A detailed analysis of Formula E’s UK viewing figures so far

From birth, Formula E has had sceptics from across the motor sport landscape, with fans and journalists alike wondering whether the series would take off and whether the championship is here to stay. The events of the past few weeks are showing that motor racing as we know it is seeing a seismic shift underneath the surface. Manufacturers, such as BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Porsche are beginning to invest money into the championship, ready to begin within the forthcoming years.

But whilst the shift is occurring in the industry, how are fans reacting to the change? Is interest growing in the electric series? After three seasons, I feel it is worth stepping back and reflecting on the UK viewing figures so far, from inception through to present day, whilst also considering scheduling across the three seasons. In adult years, Formula E as a brand has not yet started school, it is still in its early infant years. Every year is a learning year. Nevertheless, this has been the story so far:

– In 2014/15, there were ten Formula E weekends, of which five weekends clashed with F1.
– In 2015/16, there were nine Formula E weekends, of which three weekends clashed with F1.
– In 2016/17, there were nine Formula E weekends, of which six weekends clashed with F1.

The championship started life in 2014, with exclusive live coverage on ITV4. Live coverage of the first race from Beijing on September 13th, 2014 averaged 266,000 viewers, peaking with nearly half a million viewers. It was a good number for the inaugural race, helped by the race-deciding incident that made headlines around the world. It was something for Formula E to build upon. In a story that would repeat itself numerous times though, momentum evaporated thanks to haphazard scheduling from the outset. Instead of a traditional two or three-week gap until the next race, round two did not occur until November and fell on the same weekend as the 2014 Formula One season decider.

ITV4’s programming averaged around 160,000 viewers during season one, Buenos Aires drawing a mid-season high of 260,000 viewers in January 2015. As alluded to above, the lowest viewing figures for season one was in Putrajaya (same weekend as the 2014 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix) and Moscow (same weekend as the 2015 Canadian Grand Prix). The season ending London ePrix recorded by far the championship’s highest ever audience figures. The Sunday finale aired live on ITV in June 2015 to an audience of 700,000 viewers, peaking with 1.2 million viewers. The whole weekend from Battersea Park, with ITV’s crew led by Jennie Gow presenting on-site, was a great way to end Formula E’s debut season and gave hope that Formula E could grow in season two, despite some mediocre audience figures. This required commitment from both parties, of course…

To ITV’s credit, a highlights programme aired on Sunday mornings on their main channel during season two, and their commitment remained for ITV4’s live programming (bar Mexico, which was substituted for live darts). Unfortunately, season two performed badly than the worst expectations had predicted. The first two rounds in Beijing and Putrajaya dropped by two-thirds year-on-year, the former not helped by airing on the same weekend as the 2015 United States Grand Prix. Without wider media attention, Formula E’s numbers were looking low by ITV4’s standards. Clashing with Formula 1 matters. Most of the motor racing world’s attention during an F1 weekend is on the Grand Prix circus, and not on an event on the other side of the globe.

The hefty percentage drops year-on-year continued throughout season two, whilst the highlights programme comparatively struggled against ITV’s own slot average. Irrespective of slot, Formula E was always below the expected average. The season ending London ePrix clashed with the 2016 Austrian Grand Prix, drawing a peak audience of 600,000 viewers on ITV’s main channel. Whilst good in comparison with the rest of the season, it was the final straw for the championship on ITV.

At this stage more than ever, Formula E needed ITV more than ITV needed Formula E. With horse racing on the horizon for ITV, the two parties parted company at the end of season two. I argued that ITV should have aired several races, including the season two opener from Beijing, live on their main channel to increase interest, but that did not happen. The series was simply not bringing viewers to either ITV or ITV4.

“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 (the calendar hasn’t yet been released, so it is impossible to say which ones), with ITV committing to an on-site presence for those races.” – writing at the end of season one, this is what I said about ITV’s Formula E coverage

Inevitably, the move to Channel 5 received positive press, with the intention to boost Formula E’s audience. Despite the PR talk before the season from those involved, coverage has also not been as expansive on Channel 5: it was fundamentally clear the moment their first show started from Hong Kong that they were unprepared and received the rights ‘on the cheap’ because ITV did not wish to continue.

The studio format was absent from Hong Kong, and only came back after criticism from fans, on a much lower scale than ITV4. Behind the scenes, non-motor racing people led the show. According to BARB, ITV4 reaches around nine million viewers per week, with Channel 5 reaching 25 million viewers per week. Comparatively speaking, Formula E’s audiences have increased upon the move to Channel 5:

– In 2014/15, live coverage on ITV and ITV4 averaged 216k (2.6%) [156k (2.0%) excluding London]
– In 2015/16, live coverage on ITV and ITV4 averaged 138k (1.5%) [82k (1.0%) excluding London]
– In 2016/17, live coverage on Channel 5 averaged 280k (2.6%)

Admittedly, some of the rise will be due to the Channel 5’s shorter programme lengths compared with ITV4, benefiting their audience figures as a result. The average of 288,000 viewers would more than likely be closer to 200,000 had Channel 5 ran the same length time slots as their predecessor.

Live coverage on Channel 5 has been more stable in season three than the previous two seasons on ITV4, with consistent averages around 300,000 viewers. The high point came with the Buenos Aires, where a peak audience of 604,000 viewers watched Sebastian Buemi win the race. Despite audiences increasing compared with ITV4, the fact remained that, even on Channel 5, audiences are below Channel 5’s own slot average, and Formula E has consistently lost viewers compared with the programmes on-air beforehand or directly following afterwards.

Are Channel 5 going to happy with those audiences when an old film (i.e. Dirty Dancing) could get double or triple the number that Formula E was getting in some slots? On ITV4, this may not have mattered as much in season one: ITV4 is a free-to-air multichannel station where audience expectations are generally lower in the daytime

Whilst there has been no public comment about this, the fact that the season finale in Montreal aired on Spike TV, and the Saturday race from New York aired on tape-delay, suggests the broadcaster has not been happy with the figures that the championship has produced this season despite the increased audience year-on-year. As in the ITV seasons, Channel 5’s coverage has been damaged by other motor racing events. A perhaps pertinent example of where Formula 1 has damaged Formula E was the Monaco ePrix. Airing on the same weekend as the Spanish Grand Prix, the race averaged 248,000 viewers on Channel 5. A week later, with no Formula 1 clash and more attention, the Paris ePrix averaged 381,000 viewers in the same time slot.

The prime-time races have struggled on Channel 5, far below their usual slot averages. As noted above, the Montreal ePrix averaged 319k (1.9%) on Channel 5 on Saturday 29th July, with an audience of 104k (0.5%) watching coverage on Spike the following day. Andy Jaye confirmed in Channel 5’s broadcast that the broadcaster would, as expected, be continuing their live Formula E coverage for the 2017-18 season. I would be very surprised if live coverage of qualifying continues Spike. At one point on Sunday evening, their Montreal ePrix qualifying programme recorded an audience of “zero”, which is rare for any live motor racing broadcast on free-to-air television (the whole programme averaged 12,000 viewers).

Formula E’s top five UK audiences (programme average, overnight viewing figures)
01 – 700,000 viewers (6.8% share) – 2014-15 London ePrix, Race 2 (28/06/15, ITV)
02 – 426,000 viewers (2.2% share) – 2016-17 Buenos Aires ePrix (18/02/17, Channel 5)
03 – 411,000 viewers (3.8% share) – 2015-16 London ePrix, Race 2 (03/07/16, ITV)
04 – 381,000 viewers (4.4% share) – 2016-17 Paris ePrix (20/05/17, Channel 5)
05 – 317,000 viewers (1.9% share) – 2016-17 Montreal ePrix (29/07/17, Channel 5)

When I see people talk about Formula E, one of the complaints is that fans do not know when the series is on. The gaps between races are far too long. Running races in the Summer will not help viewing figures, you have more chance of hooking the casual floating viewer in January than July. Pushing races towards the Summer period and traditional motor racing period is not the answer, because Formula E will become lost in the shuffle, and I think the viewing figures do support that argument.

Formula E will always feel like a ‘small’ series if the championship is head-to-head on the same weekend as Formula 1, it needs space to breathe preferably away from the leading motor racing series. I know that is difficult when F1 has twenty races, but I am unconvinced with the current direction that Formula E are taking their calendar. On the brighter side, the gaps for the 2017-18 season look better than previous years, but races have a tenancy to disappear from the calendar, leaving gaping holes, which hopefully will not happen this time around.

Also, some of their social media content has stagnated, which stands out more now that F1 is finally trying with social media. Formula E’s social media content just feels… there, which might explain why their growth on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram is slowing. Bringing North One Television on-board should improve their television coverage, which might have a knock-on effect to other areas of the championship. There are other problems, such as un-memorable tracks and the New York driver farce to name two.

If Formula E is the future, then the viewing figures need to start reflecting that soon. Yes, it is still an infant. But, by this stage infants show sign of growth. In the UK, there is little sign that Formula E is growing. I want Formula E to do well, the racing on track is generally good to watch. The viewing figures though suggest I am part of the minority that enjoy the action (compared to the large numbers that watch Formula 1).

The people in industry might care about Formula E, but outside of the Twitter bubble and into the real world with casual Joe, you get the impression that no one is paying Formula E any attention. And if that continues to happen, then Formula E might well be heading behind a pay wall in the UK sooner, rather than later…

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8 thoughts on “A detailed analysis of Formula E’s UK viewing figures so far

  1. I think overall the championship is doing very well. But the UK is a very traditional market for racing. For the most part you’re either a traditionalist or you don’t care about motorsport at all. The number of people who are like me and love racing and love electric cars is very small right now.

    I think F-e just need to keep plugging away and accept that the country in which it and the majority of the teams are based, will continue to be one of its weakest for the next couple of years until people really start to get it.

    It could also be that Roborace may be the thing that really starts to draw people in. It’s uniqueness and the fascination people have with the concept of self driving could get people in the door for F-e as well.

  2. I try and hype up Formula E whenever I can. The big problem I find though is that most people don’t know Formula E even exists. In the past week with the governments decision regarding petrol cars in 2040, I’ve heard many old stereotypes about electric cars, particularly their range and have tried to explain that hey there’s this series where electric cars are being developed and no-one has ever heard of it before. I do think Formula E’s growth may increase as more and more people start to use electric cars in the future. Electric cars are very much in the minority in this country still, so its not at all surprising that its struggled to find growth.

    I do think it would be more relevant to compare Formula E to the viewing figures of Formula 2 and GP3 and Indycar. Comparing it to Formula 1 is useless when you consider that Formula 1 has basically been coasting on its history for the past decade or two.

    On a side note. You refer to the opening race in Bejing having good figures, because of the incident on the final lap. How exactly would an incident on the final lap affect viewing figures as when those people tuned it, it would not have happened yet.

  3. Formula E still has, and will have, the fundamental problem that it doesn’t look fast, and it isn’t fast. The camera angles don’t help, and the city locations are there in name only. As a TV viewer, all you get is concrete blocks and catch fencing. New York looked like it was run in a car park.

    Car manufacturers are piling in for two reasons. Firstly, it’s dirt cheap, Mercedes will be saving millions by ditching DTM in favour of FE. Then there’s the ‘need’ to be seen to be part of it.
    Jaguar are in it yet they are selling cars that cost £2000 in VED because of their emissions, they are at the two extremes which doesn’t make sense, unless you want to sell powerful road cars and appear to be green.

    I went off the BTCC because the cars were so closely matched, overtaking is mainly by barging past, WTCC is the same. When F1 rolls up, you have an idea who will be at the front, but it can be unpredictable. Cars can close at a significant rate, the potential for good racing is there.

    If Formula E wasn’t being bankrolled by the FIA, I doubt it would have made it to a third season. The interest in electric cars, racing and for public use, isn’t there.

  4. 2 simple fixes should sort this out: firstly, Formula e need to have a race on a 3 week interval. Channel 5 need to advertise better and have a 2 hour show, live from the circuit for European events.

    The calendar should contain at least 12 countries (16 races with current format) and should look like this:
    18/11/17 – Hong Kong (I)
    19/11/17 – Hong Kong (II)
    09/12/17 – Putajaya
    Xmas Break
    06/01/18 – Marakesh
    27/01/18 – Rome
    10/02/18 – Paris
    17/02/18 – Monaco
    03/03/18 – Brussels
    17/03/18 – Berlin
    31/03/18 – London
    21/04/18 – Santiago
    05/05/18 – Sao Paulo
    19/05/18 – Mexico City
    02/06/18 – New York City (I)
    03/06/18 – New York City (II)
    23/06/18 – Montreal (I)
    24/06/18 – Montreal (II)

    Then, Channel 5 could schedule each race in a 2 hour slot, using studio for the first 3 rounds, then attending the European events. They could then work slightly more with the likes of Dario Franchitti and Mark Priestley before their race commitments begin. This could allow for a possible of 4 Advert Breaks before the end of the show and mini-breaks could work more in their favour, as C4 do for F1.

    C5 Ad-breaks:
    Ad 1: 14.40 – 14.43
    Ad 2: 14.56 – 14.59
    Ad 3: Between Top 3 Interviews & Podium
    Mini-Break (offer to manufacturer): After Podium
    Ad 4: 15.18 – 15.21

  5. I think there is a fundamental dishonesty about formula e and the general public are not stupid.
    The cars have all the wings and bits and bobs to impress a 9yo but why? Are they
    needed at that low speed?
    First tap from another car and there a broken bits everywhere so you get the slow
    laps to enable tidy up and loose the momentum of your interest.
    Meanwhile every manufacturer and their dog is joining and we are meant to get excited
    even though they all look and go the same.May as well tell me the RSPCA are running a car.
    As soon as they are allowed to really innovate one team will run away in every race for the whole season. Being as its boring now imagine that.

  6. One thing that Formula E could improve on is promoting their Official You Tube Channel more ! As I write this, they currently only have 153,000 Subscribers whereas Formula 1’s You Tube Channel currently has 596,000 Subscribers ! That is sad considering Formula E uploads every single race, qualifying and practice sessions along with tons of highlights, behind the scenes, interviews, 360 degree videos and many other things ! More will watch knowing they can see pretty much everything and anything at the click of a button ! F1’s current online content is way behind in terms of quantity and are still far away from uploading complete races ! Formula E currently has a great tool in You Tube but I’m willing to bet that the mainstream motorsport audience and mainstream audience aren’t even aware of its existence! Hardcore fans like me know but others won’t if it’s not advertised that you can watch races whenever you like along with every single previous race from 2014 !

    • The main reason the YouTube channel isn’t more popular I think is because Formula E block certain regions from watching their livestreams of the race. They do some great immediate/reaction content given that I believe they have a much smaller team than F1, but in terms of the cinematic/presentation/graphics side F1 has them beat, which is why the North One/Aurora Media deal for the two companies to work together on the world feed could be a very good thing in terms of piling resources together.

  7. The ignonomy of shuffling the final race from 5 to Spike was only made worse by stopping the coverage mid way through the podium presentations – so no winner or champion was seen there. Must have been the repeated film and adverts that had to be kept to time! What a way to prioritise.

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