. She’s not started yet.
BT Sport has promised to be an informal counterpart to Sky, but herein lies the paradox.
The problem facing BT is how to pull off the laid-back look when everybody knows you are pumping a billion pounds into your new make-or-break venture. Enormous spending is rarely cool, unless it is done with a certain louche recklessness: purchasing an entire family of tigers, perhaps, or buying up Nelson’s Column, relocating it to your back garden and staging the world’s most epic Swingball tournament. That sort of thing.
The danger with pitching for informality is that you end up looking a bit like George Osborne, munching self-consciously on a £10 hamburger while plotting brand new ways to impoverish us. Authenticity should be their iron law, and amid the LED-encrusted earnestness, there were occasional signs of encouragement. Danny Baker and Danny Kelly’s show (“We don’t know what it is yet”) sounds promising.
Rugby analyst Austin Healey produced the line of the night (“A really big thank you for giving Ben Kay a job”). New football pundit David James, meanwhile, offered a deliciously deadpan detachment, his low-key monotone wilfully jarring with his setting. I get the feeling he will be very good indeed.
Hargreaves, sharing commentary duties with Ian Darke for Bayern Munich v Manchester City, looked less certain.
As he did his first piece to camera, he looked shifty, suspicious of all this new technology, from the furry talky-stick he was holding to the big black filmy-box pointing at him. He looked like a man petrified to say anything, lest he accidentally dislocate a jaw or rupture a larynx and face another 18 months on the sidelines.
At this early stage, though, hunches are all we have. What is more certain is the importance of these opening salvos. Public opinion tends to follow a cogent narrative, and given that people are generally sods, such narratives are usually negative.
One technical foul-up or careless phrase could set the ball rolling. Remember, it took Channel 5 more than a decade to shake off its reputation as the home of bad porn and low-rent property shows.
At least BT has deep pockets. Should its first few months go pear-shaped, expect Ultimate Swingball to begin production in the new year.