Formula 1 shines as UK TV viewing figures increase at half way stage of 2018

Formula 1’s viewing figures have increased in the United Kingdom at the half way stage of the season, with Channel 4 contributing most to the increase, analysis conducted by this site suggests.

> Increases across the board for Channel 4
> Fewer people tuning into Sky’s wrap-around coverage
> Sensational Silverstone top dog so far

Audience figures for Formula 1 have generally been decreasing since 2012, when the BBC opted to share Formula 1 with Sky Sports, although the first half of both 2013 and 2015 did buck the trend.

Channel 4 took control of the BBC’s free-to-air element starting in 2016, after the corporation exited their contract at the end of 2015. The change exacerbated Formula 1’s audience decline due to Channel 4’s lower audience reach, and less cross-promotion opportunities available. How do viewing figures look for the first half of 2018?

All viewing figures presented in this piece, and across this site, are overnight audience figures supplied by Overnights.tv, known in the industry as live + VOSDAL (video on same day as live). They include anyone who watched the programme on the same day, up until the 02:00 cut-off point.

To outline two phrases referenced frequently in this piece:

  • The average audience is an average of viewers for every minute of the programme from start to finish
    • To keep calculations equal compared with yesteryear, this means using specific ‘chunks’ of Channel 4’s and Sky’s programming, more information below
  • The peak audience is the five-minute segment of the programme which attracted the most viewers
    • For a Formula 1 race, this can be either the start of a boring race, or the final phase of an exciting Grand Prix

What this post does not include is audience figures from on-demand systems such as Now TV, Sky Go or All 4, nor does include radio figures for BBC’s Formula 1 coverage on Radio 5 Live. All of them will make a difference to the overall reach of Formula 1.

Overnight audience figures only tell part of the story, but are still important in an ever-changing world, especially as broadcasters’ clamour for sports programming, which fans traditionally watch live and by harder to reach demographics.

The figures exclude the Hungarian Grand Prix, an important note because it appears Sky recorded some of their biggest figures for F1 in a long time last Sunday (more to come on that in a separate piece), and Formula 1’s largest audience of the season so far.

Sky’s 2018 story
As usual, Sky’s coverage in 2018 has aired live on their dedicated Formula 1 channel. In a change to previous seasons, simulcasts have taken place beyond the Sky Sports network, with Sky’s general entertainment channel Sky One getting in on the action. Sky’s figures exclude those who watched via Sky Go or Now TV.

To calculate the average audience on race day, we use Sky’s three-and-a-half-hour portion, from 70 minutes before lights out to around 40 minutes after the race. Typically, this takes us from 13:00 to 16:30, or equivalent. The average for 2018 encompasses the final half of Pit Lane Live, On the Grid and then the race itself. Sky’s Paddock Live show is not included.

Analysis conducted by this site indicate that fewer people are watching Sky’s wrap-around programming but are still tuning in for the race. The average audience tuning in to Sky’s programming from start to finish has decreased year-on-year, but the peak audience compared with 2017 has remained static.

The simulcasts have failed to stop Sky’s average audience at the half way point of the season from declining for the fourth season in a row. Sky’s coverage on race day have averaged 577,000 viewers from 13:00 to 16:30, or equivalent. During the first half of 2014, 746,000 viewers watched the action on Sky.

This figure has consistently dropped year-on-year: from 657,000 viewers in 2015, to 617,000 viewers in 2016 and 598,000 viewers last season. Now, another 21,000 viewers on average have stopped watching Sky’s race day broadcasts, at least via the television set.

Sky have aired six races exclusively live so far in 2018 to an average audience of 585,000 viewers. The five races Sky shared with Channel 4 averaged 568,000 viewers, a small difference between the two figures.

For the nine races this season where we can make year-on-year comparisons (France and Germany the exceptions), five races dropped compared with 2017, with four gaining ground. The Spanish and Monaco weekends are the stand-out this year for Sky, both recording year-on-year increases of nearly 25 percent, with China and Britain increasing by around 2.5 percent.

However, all five races which decreased year-on-year dropped by double-digit percentage figures. Europe (down 31.7 percent) and Austria (down 27.9 percent, shared with Channel 4 for the first time) were the main casualties for the pay-TV broadcaster, the latter also due to the World Cup. Canada struggled (down 18.3 percent), facing sporting opposition from ITV’s Soccer Aid.

A peak audience of 954,000 viewers watched Sky’s race day coverage of Formula 1 so far this season, identical to last year’s peak figure. Fewer people are watching Sky’s race build-up and post-session analysis than in previous years but are still tuning in for the race itself. The percentage difference between Sky’s average and peak audience figures is the largest it has ever been at this point at 65.3 percent (compared with 59.6 percent last year).

Structurally, Sky have changed the format of their pre-race programming, meaning that from a recording perspective, there is no longer a jump-on point at the top of the hour, in the hour before the race, which may have caused their overall reach to decrease.

Three races have increased their peak audience on Sky this year: Monaco (up 19.0 percent) and Spain (up 14.0 percent) the highlights. The peak audiences for Australia, Canada, Europe, and Austria all decreased by over ten percent year-on-year.

When you look at the increase for Channel 4’s audience figures below, Sky’s figures may be somewhat concerning, considering what may lie ahead in 2019 if the mooted Channel 4 highlights deal collapses.

Channel 4’s 2018 story
Two components make-up Channel 4’s race day figures: their six highlight shows, combined with their five live race day broadcasts. To calculate the average audience, we use Channel 4’s build-up, plus their race block as billed in the EPG, but not their post-race reaction segment. Channel 4’s figures exclude those who may have watched via their on demand All 4 platform.

So far in 2018, Channel 4’s race day programming has averaged 1.90 million viewers, an increase on 2017’s average audience figure of 1.86 million viewers. Channel 4’s mid-year figure for 2018 includes one additional highlights programme compared with 2017. Without this highlights programme, Channel 4’s average will be slightly higher.

Channel 4’s live programming so far in 2018 have averaged 2.16 million viewers, an increase on last year’s figure of 2.11 million viewers. Their highlight shows have averaged 1.68 million viewers, compared with 1.60 million at the same stage last season.

The first half of 2018 has been excellent for Channel 4. For the nine races where we can make year-on-year comparisons, seven increased their audience volume. The first five races of the season all recorded an increased audience for the free-to-air broadcaster.

China (up 23.8 percent) and Spain (up 10.0 percent) were the highlights for Channel 4, both literally and figuratively. Canada (down 11.7 percent) and Austria (down 13.2 percent) struggled for Channel 4, although both have explanations: Canada was a late-night programme for the third year running, whilst Austria clashed with the World Cup.

The broadcaster has also set some record numbers for their highlights programming:

  • The 2018 Spanish Grand Prix averaged 2.33 million viewers, the highest since BBC’s coverage of the 2015 Singapore Grand Prix [2.77 million]
  • The 2018 German Grand Prix peaked with 3.11 million viewers, the highest figure since BBC’s coverage of the 2015 Singapore Grand Prix [3.27 million]

Whilst the figures pale in comparison to what the BBC was attracting in 2015 and before, the audience figures show that viewers prefer watching Channel 4’s highlights programming, and (assuming F1 cannot return to BBC or ITV), F1 would be in a significantly worse position without Channel 4’s highlights in 2019.

A peak audience of 2.71 million viewers have watched Channel 4’s coverage this year, an increase of 4.1 percent on the equivalent 2017 figure of 2.60 million viewers. Eight out of the nine races where we can make comparisons have increased their peak audience, only Canada lets the side down with a 5.4 percent drop compared with 2017.

The gap between Channel 4’s peak audience for their live and highlights shows has remained around one million viewers. Channel 4’s live races have attracted a peak audience of 3.27 million viewers, an increase of 5.6 percent on last year’s figure of 3.10 million viewers; whilst a peak audience of 2.24 million viewers have watched their highlights programming, also an increase on 2017’s figure.

Their highest peak figure so far this year came with the Azerbaijan Grand Prix in April, which peaked with 3.66 million viewers, Channel 4’s highest peak figure for a lunchtime race since the 2016 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.

Combined audience and final thoughts
At the half way stage of 2018, the UK combined television average audience stands at 2.48 million viewers, a slight increase on the equivalent figure in 2017 of 2.45 million viewers.

Where races aired live across Channel 4 and Sky, an audience of 2.73 million viewers watched, another small increase of 10,000 viewers on the first half of 2017. Channel 4’s increases and Sky’s decreases in this regard have cancelled each other out, resulting in negligible year-on-year change.

The numbers are more positive when looking at races that aired in highlights form on Channel 4. A combined audience of 2.27 million viewers watched on these occasions, an increase of 3.4 percent compared with 2017’s figure of 2.19 million viewers. Considering Canada and France brought in low audiences, this is an excellent figure suggesting Channel 4’s highlights are punching above their weight – a strong case you might argue for Channel 4 airing highlights in 2019. Three of the top five races this year aired live on free-to-air television:

01 – 3.06 million viewers – British Grand Prix (live)
02 – 2.99 million viewers – Spanish Grand Prix (highlights)
03 – 2.95 million viewers – German Grand Prix (highlights)
04 – 2.89 million viewers – Bahrain Grand Prix (live)
05 – 2.87 million viewers – Azerbaijan Grand Prix (live)

As referenced earlier in the article, the Hungarian Grand Prix has since usurped the British Grand Prix to the top of the tree for 2018, Hungary not part of the calculations in this post since it falls into the second half of the season.

What is notable is how the top five races all averaged above 2.85 million viewers. In the same table at the half-way stage last year, the fifth highest race averaged 2.55 million viewers! If anything, it demonstrates how three races this season (Canada, France, and Austria) have had a significant impact on the mid-year audience figures. Those three races averaged under two million viewers. We cannot ‘not’ count them, the races happened after all.

The sensational British, German, and Azerbaijani rounds all enter the top five, with Spain and Bahrain rounding out proceedings. The presence of the World Cup might have dented France and Austria significantly; however, it did not have a profound effect on the rounds that followed, with Formula 1 bouncing back immediately from its brief slump.

A combined peak audience of 3.65 million viewers have watched Formula 1 so far in 2018, an increase on last year’s figure of 3.54 million viewers. For races that aired in highlights form on free-to-air television, a combined peak of 3.23 million viewers watched, compared with 4.16 million viewers for live races. Both figures are up by around 150,000 viewers on the equivalent 2017 figures of 3.07 million viewers and 4.01 million viewers respectively.

Unpredictably is helping Formula 1 this year, with Ferrari, Mercedes, and Red Bull all capable of winning on a good day. An interesting question is whether Formula One Management’s decision to move races 70 minutes later than in previous years has helped UK viewing figures.

Given that races across the board, irrespective of whether the race has aired on free-to-air television in highlights form or aired live have increased year-on-year, looking at the figures, I feel that the time change has made very little difference to the overall numbers, if at all. Which is a good thing for Liberty Media.

It is also possible looking at the figures that Sky’s F1 audience is healthier compared to previous years when factoring in Sky Go and Now TV. They all could make up the difference, but we simply do not know as Sky do not release these figures publicly.

This site has reached out to the BBC, Channel 4, and Sky Sports for comment.

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