Euro 2008 forces TV execs to scramble

Viewers, advertisers wooed with counterprogramming

The European Soccer Championships -- Euro 2008 -- is a ratings juggernaut in Europe, with games regularly capturing 50%-plus market shares for broadcasters in participating countries.

Of course, one network's ratings smash is another's counterprogramming nightmare, and across mainland Europe, program directors are faced with the quandary of finding alternatives to draw eyeballs, and advertisers, away from the soccer pitch.

In Germany, leading commercial broadcaster ProSiebenSat.1 has adapted what could be called "the model and the geek" strategy. Flagship channels Pro7 and Sat.1 have shifted to strong female-leaning shows, such as "Germany's Next Top Model" and the German premiere of miniseries "The Tudors," while sister network Kabel 1 is chasing the 90-pound weakling demo with a "Star Trek" marathon.

Meanwhile, German digital pay TV channel Sat.1 Comedy on Saturday night began a marathon screening of all 236 episodes of "Friends," which ended at 10 p.m. Wednesday after running about 100 hours straight. The event was promoted as an alternative to soccer.

"We took a very good look at the Euro 2008 schedule and designed a careful programming strategy around that," Sat.1 spokeswoman Kristina Fassler said. "There's a big difference in ratings between when Germany is playing and other matches. When Germany plays, we don't try to compete, we focus entirely on the female audience."

While broadcasters in Spain, France and Italy haven't torn up their programming schedules to adapt to Euro 2008, they have been careful to avoid head-on competition when the national side is playing.

"You can't beat a national team match," said Pello Sarasola, programming director for Spanish commercial network Antena 3. "What we try to do is offer a product that has a very loyal audience following or with a more feminine profile, but we'll never premiere something specifically to compete directly with the Spanish national team."

A Mediaset spokesman in Italy added that "Mediaset's strategy has long been not to fight against soccer but to provide a quality alternative for those who are not interested in watching the games."

With no British teams competing in Euro 2008, the challenge has been a different one. While competing channels have stuck to their regular schedules, host broadcasters ITV and BBC are left trying to generate audience interest for a "foreign" tournament.

The national fervor that created audiences of 20 million plus for England's 2006 World Cup quarterfinal match against Portugal is unlikely this time around, but the BBC and ITV say they're happy with the results so far.

"I have to say the ratings have exceeded expectations," a spokeswoman for BBC Sport said. "We had a 5 million peak-viewing audience for the Switzerland/Turkey game (Wednesday) on BBC2, and those are huge numbers for BBC2, probably one of the best nights it has had this year."

Other matches have scored higher, with Holland vs. Italy on ITV hitting a 7.3 million peak, and the tournament hasn't even reached the quarterfinals.

"Of course, we are not going to get the ratings spikes that we would have for the England matches, but viewed in the context of having no home nation in the tournament, the ratings have been consistent," a spokesman for ITV Sport said.

"But we are getting consistent ratings and attracting a young male ABC1 audience, and that is very important," he added, pointing out the advertisers love the demographic. "Our commercial guys are pretty happy. We're getting advertising for beer, cars, male grooming products and holidays."

For competing broadcasters, in the U.K. and across Europe, there's some comfort in the fact that Euro 2008, for all its appeal, is one of the shorter big-time soccer tournaments. After the June 29 final, things should return to normal. At least until the Olympics in August.

Stuart Kemp in London, Pamela Rolfe in Madrid, Eric J. Lyman in Rome and Rebecca Leffler in Paris contributed to this report.
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