The soccer ball mesmerizes all

Euro 2008 forces TV execs to scramble

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 counter-programming 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, 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-skewing shows, such as "Germany's Next Top Model" and miniseries "The Tudors," while sister net Kabel 1 is chasing the 90-pound weakling demo with a "Star Trek" marathon.

Meanwhile, German digital pay channel Sat.1 Comedy on Saturday night began a marathon of all 236 episodes of "Friends."

"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, 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 Spain's 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."

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.

"We are getting consistent ratings and attracting a young male ABC1 audience, and that is very important," an ITV spokesman said. "Our commercial guys are pretty happy. We're getting advertising for beer, cars, male grooming products and holidays."

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

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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