Wisden Cricketers' Almanack 2007

The ratings go bust

Steven Barnett

TV wars take their toll © Martin Williamson
When the England and Wales Cricket Board announced in December 2004 that it had sold the exclusive rights for live TV coverage of all home Test matches to the satellite network Sky Sports, much of the cricketing world was aghast.

Essentially, the argument pitched those convinced that lack of exposure would result in long-term decline in cricket's popularity against those who believed the additional cash was essential for the game's welfare.

The new contract started in 2006, and we can now start to measure the reality. The table shows the average audiences for Test matches from 1999 to 2006: seven years on Channel 4, one year solely on Sky. Audience size can vary for reasons that have little to do with the programme - the weather, time of day, and what's on other channels - but the evidence shows a surprising consistency while the cricket was on Channel 4. Almost regardless of England's opponents, average audiences for live Tests fluctuated between roughly one and one and a half million.

Only twice did the average for individual Tests fall below a million: the Sri Lanka game at Old Trafford in 2002, which was overshadowed by the football World Cup, and the 2005 walkover against Bangladesh at Lord's. By the climax of the Ashes just over three months later, the figure had reached nearly three million.

Then came the switch to Sky. The 2006 figures show an immediate contrast. The Sri Lanka series started with an audience of 214,000 for the Lord's Test, rising to 247,000 for the Third at Trent Bridge. The Pakistan series showed highs of 338,000 and 308,000 for England's victories at Old Trafford and Headingley respectively. The extraordinary Oval Test mustered only 249,000 over the four days, which peaked at just over 400,000 as events (or non-events) reached their climax on the Sunday evening. A fair conclusion at this stage is that Sky's audiences are running at around one-sixth of those on Channel 4.

These figures need to come with something of a health warning since TV audience measurement is an inexact science. Publishers of books and newspapers know how many copies they sell. TV companies - through the Broadcasters Audience Research Board - use complex sampling and household metering techniques to tell who is watching their programmes which, however sophisticated, can never be precise. Communal viewing, for example in pubs, is likely to be underestimated.

Unlike their traditional terrestrial rivals, Sky - whose income comes primarily from subscriptions - do not normally release the numbers for their live sports programmes. However, these are the official industry figures, obtained from reliable sources.

There are also subtly different measurements. As well as the rating (the average number of people tuned in during the course of the whole programme), industry professionals also use "reach" - which takes account of more casual viewers who only tune in for a brief period (defined as at least three continuous minutes). This gives some indication of the numbers who watch live cricket at some stage during a match, and is especially relevant to arguments about decline in cricket's exposure. For The Oval 2005, an astonishing 23 million - over 40% of all individuals aged four or over - saw something of the final Test.

The reach figures for cricket on Sky are much lower than on Channel 4, but they are better than expected given the very low ratings: three million or more for three of the four Pakistan Tests, and five million for the last one, courtesy of Darrell Hair. This is still, on average, less than a quarter of Channel 4's reach, and reflects the disparity between the number of potential TV homes for each channel: 24 million for C4 versus fewer than eight million for Sky Sports channels.

A crucial part of the satellite deal involved a highlights package on Five with a guaranteed peak-time slot of 7.15 each evening rather than Channel 4's notoriously movable feast. Five, though, has a lower audience share than C4 and is still not available everywhere through over-the-air terrestrial television.

The upshot was little change: just under 700,000 viewers per Test in 2006 on Five, compared to just over 700,000 the previous year. This is a positive outcome for Five given the particularly high interest in the 2005 series, but conceals an important scheduling difference: only 11 of Channel 4's 29 highlight programmes in 2005 started in the peak time slot of 7.30, while the rest went out after or just before midnight. Those 11 peak-time shows in fact averaged over a million, and it remains to be seen whether Five's highlights would be able to match that in a high-intensity series.

One consequence of the switch to satellite will be a shift in audience demographics: viewers of sports channels tend to be younger and more male, which is a mixed blessing for cricket. On the one hand, this kind of audience may boost participation levels (although in absolute numbers, there were still more young men and children watching on terrestrial television). Against that, older people and women are much less likely to encounter the game and therefore become immersed in it. On Channel 4, at least a quarter of live cricket's audience was female, rising to nearly a third in 2005. This will be significantly lower on a satellite sports channel.

The number of Sky homes is increasing slowly, which will add a few more potential viewers to the 2007 series, but it will not compensate for the steep audience decline already seen. The cricket connoisseur who is willing to pay (or sit in the pub) is being well served by Sky's uninterrupted coverage, but the decline in casual viewers drawn to an unfolding spectacle has been dramatic

© Wisden Cricketers' Almanack