Soccer's World Cup draws television viewers globally better than any other sporting event. Estimates have put the audience at 1 billion. Even the shooting in war-torn Beirut stops, so all sides can watch the games.
But it doesn't do well in the United States. Univision's Spanish-language broadcast of the championship Sunday received a 4.6 rating on KMEX Channel 34--meaning it was seen in only about 227,000 of the 4.9 million homes in the Los Angeles market. By contrast, the California Angels game on KTLA Channel 5 Sunday, was viewed in about 128,000 homes. National ratings for the soccer championship on Turner Network Television were not available Monday, but the cable network had been attracting an average of only 1.2% of its subscribers for the 22 games before last weekend (about 546,000 homes).
As a result, when the tournament comes to the United States for the first time in 1994, it may not be carried by any of the three major networks.
"Given the ratings, I don't think anyone will go for it," said NBC Sports President Dick Ebersol. He flatly declares that NBC will not be bidding for World Cup rights.
ABC and CBS aren't ruling it out, but they are far from enthusiastic.
"Cable had the entire deal this World Cup and that very well might happen again," said ABC Sports President Dennis Swanson, whose network carried the 1982 World Cup final.
"CBS is interested in learning more about the World Cup and investigating several scenarios, as we would about any sports franchise property that becomes available," CBS Sports spokeswoman Susan Kerr said. "We expect to continue conversations with FIFA (Federation Internationale de Football Assn., soccer's worldwide governing body). Beyond that, it would be premature to make any comments."
Despite the major networks' coolness towards the 1994 World Cup, at least three cable networks--ESPN, TNT and SportsChannel America--have expressed interest in televising it.
At one time, television did not appear to be a worry for the 1994 World Cup organizers. NBC reached an agreement last year with the U.S. Soccer Federation to televise the 1994 competition. However, FIFA rejected the contract because it was tied to a deal for rights to exhibition games involving the U.S. team.
Now, the best known member of the World Cup '94 Organizing Committee is worried about the lack of interest by the major television networks.
"TV is a problem," vice chairman Henry A. Kissinger said at a Rome news conference Friday. "I'm confident and hopeful we will get reasonable television coverage. Even if not national, we will get local (coverage). I think we can solve this problem, but we have a lot of work to do."
The former U.S. Secretary of State, who covered this World Cup for The Times, said he planned to use his spot on CBS' board of directors to push that network to carry the World Cup. "They will certainly hear from me for four years," he said.
Kissinger told an almost hostile international assemblage of sports reporters not to take too much stock in Turner Network Television's low World Cup ratings.
"You can't judge by the 2% that this World Cup has gotten (in the ratings)," Kissinger said. "TNT is cable and you have to subscribe and live in an area that can get cable. And it was not heavily advertised."
Soccer has proven troublesome to U.S. television since CBS made the first major effort in broadcasting the sport in 1967. Unlike other sports, there are no natural stoppages allowing for the insertion of commercials.
CBS saw its credibility questioned by the Federal Communications Commission following reports that players were faking injuries during National Professional Soccer League games so the network could go to commercial breaks. CBS and the league denied the charges.
The dilemma of how to break for commercials without missing action has not been solved 23 years later. TNT was in a commercial break as the only goal was scored during Italy's 1-0 quarterfinal win over Ireland June 30.
The World Cup poses two problems particular to itself. One is the lack of competitiveness by the United States, which lost all three of its games, by a combined 8-2 score, in this year's tournament.
"Sports programming never gets good audiences unless its one in which the U.S. excels or does well. The World Cup's potential for mainstream audiences is limited," said Peter Appert, media analyst at C.J. Lawrence/Morgan Grenfell.
A second is that the broadcaster from the nation in which the World Cup is being played serves as the "host broadcaster," responsible for feeding and producing telecasts of all the games to foreign broadcasters, a costly duty.
Beyond that, soccer simply isn't attractive to a lot of American TV watchers who aren't familiar with the game's intricacies.
"The sport suffers from the image of a very patient, low-scoring game where you go into a defensive shell with a 1-0 lead," said Loren Matthews, ESPN's senior vice president for programming. "Americans are used to more aggressive, high-scoring sports. It will take a while for the American public to appreciate the nuances of soccer."
The next World Cup is also scheduled for June and July, when it will have to compete for viewers and television time with several major events, including the NBA finals, Wimbledon tennis and golf's U.S. Open.
"Once we signed with the NBA, we were no longer interested in the World Cup," NBC's Ebersol said.
One possible scenario would be a combined network and cable package for the 1994 tournament. Such a plan was used in 1986, when NBC and ESPN both aired games.
"There are 52 games and I don't think any network will be interested in that," ABC's Swanson said. "But if the financial deal is right, we would be interested in a few games."
SportsChannel America is the most bullish network on soccer. Last month, the network formed a partnership with Aegis Group, a London-based worldwide communications company, to televise more than 300 hours of soccer programming over the next four years. The first telecast under the new agreement will be July 28 when the U.S. World Cup team faces East Germany in its first game since the World Cup.
"We are in our growth, and soccer can grow with us," said Jeff Ruhe, senior vice president and executive producer for SportsChannel America.
Ruhe is optimistic that soccer can grow as a televised sport much like gymnastics did during the 1970s. Ruhe, who worked with ABC during that period, recalled that interest in gymnastics grew during each Olympics, and was aided by other gymnastics telecasts between Olympics.
"Gymnastics just didn't pop up every four years," Ruhe said. "The public's awareness of the sport was constantly forced over that period of time. That's what led to more and more and more interest. You just can't turn on a switch and have interest in a sport. You have to develop it."