Formula 1’s UK viewing figures drop significantly year-on-year

The move of Formula 1 from the BBC to Channel 4, along with a familiar story at the front of the field, resulted in viewing figures dropping significantly between 2015 and 2016, overnight numbers show.

> Channel 4’s audience down 1.25 million compared with BBC’s coverage
> Sky increases year-on-year
> Combined audience likely lowest since 2006

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 1, 2 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.

Overnight viewing figures, otherwise known as Live + VOSDAL (Viewing On Same Day As Live) include anyone who watched the programming before 02:00 the next morning. For example, if you recorded the live race broadcast, but watched it at 18:00 on Sunday evening, you would be counted in the overnight viewing figures.

This article excludes on demand methods of viewing, such as All 4 and Sky Go. However, on demand viewing is expected to be down by some margin year on year, as a result of Formula 1’s move to Channel 4, and therefore away from BBC iPlayer.

Channel 4’s overnight viewing figures
In 2016, Channel 4 aired ten races live, with the other eleven covered in highlights form. Their race day programming across 2016 averaged 1.96 million viewers. Their live races averaged 2.18 million viewers, with their highlight shows averaging 1.76 million viewers. Clearly it can be argued that the highlights programming in unfavourable time slots have dragged Channel 4’s average audiences down.

The season highlight for Channel 4 was live coverage of the Mexican Grand Prix which averaged 2.89m (12.6%) from 18:00 to 21:00 in October, with the low light an audience of just 841k for the US Grand Prix highlights programme a week before. Disappointingly for the channel, audiences failed to grow in the latter half of 2016. Considering the context of the championship, the Malaysian Grand Prix underperformed as did the season ending Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.

“Our first year covering Formula 1 has been as exciting as the championship itself and the millions who have tuned in week in week out reflect that. It’s been gripping from start to finish and we can’t wait for the 2017 season to get under way.” – Stephen Lyle, Channel 4’s Commissioning Editor for Sport and Formula 1

Last year, the BBC’s coverage averaged 3.11 million viewers, meaning that Channel 4’s 2016 audience was down 36.8 percent. The drop is sharper than expected. Scheduling of the American fly away races did not help. There is a lot to be said for Channel 4’s promotion, or lack of, as the season progressed.

Across different demographics, the larger drops have been across the older audience, but nevertheless viewing has dropped across all demographics (although the 16-34 drop is smaller). It should be noted though that Channel 4’s Formula 1 programming thrashed slot averages across the year, and does show what Formula 1 can bring to a terrestrial television channel.

Channel 4’s programming recorded an average race day peak audience of 2.75 million viewers. Three races stood head and shoulders above the rest: Britain (3.89 million), Mexico (3.93 million) and Abu Dhabi (3.85 million). I think there will be disappointment that Channel 4’s Formula 1 programming did not break the 4 million peak barrier once. Nor did any other races get anywhere close to the peak figures mentioned above, the fourth highest peak was Bahrain (3.24 million).

Sky’s overnight viewing figures
Live coverage of the 21 races on Sky Sports in 2016 have averaged 669k from 12:00 to 15:30 or equivalent, up 4.9 percent on 2015. In a year of tough competition battling against the Olympics, Euro 2016 and the longest ever season, that is an impressive figure, showing tough resilience against the competition. Oddly, Sky’s coverage does rate better in the even-numbered years which is an interesting stat.

Since 2012, Sky’s coverage has averaged 709k, 640k, 790k, 638k and now 669k. So it has flip-flopped up and down. That’s probably not a good thing as there is no real trend other than stagnation. Sky has found their audience and simply halted there without being able to reach out further. Bear in mind too that 2016’s audience includes the various simulcasts on Sky Sports 1, 2 and Mix, whereas these simulcasts were not happening in 2012.

The highlight of Sky’s Formula 1 coverage in 2016 was a peak audience of 1.75 million viewers for the extended Brazilian Grand Prix, the second highest peak for a Formula 1 race on Sky only behind the 2014 United States Grand Prix. Strong numbers in the second half of 2016 helped Sky overcome its deficit that it faced year-on-year at the midway stage of the season where it looked like Sky was heading for a record low.

Overall, eight races increased their viewing figures for Sky year-on-year, whilst the remaining eleven races dropped (the other two were not on the calendar last year). You might be wondering how this results in an overall increase, but the title battle going down to the wire was significant for Sky: both Brazil and Abu Dhabi’s numbers doubled year-on-year which is very rare and shows how much broadcasters suffered when the championship race finishes early.

In my opinion, Sky’s figures are not good enough. If Sky are failing to increase their viewing figures now, will they be able to do so come 2019? Before we know it, 2019 will be here and Sky don’t look to be in a position where they can reach out to a breed of Formula 1 fans. That’s not good for the success of Formula 1 in this country.

Overall audiences
During 2016, a combined average audience of 2.63 million viewers watched Formula 1’s 21 races across Channel 4 and Sky Sports, a drop of 29.7 percent on 2015’s average audience of 3.74 million viewers across the BBC and Sky. By the overnight audience metric, it is the lowest audience for a Formula 1 season since records began in 2006. However, once consolidated audiences are calculated, it is likely that 2016 will jump above 2006. Nevertheless, viewing figures are down on last season. This was to be expected. No one knew by how much, though. The size of the drop might surprise some.

Most races were down around 35 percent, but there were some exceptions. The five best races year-on-year were Mexico (up 32%), Abu Dhabi (up 16%), Belgium (down 11%), Austria (down 19%) and Japan (down 26%). By the peak metric, the five best races year-on-year were Mexico (up 36%), Abu Dhabi (up 35%), Belgium (down 5%), Austria (down 12%) and Britain (down 15%). Mexico was up considerably as it was shown live on free-to-air television, whilst Abu Dhabi was the championship decider, and arguably should have been a lot higher than the peak audience of 4.99 million viewers that it recorded.

As referenced above, the peak audiences for three races were considerably higher than the rest, which I don’t think is a good thing. It suggests that the audience is being ‘trained’ to pick and choose what races they want to watch instead of tuning in to watch the complete season. One reason: 21 races is too much and the casual fan simply cannot commit to watching all 21 races.

Why did the British Grand Prix peak with 4.99 million viewers but the Hungarian race two weeks later peak with 4.16 million viewers? Historically, Hungary has been a few hundred thousand behind Silverstone when looking at the peak viewing audiences, not nearly a million viewers behind. It is questions like this that Channel 4 should be asking to try to work out where best to advertise Formula 1. Channel 4’s bill boards and cross channel advertising disappeared after a few races. Next season, these need to continue or be more spread out across the whole season.

Austria, Britain and Belgium did not disgrace themselves year-on-year which gave hope that audiences would hold up in the second half of the season. What followed was a spectacular drop, where audiences dropped five times in a row from 2.60 million in Belgium to 1.83 million in USA. At the same time, Nico Rosberg’s stranglehold on the championship took shape, recording four out of six wins in this period. Arguably, Rosberg stopped the momentum (from a UK ratings perspective) that had built up before the Summer break and the viewing figures support this theory.

On demand viewing likely to be down and final thoughts
The switch from the BBC to Channel 4 has meant that Formula 1 content is no longer available on BBC iPlayer. Figures from BARB for the week ending 27th November show that BBC iPlayer had nearly seven times more live streaming requests that All 4, and five times more on-demand requests. This will have impacted Formula 1’s on demand reach year-on-year, and probably resulted in a downturn year-on-year. The likes of Sky Go and Now TV will have trended upwards I imagine, but are both unlikely to negate the loss of BBC iPlayer. As of writing, there is no word on how BBC’s radio coverage performed compared with 2015, but I will update this site if figures are revealed.

As I’ve always said, any drop is disappointing. But to expect Channel 4’s figures to match the BBC’s from the outset was plain unrealistic. A drop of 36 percent was higher than I anticipated across the year, but not an immediate shock when the first few races started to come in. Some of that might be down to Channel 4, some of that down to the quality of the racing and the championship fight. Announcing that live Formula 1 was leaving free-to-air television from 2019 onwards after Channel 4’s very first race might have done more harm than good for the sport this season.

The aim for 2017 has to be to hold onto the existing audience, and build on it for the next generation. Whether that is easier said than done depends on how the 2017 season unfolds. Funnily enough, the person who was partly responsible for the audience decline throughout the year has now retired. If that results in a new championship battle between Lewis Hamilton and another contender, audiences could increase. The problem in 2016 was that Rosberg did not have a large UK fan base. He wasn’t Sebastian Vettel, who increased audience figures back in 2011. There is a lot of work to do to hook viewers onto Formula 1 in 2017, and the direction Mercedes go with their second driver could dictate the direction viewing figures head…

Sky and the BBC declined to comment.

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12 thoughts on “Formula 1’s UK viewing figures drop significantly year-on-year

  1. As you rightly mention, it is the general stagnation of Sky’s viewing figures that is really worrying for the future of the sport. Whilst we don’t know yet what will happen in 2019 with their exclusive coverage, it wouldn’t surprise me if they will end the original HD package subscription to watch SkyF1. I suspect there are a large number of subscribers still able to enjoy this service and I can’t see them all rushing to pay the full Sky Sports package.

  2. I’ve tried All 4 for F1 twice, and it’s atrocious compared to iPlayer. Firstly, it’s only in standard definition, and it has ads which especially infuriating when you want to fast forward or rewind. And to cap it all, the connection often drops when switching from stream to ads and vice versa, forcing you to refresh and watch the ads again. A very bad experience.

  3. Either way, F1 will suffer significantly from 2019 onwards from a viewer point of view. Different I know, but look at the Champions League, UEFA sold it all to BT Sport, the games are only getting paltry figures, and now they are more than likely going to revert back to their terrestrial games.

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