TV ticket that just can't lose: The biggest prize in the television ratings war is up for grabs. Meg Carter reports how ITV is battling with the BBC to televise the National Lottery

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The Independent Online
The 24 million people who watched Torvill and Dean at the Winter Olympics were proof that, in a fragmenting market, 'event television' is the one sure- fire winner. That gives added point to the battle for the rights to the forthcoming weekly event, the National Lottery, and to ITV's fears that it could lose out to the BBC.

Paul Jackson, managing director of Carlton Communications, went on the offensive for ITV last week, when he raised questions about the BBC offering what would in effect be advertising. 'The BBC,' he remarked, 'seems to be saying, 'We've got five national radio stations and two television channels - if we win the rights, we'll use all this to plug the lottery.' ' Pointing out that the ITV companies were not allowed to give undue prominence to a product in their programmes, he commented: 'This quite clearly doesn't represent a level playing field.'

The stakes are high. According to one estimate, a weekly lottery programme could attract an audience of 23 million. Richard Branson, one of the front-runners to operate the lottery, says it could be as high as 35 million - more than half the population and twice the usual audience for Coronation Street. Much depends on the kind of programme constructed around the numbers draw, and when it is broadcast.

Three ITV companies - Granada, Carlton and Meridian - are linked to two of the eight consortia applying for the licence to run the lottery. The winner will be announced in May and the television rights allocated either by auction or by the winner's recommendation. It will be in the interests both of the lottery organisers and the broadcasting company to aim for the highest possible audience.

The television coverage will be the lottery's most important marketing tool, says Justin Bodle, joint managing director of the consultancy, Roar Group, which is advising the Rainbow lottery consortium led by advertising agency Leo Burnett. 'The public's judgement of the lottery as a whole may depend on the nature of the TV content,' he says. 'It will be the most visible and intrusive element.'

The timing of the draw will dictate the coverage, rather than vice versa. Saturday evening is the most likely option, says Dan Allen, a senior manager at the accountants Coopers & Lybrand, specialising in media. 'It would offer the maximum opportunity to buy tickets up to the last minute, and a Saturday night TV show could generate the highest-profile announcement.'

ITV has yet to find a response to BBC 1's Noel's House Party, Casualty and Big Break on Saturdays. According to one ITV source: 'The lottery would be a valuable weapon.' ITV could build an entire entertainment show around the draw, bolting on other competitions and games, or even developing a Surprise Surprise approach to the previous week's winners, showing how their lives have changed.

ITV has the support of many advertisers. 'It would be a nightmare if the lottery went to the BBC,' says the media specialist Nick West, spokesman for the Association of Media Independent. 'Saturday night is the one evening ITV is consistently unable to win. The lottery will be one of the broadcast events of the year.'

Yet it appears that as many as six of the competing consortia favour the BBC, because they think its brand image would serve to establish the lottery as a part of everyday British life. According to one advertising agency executive, the lottery would be more of a national event on BBC 1.

The BBC has lobbied strongly, emphasising how it can offer the lottery local and regional television and radio support. And David Liddiment and Michael Leggo, the two senior executives in BBC TV entertainment, are well qualified to develop a compelling programme.

The argument that the BBC is the more potent national institution infuriates ITV executives, and Mr Jackson questions the corporation's tactics. 'What the BBC appears to be offering surely exceeds what it should be able to do under its charter,' he says. ITV chiefs are pressing the Independent Television Commission to relax the 'undue prominence' restrictions.

Mr Bodle believes that ITV has another drawback: the danger that individual regions might occasionally opt out of the coverage for, say, a vital local football match. 'National TV coverage is essential to the lottery's success,' he says. 'ITV would have to ensure that the programme is aired week by week at the same time in every region.'

David Elstein, head of programming at British Sky Broadcasting, says: 'As a scheduler, I'd be nervous. You would have that part of the schedule locked out week in week out and rival schedulers would know it.'

In Ireland, RTE broadcasts a one- minute prize draw twice a week and an hour-long show built around one of the Irish National Lottery's scratchcard games. The Saturday night programme, Winning Streak, is regularly one of three top-rated shows, though it runs only 35 times a year. 'The programme - and the viewers - need a rest,' Kevin Linehan, RTE's producer, says.

Mr Elstein believes that to maintain interest for all 52 weeks, a broadcaster would have to offer more than the draw. 'The question is, just what, exactly? If there's a brilliant variety show out there, it shouldn't need the lottery to make it a viable programme.' Then there is the problem of exclusivity. Although television will be first with the winners' names, other media will have the story within seconds, and rival broadcasters inevitably will take advantage of this.

In other countries, lottery programmes regularly top the ratings. By adopting one of two formats - a simple winners' draw or an entire entertainment show built around the announcement - they range from daily two-minute bulletins in Portugal to a weekly two-and-a-half- hour extravaganza in Italy.

In France, scratchcards are sold, offering players an instant win, then the chance to appear in a television show called Le Millionaire and win up to Fr1m ( pounds 112,000). 'It is a real game show with high dramatic tension,' says Kerry Jonas, head of European marketing and research at Paris-based media specialist Carat. 'Playing it can turn you into a TV star overnight.'

Those involved in the UK's National Lottery are confident it will prove as popular. But broadcasters will have to pay heavily for the privilege of showing it. Although the show itself need not be expensive to produce, television rights could cost between pounds 3m and pounds 5m a year.

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