Football: Italian dish may be too rich for Sky: This season every TV station is screening football. Trevor Haylett takes early soundings to find out who is winning the ratings league

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The Independent Online
IT IS a whole new and bitter ball game. The fight for the early leadership of the FA Premier League has found a parallel in the multi- million pound scramble for the allegiance of the armchair fan who, by punching his remote control into BSkyB, ITV, BBC or Channel 4, has never had it so good.

Seven weeks into the season and patterns have begun to develop. Who are the Blackburn Rovers of the TV screen? They all say they are doing very nicely thank you, but then they would, wouldn't they?

Naturally most attention so far has focused on the satellite station who trumped the independent network by securing the exclusive rights to show the Premier League live with a dramatic 11th-hour swoop. Amid a blaze of publicity, excessive hyperbole and grandiose advertising campaigns - not to mention dancing girls and firework spectaculars - BSkyB launched its product in August to an audience that just topped one million.

Since September and the introduction of a subscription fee figures have dropped and are currently averaging around the half- million mark (see chart). The difficulty comes with interpreting the figures - a problem exacerbated because there can be contrasting statistics from different research organisations. Figures from the widely respected BARB tend to lower BSkyB's ratings.

BSkyB says it is encouraged and never expected anything other than a slow building process. A spokeswoman, Jackie Leavy, said: 'We are a specialist station that people are paying for and we haven't anywhere near the potential audiences of the terrestial stations. It is silly to compare.

'We are happy with the figures. Dish sales are around 3.4 million - with a large waiting list - and we've topped more than a million subscriptions, way past our target figure.'

BSkyB may be content with its performance, but the feeling remains that it has been upstaged by Channel 4, who have consistently exceeded two million viewers for live Italian football on a Sunday afternoon. Paul Gascoigne, Des Walker and David Platt have accelerated the domestic interest but Neil Duncanson, the head of sport for Chrysalis TV, which provides coverage for Channel 4, says supporters are also turning on to the likes of Marco van Basten and Roberto Baggio.

'We are consistently in the top 20 for Channel 4 programmes and sometimes in the top 10, which is tremendous for the kind of station we are serving,' Duncanson said. 'Different people will quote different figures to support their case but the one I like is the one that says that for the Sunday before last 116,000 homes equipped with BSkyB were in fact watching our programme.

'We are wiping BSkyB off the screen, end of story, and they must be cursing their decision not to continue their support of the Italian League.'

For many involved in football it is not just a question of who is winning the ratings battle, but what effect the saturation coverage will have on interest in the game.

Many clubs are understood to be regretting the decision to throw in their lot with a station showing 60 live games and numerous repeats to boot. David Dein, the Arsenal vice-chairman and vociferous critic of the deal, said: 'We are extremely worried about the dangers of over-exposure. On Sunday afternoons we have the crazy situation where three stations are broadcasting three different games, often at the same time.'

The FA's commercial director, Trevor Phillips, has had a running dispute with BSkyB over their decision to broadcast live Gascoigne's debut for Lazio against Tottenham in opposition to a large programme of Coca-Cola Cup ties.

Nevertheless he defends the new station against criticism of its figures, saying: 'It's too early to be making assumptions. The fragmentation of televised football has not helped to increase the overall audience but I do think it is important for all sport in this country to have a viable third option, to break up the price-fixing cartel that used to operate between the BBC and ITV.'

Having missed out on the Premier League amid angry words and lawsuits, ITV is making the best of what was left - the remainder of the Football League. A complicated package to take account of the varying demands of the regional companies was renegotiated.

It is not to everybody's liking, notably West Ham, who were unhappy when the first LWT live match resulted in them losing pounds 21,000. Their lowest home crowd for 35 years, 11,493, was at least 5,000 down on what they expected for a Saturday fixture. They received a fee of pounds 24,000 but estimate they lost pounds 45,000 in gate receipts.

------------------------------------------------------------------------ Viewing figures for televised football ------------------------------------------------------------------------ BSkyB BBC Date Match Av Audience Date Match Av Audience 16 Aug Nottm Forest 520,000 15 Aug Premier League 5.2m v Liverpool highlights* 17 Aug Manchester 570,000 22 Aug Premier League 4.9m City v QPR highlights* 23 Aug Liverpool 480,000 29 Aug Premier League 6.1m v Arsenal highlights* 24 Aug Southampton 577,000 5 Sep Premier League 4.6m v Man Utd highlights* 30 Aug Ipswich Town 430,000 12 Sep Premier League 3.6m v Tottenham highlights* 31 Aug Norwich 390,000 16 Sep Liverpool 4.6m v Nottm Forest v Limassol 6 Sep Man Utd v 430,000 19 Sep Premier League 3.8m Leeds United highlights* 9 Sep Spain v 470,000 ITV England 16 Sep Leeds v Stuttgart 7.0m 13 Sep Leeds Utd v 340,000 /Man U v Torpedo Aston Villa 14 Sep Coventry v 420,000 CHANNEL 4 Tottenham H 6 Sep Sampdoria v Lazio 2.92m 20 Sep Manchester 250,000 13 Sep Lazio v Fiorentina 1.93m City v Chelsea 20 Sep Napoli v 2.01m Internazionale ------------------------------------------------------------------------ *Match of the Day Figures from Broadcasters' Audience Research Board ------------------------------------------------------------------------