Despite a British driver currently in the championship race, at the halfway stage of the 2014 Formula One season, viewing figures do not paint a rosy picture. Currently, according to unofficial overnight viewing figures, television audiences have dropped to their lowest level since 2008 – the year Lewis Hamilton won his first Formula One championship.
> BBC bears brunt of drop as Sky’s figures show increase
> Combined figures follow same trajectory as between 2011 and 2012
> BBC “very pleased with how the season is going”
> Does online growth muddy the water?
Before going into detail, it is best re-iterating what exactly the numbers are. All terrestrial television numbers are programme averages. Sky Sports F1’s numbers for 2014 are for their race show from 12:00 to 15:30 (or equivalent), and I have used the equivalent timeslots for their 2012 and 2013 shows where possible in order to give the fairest comparison. BBC’s programme average number will either be for the live airing or highlights airing irrespective of channel for European or the American-based races; for Asian-based races, the re-run is included where applicable. All comparisons are for the first half of the respective seasons only, in the event of an odd-rounded season, the number is rounded up (i.e. in a 19 race season, the halfway stage is after round ten). The viewing figures are for TV viewing only, hence, they exclude BBC iPlayer and Sky Go.
The 2014 story
Starting off with Sky Sports F1, their race day programme has averaged 746k across three and a half hours from 12:00 to 15:30, or equivalent. The number is up 3.0 percent on 2013’s mid-season number of 724k. It is, however, down on the first half of 2012, which across the respective three and a half hour slots averaged 779k. The main reason for the drop is because, in 2012, Sky Sports offered their channels across the German Grand Prix weekend as free, something that has not happened since. Removing this would bring their 2012 average into line with the 2014 number.
Any increase is good, but it needs to be remembered that we are talking tens of thousands rather than hundreds of thousands where Sky are concerned. Is that a good thing? Well, not really. It definitely does not help Formula 1, that’s for sure. A 3 percent increase for Sky is a meagre 22k. In the grand scheme of things, that is not a lot, when you consider that an average of over 4 million viewers watch Formula 1 in a typical season. Sky may argue that they are bringing in new viewers. I’d argue that they’re not bringing enough new viewers. Unless Sky market F1 as a completely separate channel, with a separate price structure instead of bundling it in with the Sky Sports pack, for those not interested in football, cricket and the like, that will not change.
Over on the BBC, their figures have dropped. Average audiences for Formula 1, in comparison to the first half of 2013 have dropped by 18 percent, and are now back in line to what they were in 2012. An average of 3.12m tuned in to the first ten races on the BBC, compared to 3.81m in 2013 and 3.16m in 2012. Even removing last year’s inflated German Grand Prix highlights programme, 2014 is down half a million currently on 2013. The figures do not look good, and as a Formula 1 fan, seeing declining figures is not a good sign, at all. The problem for BBC this year is that the scheduling has not been favourable. Let’s look at the races which have been shown on BBC Two so far this year.
– Bahrain > highlights – clash with Grand National and The Boat Race
– Austria > highlights – would have meant not picking Canada, so Austria lesser of two evils
– Britain > live – clash with Wimbledon final
– Germany > highlights – clash with final round of The Open Golf
As I mentioned in my British Grand Prix scheduling piece, some of the scheduling this year has been terrible by FOM and the FIA. The BBC say that the amount of people who have watched 15 consecutive minutes of Formula 1 in 2014 (the reach figure) has dropped 4.3 percent.
Reach vs Average
The combined average at the halfway stage of the year is 3.87m, the lowest since 2008. It is down on 4.53m last year, marginally down on 3.94m from 2012 and considerably below any average recorded between 2009 and 2011. In 2011, when Formula 1 was exclusively on the BBC, race programmes used to average 4.6m and peak in excess of six million viewers, which was fantastic to see. It’s worth noting that the programme lengths were just as long, if not longer then compared with what BBC offer now for live races, I remember a British Grand Prix programme back then lasting until 15:40 before another hour on the forum! The sizeable six million peaks does not happen as much nowadays. The drop between 2011 and 2012 was 16 percent, compared with 15 percent between 2013 and 2014 at the halfway stage, so a very similar drop.
A drop of only 4.3 percent for the reach (BBC only) versus a more extreme percentage drop in average is of potential interest, when also looking at the similar drop mentioned above. Because some race highlights are scheduled on BBC Two, therefore to a lower audience, it means that the overall audiences are lower, hence a bigger drop in average audience. However, those people are still tuning in to the live races on BBC One, for example Canada which was level year-on-year, which is why the reach figure has not dropped as much in comparison. Whilst I can understand why this deal started in the first place, I really do not like seeing programming moved to BBC Two. All it does is hurt Formula 1 in the long run. If the alternative was really pay-TV only, then maybe this was the best option.
Online and final thoughts
As always, BBC iPlayer, Sky Go and the such like are not included in the figures. Whilst they will make some difference to the overall totals, I do not believe that they will change the overall year-on-year trend, although it may well bring 2014 above 2012. I think it should be pointed out though that people tend to watch live sport via television. When you remove that ‘live’ element, you either choose to seek out highlights elsewhere, or just don’t watch at all. This isn’t Sherlock or Doctor Who, where people will watch at their own leisure. Live sport is not consumed like that. Sport has a second screen experience by all means, but it’s first port of call is the television. Live sport is what draws people together. Moving Formula 1, partially, behind a pay wall does not achieve that (irrespective of who did what, why, when etc), which of course brings us around to the ‘next generation’ argument again.
I find this year’s figures actually worser than 2012, because we have a British driver in the title race. Viewing figures should be higher. Logically, viewing figures should start to improve year-on-year if Hamilton remains in the title race. I think some of the figures already this year have been alarming, but we should see some improvements soon, especially when you consider that 2013 fell off a cliff in the latter stages. Also, at a time like this, with Hamilton in contention, you cannot in any way, shape or form gain momentum ratings wise when you are chopping and changing between live, highlights, BBC One and BBC Two. If every race in 2014 was live on BBC One, you could pretty much guarantee that ratings would build to a crescendo towards the end of the season. The current rights structure, in my opinion, does not allow for that. But, given the BBC’s current predicament, is the current rights deal better than having every race live and free on ITV? I’d argue it is, but from a Formula 1 marketing perspective, there is not much in it compared to three years ago.
A BBC spokesperson said: “The BBC has seen great audiences for F1 this year, with the highest peak for live being 5.2m for Canada with a 4.6m average, and the highest for highlights being 4m for Monaco with a 3.3m average. We’re very pleased with how the season is going, especially with such a busy sporting year. Overall reach is slightly down at this point compared to 2013 (down 4.3%) which is a very small margin and it is completely expected for there to be fluctuations in audiences through the year – some races are up, some are down which we see every season as the story unfolds. Fluctuations are also expected around other major events such as the World Cup and Commonwealth Games. Note that the BBC shows a different arrangement of live and highlights each year so figures are not directly comparable – the only comparable figure is the end of year reach.”