How valuable is the World Cup to ITV?

As ITV's headline coverage of Russia 2018 begins, Ben Dowell analyses the tournament's impact on Britain's biggest commercial broadcaster

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With the World Cup underway, there are, as ever, a hard core of England football fans who still believe Harry Kane, Raheem Sterling et al have a fighting chance of lifting the trophy.

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I am not among them – but I admire the optimism.

Such optimists seem to exist at ITV. When the horse-trading took place earlier this year with the BBC about who will cover which games at this summer’s tournament, the Beeb settled on England’s first two group matches against Tunisia and Panama, while ITV took just the single group game against Belgium.

Crucially, the complicated bartering has seen ITV nab the first pick in the round of 16 and the semi-finals, with the BBC getting the choice of the quarter-finals.

Clearly there are some smart minds at ITV who believe – and indeed hope – that England do a lot better than many are expecting and make the latter knockout stages. Because ITV has a lot riding on this tournament, in particular on England doing well.

“England are not expected to progress very far in the tournament but if they defy the critics and make it to perhaps the semi-finals then that will be a huge and honestly unexpected commercial win for ITV,” says media analyst Kate Bulkley.

ITV’s coverage is centred on a studio base (compared by some to the Tardis) overlooking St Basil’s Cathedral in Red Square, Moscow. There a colourful line-up of Mark Pougatch, Gary Neville (on loan from Sky) and regular pundits Ryan Giggs, Roy Keane, Ian Wright and Lee Dixon as well as others including former French international Patrice Evra, Sweden’s Henrik Larsson and Euro 2016 final referee Mark Clattenburg.

In all, 23 matches from the group stages will be shown live on ITV and ITV4 during Russia 2018 – you can get the full details here.

Live football is a godsend for commercial broadcasters in an age when viewers can record whole ITV drama series and fast forward through the adverts. Football needs to be watched live. The half time ad break is great for ITV, attracting an audience it often doesn’t acquire – namely young men.

Men aged 18 to 34 normally account for around 5% of ITV’s overall audience according to data from TV’s research body, BARB – but they form a much larger proportion of football viewers, especially during the World Cup. And advertisers love this.

Companies selling alcohol, male grooming products and financial services are especially popular with a male audience, according to one senior buyer.

Or as commercial TV expert Andrew McIntosh from leading media firm Enders Analysis tells RadioTimes.com: “The World Cup brings together large numbers of 18-34-year-old men and ABC1 men, both socially and as simultaneous viewers. They watch less TV than most people, so they’re disproportionately valuable to certain advertiser categories.”

As for the business of selling ads, the process is highly complicated, with most sold as part of a World Cup package and very secretive deals struck based on the likely and the actual audience. Spot ad sales (specific one-off slots) are rare, especially during football tournaments, so brands committing to a bigger advertising campaign will know, say, if a game is an England one or if a quarter final has a chance of home interest.

Bulkley, an expert in this field, explains: “The World Cup is a big live event and in a year when TV advertising is predicted to be flat to maybe up 1 percent, big live events are key for ITV to keep its advertising up.”

However, it is “virtually impossible” according to ITV sources to boil the tournament down to straight numbers. There is usually increased ad spend and a swelling of revenues, but as one ITV source says, “If I put a figure on it I would just be making it up”.

Increased scrutiny of the programmes and production values means both TV companies and advertisers have to be on their game. Viewers are more curious and interested – even about the ads. Large live audiences combined with added scrutiny and global brands mean you see a lot more creative ads at this time.

“In these social environments viewers take a more active interest in the ads than in a normal schedule,” McIntosh says. “Advertising is all part of the rich grammar of TV, and viewers appreciate its role. They also use breaks to talk or use social media about what they’ve been watching, and that includes commenting on ads as they arise.”

Mistakes can be costly. ITV has not forgotten the opprobrium when its HD channel missed Steven Gerrard’s goal against the US in the 2010 World Cup. It was showing an advert for Hyundai cars at the time.

And in Thursday night’s opening game there were grumbles from viewers who had trouble watching the game on the ITV Hub.

“It’s also a big moment for the ITV website, but when I went on the site to see the opening game with Russian and Saudi Arabia I couldn’t get the feed,” says Bulkley. “This does not bode well.”

The ratings for the World Cup are also a complicated business, with official BARB ratings not accounting for pub viewing, for example. ITV’s own analysts tends to come up with an audience figure that is always much larger than the overnights statistics, which focus on viewers at home. And of course, ratings fluctuate wildly according to who is playing and home interest.

But it’s important not to get carried away about the importance of the World Cup in TV terms. One source from ITV’s ad sales department cautions that ITV’s year does not rest solely on its performance in the World Cup – even though it is important for the company.

“If England stay in the tournament it will be great news for ITV but one mustn’t overstate this importance,” says the source. “ITV is more worried about its performance over the year and what is called the unnoticed mass that tune in in huge volumes to staple shows like Coronation Street.”

ITV knows that if England make it to the semis they can expect an audience well north of 15 million. But, beyond that, it may not bring the huge bonanza you may expect. For one thing, statistics have always suggested that viewing is split 4 to 1 in favour of the BBC with the World Cup Final.

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“For ITV the tournament is an occasional ‘nice to have’, rather than a business bellwether,” concludes McIntosh. “Its fortunes depend more heavily on attracting large volumes of viewers week in, week out over the year.”


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