A decade since the runaway Schumacher in 2002

Ten years ago today, at the 2002 French Grand Prix, Michael Schumacher clinched his fifth Formula One Drivers’ Championship. Aside from the fact that his championship winning drive helped him equal Juan Manuel Fangio’s record of five championship titles, his win was in Round 11 of 17 of the 2002 season. Or, to put it another way, there was still a third of the season left and there was six races left to win.

The people in Italy and Germany may have been very happy, but television bosses around the world were not, as all they seen was slumping ratings. And that too was evident here in the UK. During that season, a British driver only won a race once, that being David Coulthard in the Monaco Grand Prix where Schumacher finished second.

All but three race in the 2002 season recorded a ratings decline compared with the 2001 season, the only three races to record an improvement were Spain, Monaco and Europe. Starting off in Australia, the season opener had 3.41 million viewers, shedding over 1 million viewers compared with 2001. Even more surprising for me was that both the live showing and repeat showings were down, despite the multiple car collision that began that Grand Prix. I do remember the newspapers the next day having a five or six page spread with just full page spreads of pictures of the carnage that occurred from the first corner crash.

Moving onto Malaysia, and the ratings were steady year-on-year thanks to Jenson Button’s near podium and Michael Schumacher’s clash with Juan Pablo Montoya. Only a 30,000 viewer dip was recorded for Malaysia, which in the grand scheme of things is fairly negligible. The Brazilian Grand Prix did fairly well thanks to a battle to the end between the Schumacher brothers, recording a dip of 260,000, but still with a primetime viewership of nearly 6 million viewers.

San Marino, however, recorded the first big dip of the European season though, shedding 750,000 viewers on the previous year, with a rating of 3.43 million viewers. Despite Spain being a Schumacher walkover, that race recorded a slight rise, the first of the season, with a rise of 30,000 viewers. And then, we come onto Austria. If you are a Formula One fan, you know what happened here. Unsurprisingly, Austria seen a decline of 170,000 viewers compared with 2001.

Heading into the early part of the Summer though, the ratings seemed to zig-zag somewhat, Monaco and Europe actually increased despite the Austria fiasco, while Canada and Britain decreased. The block of four altogether had a decrease of 110,000 viewers, in line with the decrease for the France Grand Prix. Which, as I outlined above, is when viewers began to tune out in the droves. If you are a TV boss, how can you promote six races where there is nothing to fight for? You can’t. You could focus on the Constructors’ Championship battle, but fact of the matter is that the casual viewers do not really care about that, and therefore concentrating on that will do nothing for your viewership. It was damage limitation.

From that point onwards, every race recorded a decline compared with 2001. Both the Belgian and United States Grand Prix’s recorded declines of over 1 million viewers while the Hungarian and German Grand Prix’s recorded hefty declines as well. In order:

Top 6 declines – 2001 vs 2002
– 1.25 million – Belgian
– 1.16 million – United States
– 1.01 million – Australia
– 0.75 million – San Marino
– 0.61 million – Hungary
– 0.47 million – Germany

The US Grand Prix decline was particularly damaging, with it being one of only three races in primetime on ITV1, so you can imagine their reaction when they noticed they had a ‘dud’ race in primetime. Nowadays TV bosses are glad when the championship race goes to the final few races. Because tight championship battles makes people change the channel and watch Formula 1. And that’s what they want. They don’t want things like 2002 every year. Because it is a turn off. Plain and simple.

Did you watch every race in 2002? I did. Somehow. As always, comments and thoughts are welcome.

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