MEDIA: SPOTLIGHT ON; SPORT ON ITV: How can ITV compete against Murdoch’s financial muscle?

Alasdair Reid investigates ITV’s latest tactics to fight BSkyB’s sporting success

Alasdair Reid investigates ITV’s latest tactics to fight BSkyB’s

sporting success



Blackburn Rovers represented England in the European Champions Cup this

season. Unfortunately, from ITV’s point of view, Blackburn play boring

football, no-one outside of East Lancashire cares anyway and,

predictably, they failed to qualify for the second stage of the

tournament.



ITV laid out a lot of cash for the UK rights to the competition and by

Christmas it looked like money down the drain, adding yet another

chapter to ITV’s recent poor record where sport is concerned.



Last week, it tried to salvage something by showing live coverage of the

clash between two of the big-name teams still left in the competition -

Real Madrid versus Juventus from the Bernabeu Stadium. It was a game for

the connoisseur, but it was never going to set pulses racing. Was it

worth showing? Especially as Coronation Street had to be shifted to

9.30pm to accommodate it?



In recent months, ITV has been desperate to convince everyone that it

still has premier league potential as far as sport is concerned. Not

enough sport means not enough male (especially young male) ratings and

that results in some very irate beer and car advertisers. ITV just

happens to be up against Rupert Murdoch and BSkyB, for whom sport is a

top priority. It hasn’t been able to compete with the money BSkyB has

been throwing around, not just in football, but in boxing too.



There could be some help at hand, however. Last week, the Government

vowed to keep the crown jewels of British sport - things like the Cup

Final and the Grand National - on terrestrial TV, though exactly how

this will be ensured, without nationalising British sport, is hard to

see.



Meanwhile, ITV has to talk a good game. Earlier this week it used a

football evening - where media buyers could meet personalities like

Kevin Keegan and Ron Atkinson - to signal its commitment to football.

And, of course, it can broadcast top European Cup action involving non-

UK teams. But elbowing Coronation Street aside - isn’t that, to say the

least, counter-productive?



Chris Locke, the deputy managing director of the Media Centre, thinks

so. ‘Not all clients care about sport, but for some it’s very

important,’ he explains. ‘The thing is, no-one is interested in Madrid

versus Juventus. Meanwhile, on Monday night, BSkyB was getting a record

rating against 16- to 34-year-old men for its live coverage of the

Newcastle/Manchester United match. ITV has to be worried when it sees

that. It should have put a film out between 8pm and 10pm and had the

Madrid game as part of the football highlights after the news.’



ITV’s football got nowhere near the audience that Coronation Street

would have had in the 7.30pm slot - but then nothing would. More

worrying was the fact that Corrie attracted a far smaller audience at

9.30pm that it usually does in its earlier slot.



But David Connolly, the joint media director of Leo Burnett, says that

the move has a plus as well a minus side. ‘From ITV’s point of view, it

allows the channel to optimise its airtime when it has the male-biased

audiences that sport delivers. The beer and car advertisers won’t be

displeased with that,’ he points out. ‘The audience for Wednesday’s

football wasn’t great - though it was good in some regions like Ulster

and Scottish - but overall it wasn’t bad either. We lost some ratings

from Coronation Street, but it’s a trade-off. It’s important for ITV to

stick with a mix of programmes, including sport.



‘If this teaches us anything,’ he adds, ‘it’s that we all have to pray

that either Manchester United or Liverpool [more attractive, popular

teams] qualify for the European Cup next season - and actually make it

to the final stages.’



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