ITV Draws Big Ratings With Rugby World Cup Start, Commentator Slammed for Fiji Remark
The match between host England and Fiji becomes the most-watched sporting event of the year in Britain, but Nick Mullins causes a Twitter backlash with a comment about the island nation.
ITV on Friday evening drew an average audience of 7.8 million, for a share of 36 percent of total TV viewing at the time, with its coverage of the opening game of the Rugby World Cup, which takes place in England and Wales over the coming weeks.
ITV said that made it the "most-watched sporting event so far this year" in Britain, ahead of the final of the FA Cup soccer tournament, which drew 7.5 million viewers. Between kickoff and the final whistle, Friday's match had an average audience of 8.7 million.
The first match of the tournament, which takes place every four years like the soccer World Cup, featured England taking on Fiji at London's Twickenham Stadium, which holds more than 80,000 people. The coverage peaked with 9.4 million viewers, or a 43 percent share of viewing.
Overall, ITV was the most-watched channel in Britain by far in primetime.
ITV commentator Nick Mullins caused a social media backlash with a remark about Fiji. "We are told] the bulk of the nation will be watching in the big cities like Suva and Lautoka and, in the smaller villages, they will all be gathering around the one TV, the one satellite dish, hoping the generator doesn’t let them down."
"ITV's commentator has just said an incredibly disrespectful thing about Fiji," said one tweet. "Nick Mullins is an absolute embarrasment," wrote another Twitter critic. And another one said: "Hope @ITVRugby Nick Mullins gets the sack tonight. He's a disgrace to the game of rugby!"
ITV said about Mullins' comment: "Our commentator for last night's match was criticized by some viewers for a remark about people in Fiji gathered round a single TV supplied by a generator. In fact, he was reporting a quote made by Fiji coach John McKee made before the game.”
ITV management has said the Cup coverage will help its share of viewing in Britain, and analysts have also highlighted the rugby tournament as a key revenue contributor this year.
ITV's share of viewing has dropped 5 percent year-to-date after being down 4 percent mid-year amid some programming disappointments and strong ratings for the BBC. Also launching on ITV this weekend is the final season of Downton Abbey, which is also expected to help its ratings.
"Media buying feedback suggests ITV is seeing a very strong October on the back of the Rugby World Cup, possibly a double-digit increase, where it will also benefit from extra sponsorship revenues," Liberum Capital analyst Ian Whittaker said in a recent report. Recent commentary "suggests consensus [financial expectations for ITV] might be too low."
ITV is airing Rugby World Cup matches on its flagship channel ITV 1 and ITV 4. In the U.S., NBC Sports and Universal Sport are providing coverage.