F1’s UK television audience stabilises in 2017

Formula 1’s viewing figures dropped slightly year-on-year, following on from last year’s significant decline, overnight audience numbers show.

> Both Channel 4 and Sky record marginal drops
> Anti-climatic championship fight hurt audiences
> Combined audience lowest since 2006

2017 was Formula 1’s second season on Channel 4, coverage was shared with Sky Sports. The viewing figures in this article are overnight average audiences supplied by Overnights.tv for Channel 4’s and Sky Sports’ broadcasts, including Sky Sports Main Event and Mix where applicable. Sky’s numbers are for their three-and-a-half-hour broadcast covering ‘Pit Lane Live’ and the race itself from 12:00 to 15:30, or applicable. Channel 4’s numbers broadly follow the same pattern, excluding their post-race reaction show.

Viewing figures presented in this piece exclude viewers who watched via the likes of Sky Go, Now TV and All 4. The numbers also do not include audiences who did not watch Formula 1 on the same day. Overnight audience figures are known in the industry as ‘Live + VOSDAL’ (video on same day as live). So, if you chose to record Channel 4’s highlights programme to watch on a Monday morning, you are excluded from the overnight audience numbers. Overnight figures are still important, especially for sports programming which fans view live, or as close to live as possible.

Radio audience figures are reportedly separately by RAJAR, and use a different methodology compared to television, meaning that you cannot compare BBC’s 5 Live audience figures with the television figures presented in this piece.

Channel 4’s overnight figures
In 2017, Channel 4 aired ten races live, with the remaining ten races airing in extended highlights form. Their race day coverage in 2017 averaged 1.87 million viewers, a decrease of 4.5 percent on last year’s average audience of 1.96 million viewers. Their live programming averaged 2.13 million viewers, with their highlights shows bringing 1.62 million viewers to the channel. Year-on-year, Channel 4’s live shows dropped by just 2.5 percent, whilst their highlights output decreased by 8.1 percent.

The season highlight for Channel 4 came towards the end of the season, with live coverage of the United States Grand Prix averaging 2.78m (12.8%) in peak time. One week later, Lewis Hamilton clinched his fourth world championship, resulting in an audience of just 968k (13.0%) watching Channel 4’s Brazilian Grand Prix highlights programme in mid-November.

Channel 4’s problem in 2017 was with the way they started the season, with double-digit drops for four of the first ten races. Once you start off from a low base, it is very difficult to recover that position. For the first half of the year, only Spain and Europe were the stand-out races compared with 2016, both increasing their audience figures by around 10 percent. The post-Summer break period offered more promise as Channel 4’s race day programming increased for five races on the bounce from Italy through to USA.

An average peak audience of 2.63 million viewers watched Channel 4’s programming, a decrease of 4.5 percent year-on-year. For the first time since Channel 4 started their coverage, however, the broadcaster recorded a peak audience of over 4 million viewers, with the US Grand Prix. USA was the stand out, with all of Channel 4’s other peak audiences below 3.5 million viewers, a disappointment considering three races were above the same last year. Behind USA, were Bahrain and Malaysia, both peaking with 3.42 million viewers.

Sky’s overnight figures
Now in its sixth year as Formula 1’s main broadcaster in the United Kingdom, Sky Sports’ viewing figures continued to ebb and flow, with little upsurge. Live coverage of Sky Sports’ race day programming in 2017, excluding Paddock Live, averaged 652,000 viewers, a slight decrease of 2.5 percent on last year’s average audience of 669,000 viewers.

An average of 699,000 viewers watched Sky’s exclusive coverage, whilst 605,000 viewers watched Sky’s programming when shared with Channel 4. In the pecking order for Sky, 2014 stays on top with an average audience of 790,000 viewers watching Lewis Hamilton’s third world championship; 2012 a distant second on 709,000 viewers. Sky’s other four seasons remain closely clustered together between 635,000 viewers and 670,000 viewers.

The highlight for Sky in 2017 was the Mexican Grand Prix, which averaged 1.09m (4.8%) in prime time, helped by Hamilton winning the championship on that day. Like Channel 4, Sky had a strong mid-season run, with eight consecutive races from Canada to Singapore peaking with over one million viewers, a strong run for the pay-TV platform. As a result, an average peak audience of 1.03 million viewers watched Sky’s programming across the season.

For Sky, it is likely that their Now TV and Sky Go platforms have seen increased demand compared with 2016 and before, although figures for these platforms are not available in the public domain. With only one year left though before the major switch over to pay-TV, there are no substantial signs that viewers are migrating over from Formula 1’s free-to-air product to Sky’s pay-television product despite having the access to do so.

Overall audiences
During 2017, a combined average audience of 2.52 million viewers watched Formula 1’s race day action across Channel 4 and Sky Sports, a decrease of 4.0 percent on last year’s average audience of 2.63 million viewers. F1 has lost exactly a third of its UK television audience since it left the BBC in 2015. The BBC’s television audience in 2015 was 3.74 million viewers, meaning that 2017 results in a 33 percent drop. Like last year, this year’s audience will be the lowest for Formula 1 since at least 2005.

A year that promised so much failed to deliver a spectacular championship decider. The headlines do not tell the full story, and I feel that is the case here. The battle between Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel enticed viewers, with Spain (up 6%) and Europe (up 10%) proving that point. However, their on-track battles were too infrequent to have an overarching impact. To go from a sizzling race in Baku to a cold race in Austria was to the detriment of the championship.

2016 started off on a low-note, with Formula 1 victim to a warmer Spring than usual in the UK: the season opening Australian Grand Prix lost 17 percent of its audience year-on-year. Sometimes audiences take time to arrive, and you need several good races for fortunes to turn. After Baku, the following four races failed to bring in the viewers. It was not until the Italian Grand Prix where viewing figures increased compared with 2016. And then, came the Singapore Grand Prix which ultimately decided the outcome of the championship.

What followed Singapore was a brief resurgence as Hamilton strolled his fourth championship, but audiences plunged for the final three races in Mexico (down 43%), Brazil (down 23%) and Abu Dhabi (down 20%). If you were to, hypothetically speaking, add 30 percent to the audience for the final three races, viewing figures across the entire season would be equal with 2016. One move decided the fate of the season, and with it probably sent millions of viewers around the world switching off their television sets for the final hurdle in the Formula 1 season.

However, where Formula 1’s viewing figures drop, it remains firmly head and shoulders above the rest of the motor racing pack thanks to its exposure which no other series has in this country. On four wheels, only Formula E comes close with live coverage on Channel 5, and as documented elsewhere on this site, it is struggling to pick up a significant following. To put it into context, F1’s 2017 season average of 2.62 million viewers is ten times higher than Formula E’s 2016/17 season average of 280,000 viewers.

Is Formula 1 set for a shock in 2018?
We talk about a ‘new era’ every season, it feels like. 2019 on the broadcasting front in the UK heralds a new era with Sky Sports taking full control of Formula 1’s television rights. Before then, there is the small matter of 2018 to plough through. And with that, the Halo. Safety first, aesthetics second in this instance, with the much-derided cockpit protection system coming into force from the 2018 season.

F1 has survived, and flourished, upon major rule changes. But, arguably, the Halo is the biggest aesthetic change that F1 has seen in generations, changing the ways that cars fundamentally look to fans at home. I can write words about Hamilton versus Vettel: Part II all I want, but if the reaction is negative by media and fans, I fear that viewing figures could be set for another shock in 2018.

Halo is not meant to look attractive, that is not its purpose (you can read about the positives of the Halo elsewhere, this is not the place for that). From a broadcasting perspective however, are casual fans less likely to watch Formula 1 because of this system? The answer, in my view, is likely to be yes.

How many viewers will turn off Formula 1 because of the Halo in 2018, we do not know. But, the viewing figures for the Australian Grand Prix next March may give Liberty Media an unpleasant surprise…

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Sky F1’s Christmas schedule takes shape

Three new review shows will be part of Sky Sports F1’s Christmas festivities in the forthcoming weeks. Following on from their main review which first aired on Sunday 3rd December, the following shows will also air over Christmas:

– The now-regular Journalists Special airs on the F1 channel on Wednesday 13th December from 20:30 to 21:30. Guests are unconfirmed as of writing.
– A special in-depth interview will air with 2017 Drivers’ Champion Lewis Hamilton over the festive period. The show, entitled Lewis Hamilton: My 4th World Title, premieres on Christmas Day from 14:00 to 14:30.
– The Sky Sports F1 team gather together for a Sky F1 Christmas Special, which first airs on Christmas Day from 16:00 to 17:00 (simulcast on Sky Sports Main Event).

The airings listed are the first linear television airing, but expect the three programmes to turn up on Sky’s On Demand service prior to their linear showing.

Between now and Christmas, Sky are replaying every race session from 2017 in full, with classic races also airing in a variety of time slots. Formula Two takes pride of place in Sky’s schedules between Christmas and New Year, with races airing daily from 11:00 between the 26th and 30th December.

Elsewhere, BBC Radio 5 Live is host to two specials:

– Jennie Gow hosts a special focusing on the role and future of Grid Girls. The show airs on Thursday 14th December from 20:00
– The one-hour 5 Live F1 Season Review premiers on the radio station on Christmas Eve at 11:00

Further details will be added to this post as they become available.

Formula E season opener peaks with 329,000 viewers

The Formula E season started in Hong Kong last weekend, with the UK television audience peaking with 329,000 viewers, overnight viewing figures show.

Live coverage of both races aired exclusively on Eurosport across the weekend. Race one aired in an extended time slot from 06:45 to 08:45 due to the red flag on lap 1, and averaged 14k (0.40%). Eurosport’s broadcast peaked with 24k (0.72%) as the race restarted at 07:40. It is the lowest audience for a Formula E race that has broadcast live on television, just behind the 20,000 viewers who watched BT Sport Europe’s coverage of the 2016 Mexico City ePrix.

As anticipated, Channel 5’s as-live coverage comfortably outstripped Eurosport’s audience. Their programme, also extended from 09:00 to 11:10, averaged 176k (2.5%). The audience is Channel 5’s second lowest for a Formula E race, only ahead of the second Montreal ePrix race from July which aired live on Spike and in highlights form on Channel 5. The free-to-air broadcaster’s coverage peaked with 207k (3.1%) before the race coverage started.

Viewing figures perked up for Sunday’s action. Eurosport’s coverage of race two aired from 06:45 to 08:10 on Sunday morning, averaging 17k (0.61%). A peak audience of 33k (1.19%) watched their coverage at 07:30 as Daniel Abt headed to victory prior to his post-race disqualification.

Channel 5’s highlights programme aired from 08:55 to 10:40, averaging 228k (3.4%), beating ITV in the time slot. Their coverage dipped before the race started to under 200,000 viewers but encouragingly climbed to a peak of 297k (4.2%), both metrics marginally higher than their live Hong Kong programme last year.

The combined Formula E audiences across the weekend of 190,000 viewers on Saturday and 245,000 viewers on Sunday paints an interesting picture. Sunday’s combined audience is up year-on-year on the 2016 Hong Kong race, which also took place on a Sunday.

There is a fair difference between the Saturday peak of 231,000 viewers and the Sunday figure of 329,000 viewers, suggesting that Sunday’s race may have attracted extra viewers to Channel 5 who were not aware that the Formula E season was starting last weekend.

Saturday’s numbers are poor, but Sunday is a vast improvement. If Channel 5 make the effort for the remainder of the year scheduling wise, with the on-site effort that they showed in Hong Kong, the viewers will hopefully come.

Elsewhere, Sunday afternoon hosted Sky Sports’ and Channel 4’s Formula 1 season reviews. Sky’s show played out at 12:00 and attracted an audience of 12k (0.2%), with 439k (5.4%) tuning into Channel 4’s review an hour later.

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F1 2017 swan song peaks with 3.5 million viewers

A peak audience of 3.47 million viewers watched the 2017 Formula One season finish on a whimper in the UK, overnight viewing figures show.

Race
With both championships decided prior to Abu Dhabi, audiences were down across all metrics on Channel 4 and Sky Sports over the weekend.

Live coverage of Channel 4’s full programme, on air from 12:00 to 16:30, averaged 1.53m (15.1%), down on last year’s equivalent full-slot average of 2.25m (19.1%). The race itself from 12:00 to 15:10 averaged 1.86m (18.7%).

Sky’s average audience was down by 28 percent year-on-year. Their programming in 2017 averaged 454k (4.6%) on Sky Sports F1, with a further 97k (1.0%) watching on Sky Sports Mix. However, Sky should take solace in the fact that their audience is up on the 2015 average audience of 399k (3.0%), which occurred in similar circumstances.

The combined average audience of 2.41 million viewers is the lowest for the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix on record. Compared with 2015, the average audience is down by around 200,000 viewers. In the context of the season, 2.41 million is slightly below the average, but up on Mexico and Brazil, neither of which were live on free-to-air television.

The race started with started with 2.90m (29.5%) at 13:00, hovering around 3.1 million viewers for the duration, climbing slightly after 14:00 to reach a combined peak audience of 3.47 million viewers (30.8%) at 14:35 as Valtteri Bottas won the final race of the season.

At the time of the peak, 2.66m (23.6%) were watching on Channel 4, with 811k (7.2%) watching via Sky Sports F1 and Mix, a split of 77:23. Last year’s coverage peaked with 4.99m (38.3%), a drop of 30 percent year-on-year, arguably less than expected given that there was little to fight for in the final race of the season.

Qualifying
Channel 4’s live coverage of qualifying aired from 11:55 to 14:45, and averaged 945k (11.7%). Sky Sports F1’s programme added a further 319k (3.9%) from 12:00 to 14:35, resulting in a combined audience of 1.26 million viewers. The peak audience of 2.01 million viewers (22.2%) came at the end of qualifying, down around 14 percent on last year’s peak audience of 2.34 million viewers.

As in previous years, this site will in forthcoming weeks analyse the 2017 Formula One viewing figures picture from a UK audience perspective: increases, decreases, the peaks and the troughs, and what lies ahead for 2018.

The 2016 Abu Dhabi ratings report can be found here.

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2018 French Grand Prix to go head-to-head with England’s second World Cup game

A reduced television audience in the United Kingdom looks set to greet the French Grand Prix when it returns to the calendar next year, because of the 2018 FIFA World Cup.

The draw for the tournament, which takes place in Russia, has placed England in Group G. As a result, England will face Panama on Sunday 24th June 2018 at 13:00 UK time. Historically, games held on the same day have ‘swapped’ time slots to suit television audiences in various territories, so England’s game could move to later in the day, with Japan versus Senegal or Poland versus Columbia taking the earlier slot.

It is rare for an England game to directly clash with an F1 race, although there have been two near misses. In 2006, England’s World Cup knock out game with Ecuador clashed with build-up for the Canadian Grand Prix, whilst their knock out game with Germany in 2010 resulted in the European Grand Prix moving to BBC Two.

Although England’s World Cup games have been less of a draw in recent times than historically, the games are still a huge event nationally, and would put a significant dent into the French Grand Prix audience. In the era of free-to-air highlights though, I expect Sky to broadcast the race exclusively live to a reduced audience if the race stays in its current 13:00 time slot.

To avoid the situation, the French round might find itself moved to either 11:00 UK time (12:00 local) or 15:00 UK time (14:00 local). Elsewhere, the French Grand Prix qualifying session clashes with Belgium versus Tunisia, both teams in the same group as England.