The month-long World Cup soccer tournament -- the real world championship of football, starting June 8 in Italy -- can be seen on two media outlets in the United States. The English-speaking version of the Cup will be on Ted Turner's TNT cable network and the Spanish-speaking version on Univision, the Hispanic network available on Channel 48 locally and on most area cable systems.
Language will not be the only major difference in the telecasts, both coming off the world video feed by the host country's RAI network. Call it tradition. Univision's 33 live games will be commercial-free, the advertisements of its 11 sponsors being shown pregame, at halftime and postgame as it has done for each of the 11 World Cups it has covered. TNT will show five minutes of advertising spots during each half of its 24 games.
"It's tough on me as a fan because I'm a traditionalist," said Rohan Backfisch, Turner's World Cup producer and a former college soccer player at the University of Georgia. "The only thing we can do is run commercials to satisfy our sponsors. They pay the bills; there's no way around it."
Soccer -- unlike football, baseball and basketball -- is a nonstop sport, 45 running minutes per half, the clock stopping only because of serious injury. There is no natural break for a commercial. Backfisch suggested an alternative: split the screen into two boxes, one showing the game sans audio, the other a commercial with audio.
Turner Sports' sales department was not receptive to the idea. "The viewers find that intrusive," said Ron Snyder, vice president of sales for Turner Sports. "And the advertisers don't like it, either." Both TNT and Univision have sold out their advertising spots, TNT getting about $85,000 for a 30-second spot in each of its 24 games. Remember this is cable television during late-morning and afternoon games U.S. time, mainly on weekends.
Mal Karwoski, Univision's World Cup coordinator, suggests a cultural difference. "Our advertisers bought into a tradition," he said. "Most of our sponsors are multinational companies, and this is the way it's done in Latin America. They understand because that's the way they buy soccer in other countries."
While Backfisch says Turner's research shows that English-speaking viewers tune out commercials in pregame and postgame situations, Karwoski says Hispanic viewers do not tune out commercials shown in those positions. "We find they will stay there, and they write letters to our sponsors for being so cooperative,' Karwoski said. "That means they must be watching the commericials in order to send the letters."
Actually, according to Backfisch, who also is a senior producer for TNT's NBA coverage, the commercial situation affects more than the United States as rights fees for world-wide coverages increased 50 percent over the 1986 World Cup, to approximately $144 million. With the 1994 World Cup in the United States, outgoing FIFA President Joao Havelange of Brazil has proposed a radical format change: instead of two 45-minute halves, he would have four 25-minute quarters, with 3-4 minutes each between the first and second quarters and third and fourth quarters, in addition to a 15-minute halftime.
It has not been well-received in Europe, especially England, and it's hard to argue with the traditionalists.
With the United States competing in the World Cup finals for the first time in 40 years, Backfisch realizes one of his jobs will be to educate the first-time soccer viewer while not offending. Backfisch plans to accomplish this with segments called "World Cup Tips" in which TNT will use a telestrater.
TNT also will have knowledgable announcing teams. The top crew is Bob Neal, who broadcast Turner's team in the defunct North American Soccer League, and Mick Luckhurst, former Atlanta Falcons placekicker who grew up playing soccer in England. They will broadcast the U.S. games, the opener bewteen defending champion Argentina and the Cameroons and the final.
And Backfisch also has a plan that he hopes will result in TBT not missing too many goals during the commercial breaks. He bases it on a survey of more than 500 international games that shows there is actually only 60 minutes of action during a 90-minute game. "We are going to try and pick the spots very carefully," he said.
And that's where his soccer expertise comes in. "If you don't know soccer well enough, you'll take it on a throw-in when it shouldn't be. You have to understand the flow of the game. You've also got to be lucky. In most cases I think we'll be lucky. That doesn't mean we might miss a goal or two. But we'll show it on viedotape as soon as we can."
Thirty games also will be broadcast locally in Spanish on WMDO-1540.