World Cup fever a headache for some

Tournament a broadcast bonanza but a boxoffice challenge

LONDON -- The greatest show on turf, the FIFA World Cup soccer tournament, kicks off Friday in South Africa for a month of sporting highs and lows.

And for most European consumers, the tournament is a welcome boost providing free entertainment as austerity measures by governments sweep across Europe and household budgets tighten.

Broadcast around the globe, the organizers earn in excess of $3.4 billion from rights fees and sponsorships and by the end of the event, billions of people will have tuned in. Those audiences, in turn, will boost advertising revenue for hosting channels. That's particularly true in Europe, the richest market for World Cup broadcasts, which will benefit from having many of the matches air in primetime.

WPP, one of the world's leading ad buyers, is forecasting a major World Cup-related bump, providing much-needed relief for Europe's recession-battered networks. Commercial channel ITV, which is sharing World Cup rights in Britain with the BBC, is forecasting a 25% rise in advertising revenue thanks to the tournament -- more if England's squad does well. The 25% revenue hike could amount to a $100 million windfall.

Costs for halftime spots soar for semifinal or final matches if the home team is competing. Like the rest of England, ITV's ad men will be praying English star Wayne Rooney stays fit.

A 30-second spot for England's opening match is priced at $440,000. Spot prices for matches where ITV shares coverage with the BBC would be less, while prices for matches that don't feature England top out at about $102,000.

Audience figures could better ratings records set at the German-hosted World Cup four years ago as fans will be able to view games on scores of electronic devices, from the home TV and PC to mobile phones and iPads. Live online streaming will be available in most countries.

In Britain, for the first time, more than half the audience could be watching in HD. Media watchdog Ofcom says the tournament has helped sales of HDTVs, now in 24 million homes at the end of March, representing more than half the U.K. viewing population.

FIFA and Sony also are providing live 3D footage of 25 of the 64 World Cup matches, including the semi-final and final matches. And several networks, including ESPN in the U.S., Sogecable in Spain, Canal Plus and TF1 in France, Sky PerfecTV in Japan and SBS in Korea, have signed up.

But even FIFA acknowledges that with so few 3D-ready sets out there, the global audience for stereoscopic broadcasts will be in the low hundreds of thousands at best. Many key territories, including Germany and the U.K., will have no 3D broadcasts since rights-holders there lack a 3D platform to air them.

While small-screen providers are caught up in World Cup fever, the U.S. studios view the event as a monthlong headache for their oversees distribution ops. The first two weeks of the tournament are the worst, since there will be matches at lunchtime, the afternoon and in primetime across Europe.

"It's a massive distraction, and if the country in question is playing, the business (in theaters) drops like a stone," Universal Pictures International executive vp distribution Duncan Clark said. "Counterprogramming is something we've done in the past because there are four or five other days between the games played. So you can do good business on those days if you're prepared to accept a couple of down days."

Female- and family-focused pics are in favor as a Cup alternative.

Disney is bowing Kirsten Bell starrer "When in Rome" in Italy, Germany, Spain and the Netherlands in the first week of the tournament. Paramount Pictures International is offering "She's Out Of My League" in the major territories, including the U.K., Italy and France, and penciling in the European rollout of "Shrek Forever After" during the World Cup's quarterfinal stage.

"It's a tough one," PPI president Andrew Cripps said. "We certainly felt there's an opportunity for a family-orientated film to get an audience, but there's no question it's a big challenge."

Fox is the only studio taking the Cup head-on by opening its male-oriented action tentpole "The A-Team" this weekend in 34 territories, including markets with teams in the tournament such as the U.K., Australia, Brazil, the Netherlands and Mexico.

International distributors will face another challenge after the July 11 World Cup final. The pack of top titles crammed into the first post-soccer weeks, including Summit's "The Twilight Saga: Eclipse" and Disney's "Toy Story 3," risk creating a blockbuster bottleneck.

LOVEFiLM, Europe's largest subscription service, is streaming movies and TV episodes and sending DVDs by mail to lure eyes from soccer. It launches today what it bills as "the world's biggest digital film giveaway," making thousands of "watch online" films and series available for free to members and those signing up for a trial run.

The monthlong "Extra Time" promotion has the backing of such studios as Paramount and DreamWorks, enabling new and existing LOVEFiLM members to watch film and TV series instantly on their computers and Internet-enabled TVs.

To combat the drought in moviegoing, many exhibitors have chosen to embrace the beautiful game and will screen matches in theaters.

FIFA hasn't made things easy for them, however. The international governing soccer body initially banned so-called public viewing (i.e. free screenings) of Cup matches in theaters. In response, several operators, including giants UCI, CinemaxX and Cinestar in Germany, dropped plans to show the games.

CinemaxX and Cinestar also opted out of FIFA's offer of live 3D screenings of select matches.

"The quality of the 3D footage we were shown just wasn't up to our standards," CinemaxX communications head Arne Schmidt said. "The image was pixelated and the ball was just a white blur, you couldn't see it at all. Audiences are used to the incredible 3D imagery of 'Avatar.' Giving them less than that will just turn them off to the idea of watching sports in 3D."

Still, a few select venues are betting fans will be willing to shell out up to $20 for a ticket for a glimpse of a match in three dimensions. In Italy, the Space Cinema will be showing about a dozen games in 20 3D locations. In Spain, about 100 screens will have the stereoscopic matches.

"It's the first time soccer will be offered in 3D in Spain," said Borja de Benito of Spain's Federation of Cinema Cos. "We hope it will offset the slow movie ticket sales a bit, but this is a huge event here. There is no way to combat it. We have to just wait for it to pass."

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