MEDIA: FORUM - Will the World Cup begin a media market revival? Here we go - World Cup fever is upon us again. Could it kickstart a sustained recovery in the broadcast advertising market?

It's just a tiny bit ironic that the television market, and ITV in particular, appears to be pinning its hopes for recovery on football. Give or take the odd stuffed monkey, what has ITV ever done for football? Answers on a postcard.

But having brought its own brand of magic to the English lower leagues, the network now has its sights set on more exotic targets. Today Valley Parade, Bradford, tomorrow the Saitama Stadium, Urawa. Well, not tomorrow actually - England's first match (and the first England match to be covered by ITV) is the match against Sweden on Sunday morning. And knowing ITV's luck, which is as robust as one of Michael Owen's tweaky hamstrings, it might well be its last. The last ITV-covered World Cup 2002 match featuring England, that is.

The English are in a tough group and their star players, finely tuned and delicately poised athletes that they are, are already falling like extremely aerodynamically challenged flies. And there are all sorts of other imponderables - possible wrinkles that might make even the most rash of gamblers pause for thought.

It's not your usual pull-the-handle-and-trouser-the-cash scenario that many World Cups turn out to be. The early morning timing of many matches, for a start. And ITV should be especially cautious - last time around it stood accused of overhyping the whole proposition, thus scaring off advertisers who thought the market would overheat. And let's not forget that even this time around, the network had trouble selling its onscreen sponsorship package (finally taken by Travelex for well below its initial asking price).

But hope springs eternal - and with good reason, actually. The TV market is looking strong. Is this year's tournament going to stimulate a mini-boom? And, more importantly, might it kickstart a broader and more sustained recovery?

Many sources on the media owner side are extremely reluctant to express unalloyed optimism. They've witnessed false dawns before - and they certainly don't want to look silly a couple of months down the line.

Martin Bowley, the chief executive of Carlton Sales, would second that.

But he does admit that excitement has been building nicely: "People forget how this sort of event can capture the imagination - it often happens with a big event that you have to sell far in advance. But there are lots of strong campaigns utilising key personalities involved in the World Cup coming on to TV and that is helping to drive revenue. There's a growing enthusiasm for the whole event."

Is this helping to drive revenue further into the year, though? Very possibly, Bowley responds. "There's always been a widespread view that it could kickstart the market and it looks like that might be happening. But though we're encouraged by the medium-term market we must never forget that autumn is the quarter that really matters."

Other media owners tend to agree - if the market in the final quarter is up by even a couple of per cent year on year then they'll really start to believe. Forward projections look excellent - and the upturn is apparently across all major sectors. There are new product launch campaigns (always a good sign) onscreen or in the pipeline and creative agencies seem to be busy readying campaigns for the autumn.

On the other hand, Michael Winkler, the European media director of Gillette, says, there's no logical reason to believe that a good World Cup would create a revenue afterglow. "I can't quite follow the reasoning why it should kickstart the market, he says. "Major sporting events are usually good in terms of the marketing activity that surrounds them. This is a naturally good environment for selling some types of product. On the other hand, if I were a UK company relying on the World Cup I would be very nervous because it is conceivable that if they are unlucky, England could go out after only three games. In England there is this whole media thing around the England team but I'm not sure how much interest there is in the tournament as such. As soon as England go out, the interest will stop."

Winkler also says that the real comparison to make is with 2000 - only when the market starts beating the figures of two years ago, he implies, can recovery be confirmed.

Do media specialists agree? Greg Turzynski, the managing director of Optimedia, seems to. He runs through some numbers: "Total television revenues in May 2001 were £38.7 million less, year on year. May 2002 is estimated to be £28.2 million higher than May 2001. Therefore, the market is still £10.5 million down in May 2002 compared with May 2000. In June, with the World Cup, it is expected to be £15 million up on 2001, but still £29 million down when compared with 2000. So the good news is that there is year-on-year recovery. The bad news is we still have some way to go to catch up with 2000."

On the other hand, he does agree that the medium-term indicators remain positive. "As far as July is concerned, there are mixed messages. The good news is that it does not appear to be the case that the World Cup is a dead cat bounce. While July 2002 will probably fail to achieve July 2000's revenues, it has all indications of showing a continuation of the steady improvement seen across May and June."

Jim McDonald, a managing partner of The Allmond Partnership, can also see many positive signs. He is particularly pleased at the way ITV has approached the marketplace this time around: "The network has clearly learned the lessons of 1998 - and it has successfully persuaded many advertisers that the World Cup is an addition to, rather than a substitution for, the main schedule - in peaktime, it's business as usual for ITV and their audience."

But is the market - and ITV, in particular - turning the corner? A cautious yes to that. "June will be the second consecutive month of significant revenue growth, which is particularly welcome as the previous 16 months have seen depressing year-on-year declines every month. The rest of the year should see modest revenue growth in the broadcast market - ITV's take of that is crucial, McDonald says.

"They desperately need to arrest the audience decline - and it will be fascinating to see the autumn programming launch in July. Advertisers need to see an exciting schedule that will deliver high-volume audiences, rather than an overly youth-focused strategy. ITV needs to target audience from the BBC, not from Sky One."

And teamwork, he concludes, will be crucial: "ITV's sales teams need the backing of the Network Centre and if they don't get it with Mick Desmond at the helm, they never will. If programme budgets are increased as has been reported, then this is a positive step."