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A golden age for live sport…but not TV advertising

14 Aug 2019  |  Nick Manning 
A golden age for live sport…but not TV advertising

The enduring power of live sport is crucial to linear TV, but some commercial broadcasters seem determined to make it unwatchable, writes Nick Manning

Do you remember the heady sporting days of June? Liverpool won the Champions League and England’s gallant national football team once again excited the country in the Nations League only to fall at the semi-final again. The TV audience numbers reflected the nation’s mood.

Fans also flocked to public showings of England and Scotland matches as a Sky-only tournament encouraged mass outdoor-based viewing, proving yet again the power of live sport in attracting large audiences, in and out of the home.

But you could be forgiven for forgetting all of this as we have had a possibly unprecedented wonderful summer of live sport since.

The Women’s football World Cup was an unqualified success, with BBC audiences vastly out-performing expectations. Female footballers such as Megan Rapinoe became household names.

The cricket ICC World Cup may have been a sprawling overlong tournament, but the final was quite possibly one of the greatest televised sporting events ever broadcast, with Channel 4 delivering a total peak audience of 8.3 million.

The partnership of Sky and Channel 4 demonstrated the huge attraction of England reaching a final and actually winning something in the process (albeit somewhat luckily).

And let us not forget that the cricket final overlapped exactly with one of the best Wimbledon Men’s finals ever, causing whiplash as TV viewers switched to their iPads as each run or point was scored.

Then Shane Lowry lifted the Open trophy with some thrilling golf, the Tour de France reached new peaks of excitement, and England opened the Ashes test series in typical style.

Only eight more Steve Smith innings to go….

The new Premier League season is now kicking off and promises to match in excitement the two-horse tussle from last season. For less gifted clubs, the EFL provides another season of improved entertainment as the bloated Premier League finance trickles down.

And the Rugby World Cup arrives next month, topping off one of the best sporting summers ever, with no football World or European cup to boost the numbers.

As the recent Ofcom report shows, live TV viewing is in decline as streaming services expand into half of UK homes and the linear broadcasters search for new sandbags to stem the tide. Doubling up on Love Island makes eminent sense but there aren’t many programmes that justify such a move.

And franchises such as I’m a Celebrity.. have a limited shelf-life and have to be milked before they decline.

Crucial to linear TV is the enduring power of live sport.

It remains an important driver for linear TV on multiple platforms and devices, generating substantial revenues across an increasing range of commercial opportunities, and the exploitation of expensive rights can only grow in importance as spot revenue in mainstream programming declines further.

Live sport is also one of the disappearing ways to reach the younger audiences who are adopting streaming, while providing strong off-peak viewing at a time of day where Netflix is less relevant.

But despite the importance of live sport, some commercial broadcasters seem determined to make it unwatchable. The bombardment of ads, the excessive repetition of the same commercials and the ridiculous frequency planning (or lack thereof) has made the viewer experience almost unbearable (or I watch too much live sport).

A case in point. The French tennis Open at Roland-Garros was on both Eurosport and ITV4. The coverage on Eurosport was ruined by over-frequent ad breaks with the same commercials in them. The biggest culprit of all was Bet365, with the same Ray Winstone ad in virtually every break. This is no exaggeration, and clearly any rules about ad repetition don’t apply to Eurosport and they don’t want to adopt any when there is money at stake.

ITV4 was less guilty (and is more regulated) but the constant repetition of ads from Bet365, Ladbrokes, William Hill and other gambling companies was enough to send this viewer into catatonia.

Yes, I know gambling is a highly competitive market and it’s all about app downloads, and I know they were trying to beat the new ‘whistle to whistle' restrictions, but this level of bombardment is unprecedented and unhealthy when we know people are fed up with seeing too much advertising and the same ads repeated ad nauseam.

I don’t expect the broadcasters to take a moral stand over the scandal of gambling addiction (with record complaints about gambling companies and £14.5 billion losses by UK gamblers helping pay Denise Coates of Bet365 £265 million last year), but they are in danger of relying too heavily on an income stream that will be increasingly regulated. And 32Red have shown us that there are other ways to buck the system.

But it isn’t only the betting companies. Brands such as Confused.com and IKEA don’t seem to have read the memo that says that the public don’t like bombardment, but whatever happened to TV planning for effective reach and frequency?

Has it just become, well, too much work in a multi-channel world where media agencies are hard-pressed?

It feels like the broadcasters and media agencies just want to get the money away, and as average ratings per spot decline, more spots are needed to make up the campaign targets, which were probably not especially scientific in the first place.

An honourable exception is Sky. They seem to have got the balance about right, although their subscription base means they are less vulnerable to the spot revenue pressure that affects others, and their peerless cricket coverage makes the ad breaks bearable.

Thank God for ad-free (or light) coverage if this is how the broadcasters treat the viewer experience. I found myself hoping that the BBC would be the host broadcaster as they were for the Women’s Football World Cup, or even Amazon, God forbid, whose tennis coverage has improved. Sports rights will be hard-fought in the streaming world, and ad-free coverage justifies pricing to the end-user. Count me in.

So far, I haven’t mentioned the quality of the ad content. I guess this is subjective, but I’d like to meet the people who think the Kriss Akabusi spots for Ladbrokes are witty and intelligent, especially after 50 exposures.

Unusually Bet365 obviously spent heavily on production for their copy, and Ray Winstone needs paying, so they want to get their money’s worth and will not care that the viewer experience suffers accordingly as long as the gravy train rumbles on. The broadcasters will happily take whatever is on offer when brand counts and revenue are down.

So, we’re in a spiral of bad ads excessively repeated and this can only harm the medium.

The solutions? Firstly, recognition of the problem helps and the Advertising Association is on the case, hopefully supported by its member organisations.

Secondly, advertisers should be demanding more from their media agencies. In an age of golden content (and not just in sport) there are many opportunities to be imaginative and inventive in TV planning and execution on multiple platforms in spot advertising and other mechanics (with Love Island showing how).

This applies to sport as much as anything else. Who will take advantage of the new ‘whistle to whistle’ rules and fill the gap?

Thirdly, broadcasters have to achieve a better balance between the viewer experience and revenue. Just because you can doesn’t mean you should.

TV advertising is the single biggest contributor to brand health and growth but will it remain so unless standards of creative and channel usage improve? I wouldn’t bet on it, not least of all because it would only contribute to the problem.

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BrianJacobs, Founder, BJ&A on 16 Aug 2019
“I'm not sure I would agree that Sky is blameless. How about the endlessly repeated ads for a certain chicken outlet, with variations in the local address suggesting to me in SW London that I visit them in West Bromwich, or Coventry.
Good old AdSmart!
During the Ryder Cup a few years ago, also on Sky, Ford were in pretty well every break. Now at any given moment Ford has available I don't know how many pieces of copy.
Every Ryder Cup break containing a Ford ad carried the same copy, for their MPV.
Someone had obviously given this zero thought at Mindshare, presumably basing the decision on golfers needing a large car / MPV.
Lazy thinking on all sides!”
MartinWoolley, CEO, The Specialist Works on 15 Aug 2019
“Totally agree - and would add BVOD into this as well. There are certain ones I can no longer watch as I just couldn't bear another Now TV ad every 12th minute. Doesn't matter how good the programme content is when it's shredded by unnecessary ad repetition.
Causes the advertiser long-term harm as well. Has anyone ever worked out the equation for the point at which you swear to yourself you will never, ever use that ****ing brand because they've just ruined your favourite show? Someone should.”