UK F1 TV viewing figures drop significantly with switch to Channel 4

The change of free-to-air broadcasting rights from the BBC to Channel 4 have had a detrimental effect on Formula 1’s television viewing figures in the United Kingdom, overnight viewing figures suggest. Audiences have shown signs of increasing though as we head into the Summer break.

> Channel 4’s audience down 1.5 million compared with BBC in first half of 2015
> Sky slides to record low for second year running
> Demographic analysis shows younger audience has held up strongly

As always, it should be noted up front what this site uses to compare the viewing figures with past data. All the numbers in this article are ‘overnight’ viewing figures supplied by Overnights.tv, which brings together the live viewing figure with recordings made before 02:00 the following morning, typically this is called Live + VOSDAL (viewing on same day as live).

For Sky Sports, the three-and-a-half-hour broadcast slot is used, for example, from 12:00 to 15:30. Currently, this encompasses ‘Pit Lane Live’ and ‘Race’ programmes. The three-and-a-half-hour slot has been used consistently for comparisons since Sky started broadcasting Formula 1 in 2012. This ensures that the number reported can be used to analyse cross-year data accurately. It also broadly uses the same slot length as the BBC and ITV have used in the past. There are exceptions: if a race overruns, the three-and-a-half-hour slot is extended, as necessary.

The data for Sky’s Formula 1 coverage includes Sky Sports 1 where applicable, ensuring that a complete picture is reported. In this piece, I will not break down the Sky figure into Sky Sports F1 and Sky Sports 1, simply because the number of races that were simulcast on Sky Sports 1 in the first half of 2015 compared with the first half of 2016 is largely unchanged.

Over on Channel 4, their full programme slots have been used, irrespective of length. This provides a fair comparison with the BBC data. However, caution should be exercised: Channel 4’s programmes contain advertising, the BBC’s did not which inevitably puts the commercial broadcaster at a disadvantage. But, this piece will analyse the data further, looking at how much impact that element has had on numbers.

Lastly, this piece only looks at the viewing figures for the first half of each individual season, given that this is a half way review. So for 2016, the period from the Australian Grand Prix to the Hungarian Grand Prix is in scope.

The 2016 story
Starting with Sky’s Formula 1 programming. Their show, from 12:00 to 15:30 or equivalent, averaged 617k, their lowest mid-season number in the five years that they have been covering Formula 1. As mentioned, the viewing figures include any simulcasting on Sky Sports 1. For the first half of 2015, the average was 657k, which at the time was a record low in itself. So, year-on-year, average audiences for Sky have dropped 6 percent. Compared with 2012, which was the high point at 772k, average audiences have dropped 20 percent.

The peak audience metric for Sky though has increased by 0.9 percent, from 980k in 2015 to 989k in 2016. I appreciate those two numbers are within the margin for error (in terms of my own calculations), but the average programme audience decreasing, yet the peak audience holding up would imply that Sky’s pre and post-race programming has dropped disproportionately to the race itself. Year-on-year, three races have seen their average audience increase: Canada (up 15.8 percent as a result of no live free-to-air coverage), Austria (up 15.1 percent) and Britain (up 13.9 percent). In Sky’s defence, the substantial drops occurred in the early phase of the season. Australia (down 30.4 percent) and China (down 26.4 percent) are two examples of this.

If Sky were hoping to capitalise on the BBC’s exit by hooking ex-BBC F1 viewers onto their product then unfortunately for Sky, that has not happened so far. The way the championship battle shaped up in the early races hurt both them and Channel 4. Only recently have both broadcasters started to improve their audiences. Had Lewis Hamilton’s championship defence not got off to a poor start (relatively speaking) then the first quarter of 2016 may well have performed better for Sky.

Normally at this stage in the article I would analyse the free-to-air broadcaster and look at year-on-year trends. This year, the situation is different. Channel 4 have taken over from the BBC. Channel 4 reaches less viewers than BBC One, so of course Formula 1’s viewing figures have dropped. To some degree, it is comparing apples and oranges, but this site aims to report Formula 1 viewing figures accurately and to do that, the comparison needs to be made. The key is, how much have audiences declined. The answer? At the half way stage of 2016, Formula 1’s terrestrial television viewing figures have dropped 40 percent.

On race day, Channel 4’s programming has averaged 2.01 million viewers, down 1.5 million on the 3.51 million viewers for the same period last year on the BBC.  In my opinion, seeing a 1.5 million drop year-on-year is on the more extreme side of what I expected. Channel 4’s viewing figures are around half a million lower than I anticipated. Unsurprisingly, every race has dropped year-on-year, from the very extreme of Canada (down 71.9 percent due to no live free-to-air presence) to Britain (down 26.7 percent).

The peak audiences that Channel 4 have recorded do not clock up much better, with an ‘average peak’ audience of 2.78 million, down 36.4 percent or 1.59 million on the ‘average peak’ audience of 4.37 million that the BBC hit in the first half of 2015. The commercial impact does hit the average audience metric slightly, but not big enough that it would wildly affect the overall year-on-year trend. Looking at the breakdown across the season, viewing figures have improved in recent races, hitting a peak audience of three million viewers for both Britain and Hungary.

The demographic gap
Channel 4 aims the content that it produces at a younger audience. That is the DNA of the corporation, hence channels such as E4. Whilst the overall audience drop is disappointing, this is largely concentrated amongst the older viewers, who simply have not transitioned across from the BBC. The younger audience has dropped, but at a far less rate than older viewers. Whilst the overall drop is major, there is a headline within the headline, and the numbers are not all bad news.

Speaking exclusively to this site, Channel 4’s Head of F1 Stephen Lyle is keen to emphasise this: “Viewing to both live races and highlights on Channel 4 has been strong with our live race coverage regularly making Channel 4 the most watched terrestrial channel over the time slot with the largest share of young viewers, which is important to the legacy of the sport.”

It should be noted that this piece does not include on demand viewing, such as Sky Go or All 4. With Sky Go slowly on the rise along with Now TV, this may account for the drop in Sky’s Formula 1 television viewing figures. However, All 4’s Formula 1 programming is unlikely to receive as many requests as BBC’s programming did on iPlayer, due to the respective size of both platforms. So, it is swings and roundabouts really.

Elsewhere, BBC 5 Live’s Formula 1 coverage is not included. The radio station benefited from Formula 1’s switch to Sky in 2012, so they may have benefited again as a result of the move from BBC to Channel 4. The methodology for measuring radio listening figures is different to television viewing figures, so numbers are difficult to compare. However, in the latest RAJAR figures released for Q2 in 2016, 5 Live was up year-on-year whilst 5 Live Sports Extra was down.

Combined audience and final thoughts
The combined television average audience in the UK at the half way stage of 2016 is 2.63 million, a decrease of 36.8 percent on 2015’s average audience of 4.16 million. Currently, it stands as the lowest number on record, dating back to 2006. I expect the second half of the season to do better than the first; the last race which rated lower than 2.63 million was Canada. In fact, both Canada and China drag the average audience down.

In a perfect world, the numbers would be higher. Audiences are slightly lower than what I expected on Channel 4. Can that be reversed? Absolutely. If the championship race goes down to the wire, there is no reason why audiences cannot increase. Channel 4 and Sky have been unlucky this season. The on-track battle between Mercedes and Ferrari which I thought and hoped would occur simply has not materialised. You can only talk about what you see on-track, and the Mercedes duel for the third season running, irrespective of channel, pay walls or anything else, is not the most appealing to the casual viewer even if there is British interest.

We saw at the back of last season that Hamilton wrapping the championship up early will not be good for viewing figures. Seeing as Hamilton vs Sebastian Vettel has, for the moment, turned to star-dust, we look towards Max Verstappen. Verstappen vs Hamilton is something that has yet to happen but should happen on-track either in the latter half of this season or next. That battle should spice up interest up front and potentially bring new fans.

As of writing, I have received no comment from either the BBC or Sky, but if I do, I will amend this article.

Update on August 13th: The BBC have supplied this site with the following statistics. Over one million audio requests have been made for BBC’s Formula 1 coverage online, with their Formula 1 website receiving five million unique browser hits during its highest week. Furthermore, 1.37 million hits were received for their British Grand Prix live page, their largest number so far this season.

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15 thoughts on “UK F1 TV viewing figures drop significantly with switch to Channel 4

  1. While Channel 4 will no doubt be very happy with their viewing figures, the drop off compared to the BBC is staggering, and I don’t understand why if I’m honest. As I’ve said before, I can only assume that F1 has an abnormally high number of casual viewers compared to other sports, and the mere thought of tuning into C4 is a step too far for over a million of them. Even this explanation doesn’t really make sense, but I cannot see what other reasons there are, is C4’s coverage to blame?

    Whilst Sky’s numbers are down a bit, I would say that they are quite happy, yes they could be better. Sky consider 1 million viewers for a general entertainment programme to be very good, so that’s why I think they will look at 600k plus for F1 as being good. There is also the fact that Sky competes against itself, particularly where sport is concerned, so that is another factor that the BBC and C4 don’t have.

    It is noticable over the last year or so that Sky have cut back on their supplementary programming, and not just on F1, but it’s easy for them to do that when their competition offers nothing.

  2. SKY’s problem for me is the quality of the broadcast. Simon Lazenby appears to be phoning it in most of the time – Hill and Herbert are amateur at best, which is not mitigated by the ‘much-loved veteran’ tag. The main 3 offer little insight into the sport – the only lift to this is when Brundle is on camera. He remains their star asset. SKY should have a long overdue shake-up, invest in some serious F1/broadcast talent and re-build the whole thing around Brundle – a true great in terms of bringing a difficult sport to life on TV.

  3. First of all, I don’t understand why Channel 4 have done worse that the BBC did, as they both broadcast to the whole of the UK.
    Secondly (and this is a big factor) audiences, when they watch motor sport, want excitement, which F1 doesn’t provide in all the races. Add to that, as Sky have it exclusively live from 2019, fans may not be bothering to watch, even from now. And, when he sold out to Sky, Bernie is gradually destroying the sport anyway!

    • Many reasons why C4 has done worse. Most notably, the fact people do not want to watch F1 highlights riddled with ad breaks. Then there’s the casual viewers. Far more people watch most of the BBC’s programming who will stay tuned and catch the F1.

      Don’t forget Sky have promised FTA highlights of some sort. Also, many countries already have no FTA F1 and while the global audience has declined, it hasn’t been devastating. People who really love the sport will find a way to watch it. Legal or otherwise…

  4. The reason is I think, whatever we might think about the BBC’s policies etc, we should never underestimate the huge audience figures its 3 channels pull in every week. A lot of their popular shows still attract many millions of viewers – most of us watch something on the BBC every week. Add to this the fact that they always trail ads prior to big sports events and shows, often at peak times, millions are exposed to what’s available to watch. Whilst I think CH4 is doing an excellent job, they just don’t have a big regular audience to promote their F1 coverage to. This is I’m sure why the casual viewer is disappearing. The true F1 fan will always seek out when a race is to be broadcast, but the casual fan needs to be reminded and excited – the BBC did that well. Their lead up to the Olympics is a good example.

  5. I thought the viewing figures would fall off a cliff, so I’m not in the least bit surprised. F1 is effectively hidden away on the fourth channel with the additional problem of random scheduling from the ‘pick’ system for live races. A prime time highlights show on Saturday, Sunday (or Monday for American highlights) at a fixed time for ‘appointment viewing’ might help matters.

    I’m still grateful for Channel 4 (and the teams) for keeping coverage FTA for a little while longer.

  6. The BBC have loyal viewers and those who were used to their commentators will have stayed when Sky took over, CH4 is a step too far, if you have to change then go with the best.
    Are these numbers only for live viewing at the time of original broadcast? Many who do not want to pay will simply go watch it with friends or download/record and watch/share later, also free (unlicensed) streaming services are likely to have grown with ex BBC viewers reluctant to pay?
    With the changing way in which we view all content these days, figures such as these can not reflect the true interest in the sport?

  7. Quick question (open to anyone) – Have Sky provided more information on what these “FTA highlights” will be when they have it exclusively? When do we expect to find out?

    • I don’t know when they will launch their Sky Sports Mix channel, which will carry some F1 content, but I would guess that it’s going to be 2018 before details of FTA highlights become known. It may be before then but it’s likely to be nearer then than now.

  8. Use to watch every session of f1. stopped watching free practise years ago and i not watched much of the qually this year.

    It not just the slow change to pay tv its just not exciting as it use to be. to many rules, to many silly race tracks , silly tyre rules , 3 stage qually . silly engine penatly rules.

    F1 is just waiting for push to become obsolete
    if evey sports car racing or wec get on free to air tv live consistantly on the main channels f1 will be gone

  9. A lot of people watch things out of habit and any glich in the routine is an excuse to stop. F1 is too dull and non inclusive even for old fans. Unlikely it will ever register with a replacement next generation.

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