Cup can’t save ad biz

U.K. expects to see record TV ratings bonanza

LONDON — As an iconic TV event, the World Cup is without equal in soccer-mad Blighty, where even Culture Minister Tessa Jowell is flying the England flag from her car to support the national team.

Flag-flying aside — and in the main Brits are averse to such open displays of patriotism — if the England soccer squad reaches the final for the first time in 40 years, expect to see a record TV ratings bonanza.

It’ll be a welcome change for web heads more used to managing decline.

At the 2002 World Cup, a 1-1 draw between England and Sweden in the opening stages gave ITV1 its highest ever audience as the web recorded an 84% share.

“With the possible exception of the Olympics, no other single event generates TV audiences on this scale,” says Numis Securities media analyst Paul Richards.

Headline writers will concentrate on the ratings battle between rivals BBC1 and ITV1, who jointly shelled out £160 million ($296 million) for live match rights.

Of greater interest is what the World Cup signifies for future media trends — be it ad rates, sales of flat-panel TVs (a useful indicator for home cinema takeup) and developments in broadband, interactive and mobile TV.

For embattled ITV, the news is not good. That hoped-for World Cup bounce in a sluggish ad market is missing, even though the matches are taking place in Germany, just one hour ahead of U.K. time and therefore convenient for primetime TV schedules.

ITV1 expects revenue for June to fall by 5%. Rivals whisper that the network, whose share price remains in the doldrums, had hiked airtime rates for World Cup ad breaks to unreasonable heights, but the explanation may be more prosaic.

“The entire market is flat,” says Chris Haywood, head of TV at buying agency ZenithOptimedia. “All the major broadcasters are suffering. But there may be another factor at work. Are we seeing the first signs that as an advertising generator the World Cup is not as significant as it used to be? In the U.K. other soccer tournaments such as the Premiership and the Champions’ League are nearly as important as the World Cup.”

World Cup fever has led to a boom for retailers selling flat-panel TVs. One store, Currys, reports selling a monitor every 15 minutes, with sales up 92% year on year.

The BBC is, as part of a 12-month trial, showing the tournament in high def. But the technology is in its infancy in the U.K. and auds will be measured in thousands, rather than millions, especially since the takeup of Sky HD (which is showing the BBC’s coverage) has been hit by a shortage of set-top boxes.

Of potentially more significance is the BBC’s decision to run live World Cup coverage to U.K. auds via broadband.

“We know a lot of online viewing is done in the office, so we suspect this will allow people both to do their job and keep up with the latest action from Germany,” says the BBC’s sports topper Roger Mosey.

That is, provided the picture quality is of a consistently high enough standard.

The pubcaster also is offering interactive elements, including a choice of commentaries — or skipping commentary in favor or crowd noise from the stadium — replays, interviews and press conferences.

The BBC has leased its games to UKTV pay channel G2, which hopes to gain a following among young males by offering a more informal, fan-orientated take on the action.

In the U.K. there is no World Cup mobile coverage, perhaps because the BBC is wary of further antagonizing commercial rivals already alarmed by the extent of the pubcaster’s new-media ambitions.

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