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BBC vs. ITV: How to explain the World Cup viewing gap

16 Jul 2014  |  Raymond Snoddy 
BBC vs. ITV: How to explain the World Cup viewing gap

Why was the BBC able to average more than 12m viewers compared with ITV's 2.9m during the World Cup? The answer is more complicated and far reaching than you might think, writes Raymond Snoddy.

The World Cup in Brazil underlined yet again a number of important truisms about football - and we are not talking about the now traditional under-performance of the England team, denied even the chance of going out on penalties in Brazil.

The first iron law of World Cup football, and almost any large sporting event, is that when the BBC goes head-to-head with ITV on a big sports event the BBC always wins.

The gap is usually embarrassing and is in fact difficult to explain rationally, given that usually the pictures are identical and come from a pooled feed provided by the owner of the event.

So how is it possible that more than 20 million viewers can watch Germany beat Argentina and the BBC harvests 16.7 million of them, leaving a paltry 3.9 million for ITV?

The BBC's Gary Lineker is smooth, knowledgeable and professional and Adrian Chiles, widely described as the Marmite of front-men, can only counter with his enthusiasm for the game. But that doesn't even begin to explain the gap.

The unpalatable truth is that it probably wouldn't matter at all if ITV made a huge transfer bid for Gary and started dressing their studio pundits in suits rather than beach flip-flops.

The dial wouldn't move at all.

The advertisements may make a slight difference with some, and the BBC boasts about "uninterrupted" coverage which in fact only means uninterrupted punditry. And after all millions of football fans are perfectly accustomed to having the half time chat bisected by ads on Sky Premiership coverage.

None of it explains why the BBC was able to average 12.1 million viewers compared with 2.9 million for ITV, although the very specialist nature of the commercial channel's audience still enables it to charge a hefty premium of up to £300,000 a slot for ads.

Super Bowl it wasn't.

There is only one possible way to account for such viewing figures and the explanation is necessarily subjective and psychological.

Somewhere in the deep recesses of the British collective brain there is a default setting that takes viewers in disproportionately large numbers to the BBC on important occasions, particularly major international sporting events.

The unpalatable truth is that it probably wouldn't matter at all if ITV made a huge transfer bid for Gary and started dressing their studio pundits in suits rather than beach flip-flops."

At a very visceral level, despite the best efforts of BBC management over the years, there must be a surviving element of trust and respect that to the wordless fury of talented rivals must recognise the Corporation's role as a national public service broadcaster.

It is a valuable, if intangible, commodity, and would surely be jeopardised if the BBC was forced, or acquiesced in going down the "voluntary" subscription route. It would then be a national broadcaster no more, and even worse no-one would be.

There is an even larger law that major sporting events on terrestrial television bring the whole world together in a way that few, if any, other modes of communication manage to do.

When the final figures are in it is possible that the 2014 World Cup final will have been watched by more than 1 billion people compared with 909 million for Spain versus The Netherlands in 2010.

Some of the viewing shares are astonishing - 81.5 per cent share in Italy, and perhaps more understandably, no less than an 86.3 per cent share in Germany, which translates into an all-time peak of 41.89 million viewers.

In the US the growing love affair with "soccer" accelerated with 17 million watching the final and ESPN/ABC achieving a 39 per cent rise on 2010.

Of course good business was done by social media and on mobile.

The great German victory was watched online by a record 8.4 million fans across Europe and the Middle East, including 2.35 million visitors via broadcasters' mobile platforms.

Twitter went nuts with a new record for any sporting event of over 35 million tweets.

The obvious needs to be belaboured. It is live network television that drives such remarkable audiences watching on television sets. It is network television that also provides the momentum for new levels of engagement on social media and online.

Not even FIFA boss Sepp Blatter is daft enough surely to contemplate taking his sport off network television in search of higher subscription revenues elsewhere. If he ever did it would be a disaster for all concerned.

It is why what some will see as interference with the operation of free markets - listing sports rights for free-to-air television - is a vital protection for the public.

At the margins, deciding what events should qualify for listing is a tricky business, but a decent rule of thumb has always been events that transcend a particular sport and reach out to a wider society.

Such lists must be defended in a world where more and more events are in danger of slipping behind the subscription barrier and therefore cut off from the widest possible audiences.

The latest apparently could be The Open, which has been on the BBC for the past 59 years but could now end up on Sky, at least according to the Daily Mail.

Now that the World Cup is over we can settle down to another lively sporting event - the battle between Sky and BT over Premiership audiences.

Sky Sports has gone to war on the slogan "More of The Games That Matter" and trying to brand itself as "Your Home of Football."

BT Sport has gone for the native advertising approach - getting one of their pundits Neil Warnock to review the top players in what looks like genuine editorial. The approach is at least topped by the words "advertising feature" though maybe not every reader will notice.

The big battle this autumn will of course be over the next three years of Premiership rights, one that will definitely go to extra time and possibly penalties.

Will Sky's blind fight for survival overcome the loss-leader approach of BT's broadband ambitions and its deep pockets?

The only certain loser here will be the viewers, who will almost certainly end up paying more as a result - whatever the outcome.

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