Southern Europe's airwave

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Newspaper headlines offer little cheer to huddled commuters on the Lisbon Metro: unemployment at an eight-year high, the economy only slowly picking up after being Europe's hardest hit market during the recent recession and consumer confidence close to a historic low.

The profusion of brash advertising messages aimed at the rush-hour crowds strikes a jarring note amid the early morning gloom.

Television commercials blare out from giant screens hanging over platforms lined with hoardings. In carriages festooned with posters, passengers browse through free newspapers packed with adverts.

This clash of moods is a sign of the exceptional buoyancy of advertising markets in southern Europe. In Italy, Spain and Portugal, advertising revenue is forecast to grow at more than twice the rate projected for some of the big north European markets this year, and to strongly outstrip gross domestic product growth.

The factors behind this polarised advertising outlook across Europe reflect important differences in media consumption and industry characteristics.

ZenithOptimedia, an international media services agency, forecasts the rate of growth of advertising expenditure in Europe to fall from 5.4 per cent to 4.5 per cent this year, compared with growth levels approaching 6 per cent in Spain, Portugal and Italy. This is down from even higher levels in 2004 - when Portugal's hosting of the Euro 2004 football championship helped it lead the field, with advertising expenditure increasing almost 10 per cent despite sluggish GDP growth of 1 per cent.

But a more revealing common denominator behind the phenomenon of booming southern European advertising markets lies in the consumption of television and the medium's share of each country's total advertising expenditure.

"Because television has a much larger share of the advertising cake, buoyant growth in revenue from TV commercials is lifting the whole sector," says Frederik Kooij, a London-based media analyst with Credit Suisse First Boston.

Television accounts for almost 55 per cent of total advertising expenditure in Portugal, 54 per cent in Italy and 42 per cent in Spain, compared with average European and US levels of about 33 per cent.

Part of the explanation is cultural. Southern Europeans watch more television, but listen to less radio and read fewer newspapers than northern Europeans. Only about 25 per cent of Spaniards and Portuguese, for example, say they read newspapers regularly.

"These are cultural traditions that, until relatively recently, were also linked to lower rates of literacy than in northern Europe," says Pedro Mendes, a Lisbon-based media analyst with Millennium BCP Investimento.

The establishment of new private-sector free-to-air broadcasters over the past decade has created more space for television advertising and created a more aggressive commercial climate with private broadcasters competing for prime-time audiences with soap operas, films and reality shows.

Price is also an important factor. Television advertising rates in Spain are about half the UK level, in terms of cost-per-thousand viewers, and even lower in Portugal. In both countries, TV commercials, in CPT terms, are also at least 50 per cent cheaper than advertising in the print media.

The pre-eminence of television and the comparatively low rates charged for TV commercials have enabled broadcasters to increase prices with little fear of losing customers or dampening volume demand.

Sharp differences in purchasing power make it difficult to compare rates across Europe: advertisers expect to pay more to reach the same number of viewers in more affluent countries.

At the same time, Iberian broadcasters in particular have cut back drastically on the commissions paid to media buying agencies. These have come down from above 5 per cent to 2 per cent in Portugal and are forecast to reach even lower levels in Spain.

This factor alone could lead to a 4 per cent increase in total advertising revenue for Portugal's two main media groups, Impresa and Media Capital, this year, says Mr Mendes.

The groups, which each account for more than 32 per cent of the prime time television audience, increased overall revenue by 10 and 13 per cent respectively last year. Meanwhile Telecinco and Antena 3, which each account for 21-23 per cent of Spanish television audiences, increased revenue by 29 and 21 per cent respectively, and are forecast to record similar gains this year.

This compares with 2004 revenue growth of 9 per cent for Mediaset, the Italian broadcasting group, and 6 per cent for TF1, France's biggest commercial TV channel, two important peers.

Although advertising revenues are outpacing the growth in expenditure, there is still scope for the latter to expand. Expenditure is only about €57 ($73) per capita in Portugal, compared with €210 in Germany and €250 in the UK, says Mr Mendes.

Expenditure represents 0.6 of GDP in both Italy and Portugal and 0.8 per cent in Spain, compared with 0.9 and 1.1 per cent in Germany and the UK. "There is still a lot more growth to come," says Mr Kooij.

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