Formula E in the UK at the moment has its problems. I hate to say that, but over the past year, something has gone wrong with the advertising of the series. The electric Formula E series began on September 13th 2014, with the Beijing ePrix. ITV have had the broadcast rights in the UK since the series began.
The inaugural race peaked with 477k (6.8%) for its live airing. Combined with the highlights programme, the race peaked with 713k. Inevitably numbers dropped across the first season. Races delivered numbers that were below expectation, in some places poor (until we saw season two’s numbers). In my opinion, and I have been consistent in saying this all along, ITV’s advertising of the championship has been poor. We’re not expecting miracles, but sometimes during the first season it felt that the advertising was running on ‘auto tune’.
Nevertheless, the London ePrix and the publicity that surrounded that provided ITV and everyone surrounded with the series an opportunity to push Formula E into the mainstream. It was an opportunity to build the foundations for season two, to give those watching at the end of June races to remember. So, what happened? The championship decider was broadcast live on ITV’s main channel to a peak audience of 1.18m (10.7%). It was a fantastic way to end the first season, with the battle between Nelson Piquet Jnr and Sebastien Buemi going down to the wire.
Seeing an audience of 1.2 million would have been a great opportunity for Formula E to thrash out a new deal for season two with ITV. More importantly, use the Battersea Park exposure to get some extra live races on ITV’s main channel and get the publicity ball for the 2015-16 season rolling in early September. ITV could produce some ‘raw’ 10-second teaser trailers based on footage from the Donington Park test in August for usage on-air throughout late September and October. Maybe try and get other media outlets involved, talkSPORT, The Guardian, BBC Radio 5 Live or Sky Sports online. Give them publicity material to ramp up the interest in the series before the Beijing ePrix gets under way.
Unfortunately, the reality was somewhat different. ITV’s deal was not confirmed until the middle of September. You don’t ‘hold’ on announcing something if everything is rosy. Evidently, there was some disagreement between the two parties which prevented an announcement. The only thing different between seasons one and two is that highlights would now air on ITV’s main channel. On the face of it, it seemed like a good move. But the problem, and this continues to manifest itself, is scheduling. A 60-minute slot on ITV(1) on Sunday mornings is unlikely to build a large audience, simply because there is not much of an audience around. A better answer would have been a race replay on either Saturday or Sunday afternoons (round dependent).
When the viewing figures for Battersea Park were released, I said the following: “This [the contract] requires commitment from both sides. I think logical progression from both sides would be to retain the current deal, but air the opening race of the 2015-16 season on ITV, along with two or three other races.” In my opinion, that’s not moving mountains. It’s simply putting Formula E in front of more faces. ITV’s main channel reaches more people than ITV4, that is a fact. The opening round of the 2015-16 season peaked with 168k (2.4%) for its live airing, including ITV’s highlights programme on Sunday morning, the peak number rose to 488k, a drop of 31.6 percent year-on-year. Even accounting for the season one hype, the drop of that scale was surely unexpected. Inevitably, the scheduling of the race with MotoGP and Formula 1 also on the same weekend did not help, but clever scheduling could have helped offset that.
Let’s take a look at the schedule for ITV(1) on Saturday 24th October:
06:00 – CITV
09:25 – The Jeremy Kyle Show USA (R)
10:10 – Countrywise (R)
10:40 – The Jeremy Kyle Show (R)
11:45 – ITV News
11:55 – Downton Abbey (R)
13:00 – The X Factor (R)
15:00 – Live Rugby World Cup
18:30 – ITV News
19:00 – The Chase
20:00 – The X Factor
22:25 – The Jonathan Ross Show
You’ve got the usual peak time line-up with The X Factor leading proceedings. But earlier in the schedule, you have two and a half hours of ‘dead air’ from 09:25 to 11:45. There are five and a half hours of repeats. The Beijing ePrix on ITV4 felt ‘separate’ to the main billings on ITV with the Rugby World Cup. Why not do some cross-advertising. “Your sporting weekend on ITV: the Rugby World Cup and the brand-new Formula E championship. Live and free on ITV.” ITV failed to cross-advertise two sporting events, which in my eyes was a missed opportunity to showcase Formula E to a wider audience. If you have X less-popular sport and Y very-popular sport on the same day, you should incorporate both into the same advertising campaign. Let’s turn the schedule above into the below:
06:00 – CITV
08:00 – Live Formula E: Beijing ePrix
10:20 – Downton Abbey (R)
11:25 – ITV News
11:35 – The X Factor (R)
13:35 – Formula E: Beijing ePrix
15:00 – Live Rugby World Cup
18:30 – as above
So, what have I changed? I’ve removed the morning repeats. Yes, they may draw good numbers, but frankly ITV should not be airing repeats of that nature on a Saturday morning. Air something new, be innovative and creative. Airing repeats of The Jeremy Kyle Show certainly does not tick those boxes. Moving the Beijing ePrix to ITV’s main channel in my opinion shows some scheduling creativity. I have chopped some post-race analysis off the live airing so that the repeat airing at 13:35 is in a longer 85-minute timeslot, allowing ample time for build-up (20 minutes), the full race (45 minutes) and post-race analysis (20 minutes) before the rugby, including adverts.
It is a tried, tested and successful formulae: ITV did it for twelve years with Formula 1. It is a Saturday afternoon, it’s where viewers expect sport to keep them hooked. I’ve kept the Downton Abbey and The X Factor repeats as I appreciate that they serve a purpose and I understand why they are in the schedule. The lost bit of CITV would be moved to the CITV channel or recaptured on Sunday morning. If ITV did the above, and the ratings were below average (let’s say below 500k for Formula E), you can at least say you tried. And that is where ITV are struggling. Again, this is not suggesting “every race should be on ITV”, it is suggesting that you use a select number of races as a shop window until the series grows further. I want Formula E to succeed, but at the moment the numbers show that the series in the UK is in reverse. Viewing figures this season have been down around 40 percent on last year’s average audience of 216k (2.6%).
However, there are issues that are out of ITV’s hands. The scheduling of the series as a whole needs to be revisited for the 2016-17 season. Formula E cannot build an audience with an imbalanced schedule, and that applies for every country. Races should happen at regular two or three week intervals (Christmas the exception). I appreciate that scheduling takes time to perfect, but you are not going to sustain and keep an audience if there is only one race in a five-week period. ITV would argue, quite rightly, “how can we advertise an event that takes place once every five weeks?” That also applies to the wider media.
If an event of Formula E’s nature takes place infrequently, the wider media are less likely to pick up and follow the series around the globe. Chances are, you would have only known about Sam Bird’s victory in the Buenos Aires ePrix yesterday if you have been following Formula E’s social media channels. Very few (if any) Formula 1 journalists on Twitter were tweeting about it, why? I simply do not know. The point is Formula E cannot grow on its own. It needs help from its stakeholders and broadcasters, including ITV.
The news earlier today that the Mexico City ePrix will not be shown live on ITV4 was met with disappointment, but you cannot be surprised looking at the viewing figures. I worry whether ITV are going to ditch Formula E at the end of season two, because it feels like their interest has been waning for a while. From 2017, horse racing will be filling up a lot of weekend hours on ITV4, which is unlikely to leave room for Formula E. I cannot emphasise this point more: if Formula E wants to grow in the UK, it has to have a presence (preferably live) on free-to-air television. Pay-TV is not the answer to growing a fan base. Live streaming is, partially, the answer. But free-to-air gives you access to millions of viewers. Live streaming does not.
If ITV decides they don’t want Formula E, there is one direction where Formula E could head. And that is live, on the BBC…