When Sam Matterface finished ITV’s commentary on England’s historic Euro 2020 victory over Denmark, he concluded with a plea to viewers asking them to stick with the commercial channel for Sunday night’s final on the basis of “superstition”.
He faces an uphill task, even if the semi-final victory did break ITV’s unfortunate “curse” of televising England’s defeats in major football championships. Throughout the tournament the BBC and ITV have alternated the rights to show England games round-by-round, but for the final they will both offer live coverage.
While Sunday’s match between England and Italy is on track to be one of the most-watched events in British television history, the vast majority of those watching are expected to be viewing the ad-free BBC broadcast rather than its commercial rival.
In a bid to fight back and boost its share of the audience, ITV is trying to offer something different. It is promoting its signing of Chelsea Women’s manager Emma Hayes, whose precise but clear tactical analysis has been lauded as one of the highlights of the tournament.
The channel is also employing the scheduling trick of showing Michael Caine’s The Italian Job in the afternoon before starting its buildup coverage, in the hope that viewers who have watched the story of one against-the-odds English heist are convinced to stick with the channel into the evening.
But the attention will inevitably land on Matterface, who last year replaced the veteran Clive Tyldesley as ITV’s lead football commentator. Under the intense scrutiny of tens of millions of viewers he made a few errors – failing to mention that Denmark played the end of the match with only 10 men before finally acknowledging that they have “one less member of staff on the pitch” – but has also won plaudits for his work alongside co-commentator Lee Dixon from Des Lynam among others.
Rather than show a classic film the BBC has decided the best approach to ensnare viewers is to start its programming 10 minutes earlier than ITV, with the buildup beginning at 6.20pm hosted by Gary Lineker along with Alan Shearer, Rio Ferdinand and Frank Lampard. Commentary on the match will come from Guy Mowbray and Jermaine Jenas.
The all-time viewing record for British television is currently set at the 32.3 million people who watched England win the 1966 World Cup final, although that figure was recorded before modern audience research techniques relying on monitoring were introduced.
ITV claimed a peak audience of 27.6 million viewers for the England v Denmark semi-final, and additional publicity around the final should push Sunday’s TV audience well past that. Official figures do not include those watching in pubs or other public spaces.
One of ITV’s biggest problems during the tournament has been meeting the technical challenges around streaming. Growing numbers of people, especially younger viewers who rarely watch live television, are watching without an aerial, through streaming on Smart TVs or on laptops or phones. But with millions of people simultaneously trying to access ITV Hub, the broadcaster’s streaming service, it has sometimes struggled to cope during big England matches.
Even when streaming does work, the inevitable delay that comes with delivering video over the internet rather than through the airwaves – something the BBC has also been working hard to reduce – means viewers can hear their neighbours celebrating goals before they can see them on their own screen.
Broadcasters without Euro 2020 rights have had to improvise, with Channel 4 choosing Saturday to show the full 1966 World Cup final in colour on British TV for the first time.