TV's great viewing mirage

Or how what was said to be a global audience of a billion turned out to be just eight million. Nick Harris distinguishes between fact and fiction in the 2007 television viewing figures

Selling your sports rights to pay-TV fills the coffers, but terrestrial television is where the ratings war is won. That is one of the messages from a new report into the global TV audiences for 2007's most-watched sporting events. The study, by independent analysts Initiative Sports Futures, punctures myths and shows, with hard data, what the big occasions in television sport truly were.

Major events available on free-to-air TV in Britain ranked high, for example: the denouement to last year's Formula One season, the Champions League final and the Rugby World Cup final were beaten in global audience terms only by the NFL Super Bowl final.

That showdown between the Chicago Bears and the Indianapolis Colts was watched live at home, in its entirety, by 97 million people (its "average" audience) around the world. Its "reach" the numbers who saw at least three minutes of it live was 142m.

The Brazilian Grand Prix is second in the table with an average of 78m and a reach of 152m. The Champions League final was third (average 72m) and the Rugby World Cup final fourth (average 33m).

But events that many people assume were planetary box-office hits were, in fact, far from it. November's so-called "clash of the Titans" match in the Premier League between Manchester United and Arsenal reported before kick-off to be a game that would draw one billion people globally actually attracted, ahem, less than one per cent of that figure. Yesterday's report says the total world-wide in-home audience was 8m people, with a reach of 27m.

Before the game, a Premier League spokesman was quoted as saying: "It is no exaggeration to say it could be watched by one billion people." But, as a League spokesman clarified yesterday, the emphasis should have been on "could be".

The game was screened in 203 territories, and potentially in 611m homes. The reality is that only a tiny fraction of those who could watch, did watch. Official figures from Broadcasters' Audience Research Board (Barb) show the live audience was 1.477m people on Sky Sports in the UK. This was the single largest market. The rest of Europe, combined, added a few million more. North America and South America together added fewer than a million. The balance was in Asia.

As a League spokesman correctly pointed out, "out-of-home" figures are not included in Initiative's report, and when viewers in pubs and clubs are added, audiences swell by millions, or tens of millions. But Initiative's report is the best like-for-like analysis of core data of the most popular viewing habits, i.e. at home.

One sport that might feel rather humbled by the statistics is cricket. The World Cup final between Australia and Sri Lanka, in 14th place, attracted a measly 7m people globally (with a reach of 25m), and it was beaten by the Twenty20 final between India and Pakistan (10th place), with an average of 20m and a reach of 40m. And both those events were bettered, astonishingly, by the handball world championship final between between Germany and Poland in February. That ranked in seventh place with an average world audience of 23m and a reach of 56m.

Hype is a powerful tool in the TV business, with governing bodies, sponsors and broadcasters all quick to spin figures to make their events seem wildy more attractive than rivals. But Initiative's report concentrates on facts harvested from official monitoring bodies such as Barb in the UK.

Initiative has canvassed the 54 major TV markets in the world, including all the main countries in Europe, Asia, the Americas and Australasia, accounting for 90 per cent of TV households in the world. The "average" figures in the accompanying table are people who watched an event in its entirety, at home. The "reach" is the number of people who watched live for at least three minutes.

"Our figures do not include out-of-home viewing, which has traditionally been hard to measure, and of course audiences might be boosted, considerably in some cases, if there was a reliable way to add it," said Kevin Alavy, Initiative's head of analytics.

Alavy points out that free-to-air events reap rewards with good figures. "It's noticeable that the powers-that-be at Formula One and at Uefa for the Champions League make sure their showcase events are free to air where possible. And they're up there among the most watched events."

This is borne out by the 8.04m who watched Milan beat Liverpool in Europe's showcase final on ITV while 730,000 watched the same game on Sky. England's Rugby World Cup final got 13.13m on ITV.

The handball registered zilch in the UK because it was not screened. It was a cracker, apparently. Even Michael Ballack said so. And yes, Germany won.

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