Fan channels are popular in 2017 and it’s not hard to understand why. This is now a world in which the supporter feels marginalised and so it’s entirely natural that a movement which returns their voice is embraced. If the modern-day fan has really just become a consumer, then social media – despite its many evils – does at least add a pair of eyes to the corporate facade.
They are a force for good, then. They allow supporters to be heard at a time when clubs are only interested in holding them by their ankles and shaking their pockets empty. Catching fans immediately after they leave matches, these cameras capture that elusive real-person angle that Sky and BT seem less than interested in and present a perspective which challenges Richard Scudamore’s perfect world.
They are an excellent idea. Twitter may have provided a stage for everyone to dance and shout on, but fan channels have added a third dimension. Real people, real faces; it works because it conveys emotion by a means other than block capitals, exclamation marks and irate emojis.
Well, in the beginning it did. Now, as the genre involves, that original concept is mutating into something ugly. Rather than being a true depiction of fan culture, they reward those with the loudest voices and the lowest levels of self-respect. Less forums of self-expression and more avenues for low-grade opportunity, they are becoming character creation factories. The ubiquitous ArsenalFanTV (as derided by Gary Neville), for instance, has become a theatre of the absurd in which preposterously affected personalities are thrust into the football community’s conscious. It’s all scripted buzz-phrases and Jeremy Kyle culture and it possesses the charm of watching two unpopular children being forced to fight in a playground.
There’s Claude (angry, middle-aged) pointing and shouting at Ty (merchandise fetish), there are the smirking faces behind them giving knowing looks to the camera, and here we all are laughing away at this humanity car-crash – and we aren’t just slowing down to see the accident, we’re getting out of the car, setting up deckchairs and gathering around the wreckage.
It’s The Only Way is Essex or Made In Chelsea, just without any of the make-up, music or reassuring knowledge that everyone reverts to relative normality when the ad breaks roll. These characters may have refined their catchphrases and practiced their rants in the bathroom mirror, but they are almost exclusively the object of humour rather than playing an actual part.
While it may be pious to insist that all fan channels should exist exclusively with a straight face, it’s still dispiriting to watch the industry break its ideological moorings and drift into questionable waters. It’s become an exploitative mocku-soap in which the more times Bully (Nose ring) can make Mo (“net spend”) cry the better.
And as the online traffic surges, so does the temptation to bend to that demand.
Like the well-intentioned circus owner who has watched the crowds tire of his acrobats, jugglers and elephants, the cheap heat of freakshow voyeurism has been allowed to subvert this industry’s honesty. The views are up and the revenue is rolling in, and the temptation to keep pushing the three-nosed curiosities into the spotlight grows ever more overwhelming.
But for all of ArsenalFanTV’s unsettling melodrama, a more potent influence is starting to flow through the industry’s veins.
Like any developing market place, this genre’s success and its increasing value has attracted outsiders. While many who were present at the industry’s birth still retain an independent quality – and an authentic, mouth-piece function – the dark hand of professionalism can be felt elsewhere. The original entrepreneurs may have struck oil with a bucket and spade, but now the heavy duty rigs are being craned onto the fertile ground.
SpurredOn, Full Time Devils, Chelsea Fans’ Channel and Blue Moon Rising are all operated by Shotglass Media, a digital wing of Fremantle UK, the production company behind The Apprentice, Take Me Out and Britain’s Got Talent. Big budget backing discredits the “by the fans, for the fans” selling point, because it implies a business decision and a cost/benefit analysis. These channels aren’t being set up by supporters who suffer the game’s peaks and troughs, but by hair-gelled suits who are after a quick fondle of football’s gusset.
“Hey, what’s up guys! Isn’t Emmanuel Adebayor a lazy money-grabber?”
Close your eyes and you can almost hear the brainstorm: who do the fans hate? What are their engagement rates like for this topic? Which demographics are we targeting here?
It’s all faux-passion and forcefully slurred vowels; it’s you and I, but after we’ve spent a year at RADA and been dressed in the latest derelicte collection. Trained, stylised presenters artfully dip topics in outrage-kerosine, hold them against social media’s perpetual flame, and wait for the fires of digital revenue to burn. Part of the cold set of capitalist realities though it may be, it is also symptomatic of a particularly toxic cynicism. A supporter’s passion is personal and this is really just a clandestine way of taxing it.
The industry’s founding fathers are to be applauded for identifying a niche and forgiven for breeding something which has grown beyond their control. But the perimeter has been breached now; invading agencies are inside the building and they are bagging up as much of the game’s soul as they can find. Maybe it represents the final frontier of the game’s monetisation? The point at which everything a supporter does, thinks or feels can be converted into cash for somebody else.
There was a benevolent purpose to fan channels once and a genuine intention to use them to reclaim something that had been taken. That’s still visible in the father and son who talk honestly about the game or the season-ticket holder who’s worried about an ageing centre-half, but that layer occurs metres below the pantomimic posturing and the corporate misdirection.