ITV’s live coverage of England’s crucial qualifier against Uruguay in Brazil tonight (Thursday) looks set to be broadcast gold. And if hopes are kept alive, next week’s decider against Costa Rica could well command the UK’s biggest TV audience of recent times.
Earlier kick-off times of 5pm and 8pm should help boost viewing figures, with the highs of 20.1 million for England’s first match in the 2010 World Cup, which started at 7.30pm, a realistic benchmark.
Chief among those celebrating will be ITV’s multimillion-pound sponsors Sony, Santander and Carling, all tied into integrated packages thanks to deals brokered by MediaCom, Carat and ZenithOptimedia respectively.
A peak audience of 15.6 million tuned in to watch England’s opener against Italy on the BBC last week. This was despite the lowest public expectations surrounding the England side since they failed to qualify for the World Cup in 1994.
'A peak audience of 15.6 million tuned in despite the lowest expectations surrounding England since 1994'
Back then, The Sun demonstrated its acerbic power by making a laughing stock of the England manager Graham Taylor, who, to this day, is still widely remembered as "Turnip Taylor".
The media scene has since exploded, audiences have fragmented and The Sun’s circulation has halved. Yet, despite a quarter of the country this week not expecting Roy Hodgson’s young team to qualify (YouGov), the pull of live TV remains.
It’s worth noting, too, that TV ratings only count people watching at home. Before the England v Italy match, the British Beer and Pub Association estimated that three million people would watch it in pubs and bars. Thousands more watched the football at the Isle of Wight Festival, where coverage on big screens must have bemused the ageing US rockers Red Hot Chili Peppers competing on the main stage.
Of course, this is the most social World Cup as well – with record Tweets, shares, views and unique users all set to follow. But, make no mistake, the lion’s share of the additional $1.5 billion in adspend the World Cup is tipped by ZenithOptimedia to help generate this year will be fuelled by old-fashioned linear TV.