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…