The TV shoot-out

At the 2002 World Cup, the BBC won the audience ratings battle by three to one. This time round, ITV is hoping that the recruitment of a former Beeb favourite will help to even the score. Richard Gillis reports
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Such massive exposure puts the relative merits of both production teams under a fiercely critical spotlight. It is in ITV's favour that no match will be broadcast simultaneously until or if England reach the semi-final stage, as the BBC has won every head to head since the first ever shared transmission of a World Cup game in 1966.

At the last tournament, from Japan and Korea in 2002, an average of 12.4 million people watched the quarter-final between England and Brazil on the BBC, while 3.6 million watched on ITV. For England's second-round match against Denmark, the BBC peaked at 13.2 million and ITV got 3.6 million. And at the 2004 Euro Championship, the BBC had an average of 9.6 million viewers and a peak of 13.2 million for the final between Portugal and Greece, compared with ITV1's 3.3 million and 3.9 million.

And underlying the usual stand-off is some added feeling between the two camps, illustrated by a recent outburst by former Beeb anchor Steve Rider, who criticised his former employers for what he saw as their lack of "whole-hearted commitment" to sports coverage.

Rider moved to ITV last year to be the face of the network's Formula One coverage. He has since emerged as a key man at this World Cup. His role is to put journalism centre stage according to Mark Sharman, head of ITV Sport. "We have an edge editorially and journalistically," he says, "and we have strength in depth. There is much talked about sports journalism and it is assumed that that means exposing drug stories. That's fine but it also means telling the story well."

Sharman took over as head of ITV Sport when Brian Barwick left to take up residency at the FA. And he appears to have followed Barwick's lead when assembling his roster of on-screen talent, with Sam Allardyce and Alan Curbishley both having been interviewed for the England manager's job, with another, Stuart Pearce, mentioned in despatches.

Sharman says he sees his role as taking ITV's sports coverage upmarket, citing his part in shaping Channel 4's Bafta-winning cricket output.

The former Sky and Channel 4 man's strategy is aimed squarely at exposing a chink in the armoury of the BBC's sporting output. He professes enormous admiration for Gary Lineker as a broadcaster and concedes that the BBC's strength lies in the triumvirate of Lineker, Alan Hansen and John Motson. But the use of celebrity sports people, who have come to dominate BBC Sport's big event output, is a double-edged sword.

"Some of them are very good at it," says Sharman, citing Channel 4's cricket coverage. "Nobody would accuse those ex-players for not being on top of the game, so you can't be hard and fast about it," he says. But for every Gary Lineker there is a Sally Gunnell, or a Peter Schmeichel, stars who lack the necessary skills as professional broadcasters. And by placing such a premium on a famous face, the BBC's studio can sometimes seem a very matey place, lacking the objectivity of Radio Five Live's output or the best of the print media's sports coverage.

Not surprisingly, the BBC refutes this. Niall Sloane, the BBC's head of football, is bullish about his use of ex-players. "When you go down the Dog and Duck, you don't hear many people say 'I wish they'd get that bloke from the Daily Express on rather than the one with six Championship medals'," says Sloane. "Gary Lineker has a better editorial take than any other broadcaster I know."

Any debate about the relative merits of football on TV is played out under the looming presence of Sky Sports. By investing huge financial resources in raising its production values, Sky has moved the goal posts in terms of the viewers' expectations of the coverage of the sport. But the game's administrators have been slow to embrace new technology compared with other sports. Rugby union and cricket viewers enjoy the benefits of third umpires using Hawkeye as an aid to decision-making and video referees determine whether tries have been scored via a TV link-up.

"Television is limited by technology," says Sharman. "We have things that would enhance the coverage, but football doesn't allow it. Football hasn't taken the next step - there has not been a marked breakthrough as there has in other sports. That's not television's fault: the football authorities will not allow it."

However the coverage stacks up, the arbiter for both channels will be the audience ratings. The key England games will secure some of the biggest viewing figures of the year. When England played Argentina in the 1988 World Cup, in the same European time zone as this year's event, 21 million people tuned in to ITV.

This time ITV has two of the three first group stage matches, against Trinidad and Tobago and Sweden, both in favourable early evening and peak-time slots. The BBC has the opener against Paraguay, putting faith in Sven's men to reach the second round and quarter-finals, both of which would be on the BBC. The risk-averse nature of ITV's choice of games is driven by commercial imperatives. According to analysts Media Planning Group, audience figures will go off a cliff if England fail. In Euro 2004, UK audience ratings fell by 71 per cent in the game following England's elimination by Portugal in the quarter-finals. In the last World Cup audiences fell by 79 per cent following England's 2-1 loss to Brazil. To secure this World Cup and the previous one, BBC and ITV paid a joint rights fee of £160m. Both have extended their joint tenure until 2014. For the BBC, critical and ratings success is important to justify the ongoing use of licence fee money to pay for expensive rights to international sports.

For ITV, it is a less subjective affair. Advertising revenue from the event must cover the cost of the rights. This looks as if it might be a close call as MPG is predicting the network will lose more than £14m in revenue during the tournament. Whoever is fronting the coverage, figures like these make ITV's involvement in future World Cups seem like an expensive folly.

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