Vettel versus Hamilton not bringing new viewers to Formula 1, yet

The 2017 Formula One championship battle between Sebastian Vettel and Lewis Hamilton has not yet captured the imagination of viewers in the United Kingdom, audience figures for the first half of the season suggest.

> Channel 4 records big early season drops
> Azerbaijan Grand Prix the highlight so far
> On-demand audience growing

All figures in this post are ‘overnight’ audience figures supplied by, which includes everyone who watched the race before 02:00 the following morning, officially called Live + VOSDAL (viewing on same day as live). The Sky Sports viewing figures cover the ‘Pit Lane Live’ and ‘Race’ segments, normally covering the period from 12:00 to 15:30, although can be slightly longer, for example in Azerbaijan due to the red flag period.

Channel 4’s live race programmes last year were for the complete on-air slot. However, the broadcaster has stayed on-air longer this year for their post-race analysis. Furthermore, like Sky did a few years ago, Channel 4 made the decision to split their programming into three blocks: Build-Up, Race, and Reaction. This post covers the first two parts, but excludes the third section to present a fair and meaningful picture year-on-year for Channel 4’s live broadcasts.

This piece only covers the first half of the 2017 season, so I have excluded the Hungarian Grand Prix from this year’s average. Similarly, comparisons are with the first half of every preceding season.

Sky’s 2017 story
As usual, every race has aired live on Sky Sports F1, with simulcasts on other Sky Sports channels. Sky’s programming, from 12:00 to 15:30 or equivalent, has averaged 599,000 viewers, their lowest average audience since they started covering Formula 1 in 2012. The audience represents a drop of 3 percent on last year’s audience of 617,000 viewers.  Compared with 2012, Sky’s coverage has dropped by 23 percent, or by 174,000 viewers. What you cannot tell from these figures is whether these viewers have transitioned towards other methods of viewing, or have simply stopped viewing Sky’s F1 coverage. Has a quarter of Sky’s Formula 1 audience from 2012 really switched to Sky Go or Now TV as their method of viewing F1? The below paragraph might give a clue…

Coverage of the races exclusively live on Sky have averaged 592,000 viewers, compared with an average of 604,000 viewers for the races that Channel 4 also covered live. No, that previous sentence is neither a mistake, or a typo, Sky really does benefit from live Formula 1 on free-to-air television! However, the same phenomenon also occurred last year, although there are some interesting statistics within the detail this year. The Monaco Grand Prix rated higher than the Spanish round, yet Spain was the race Sky aired exclusively live. Furthermore, Britain’s audience was higher than Austria, yet Sky aired Austria exclusively live. The point I am making is that the value of Sky’s exclusive live coverage has evaporated compared to when they first started covering Formula 1 in 2012, to the degree where their coverage now sees little uplift for their exclusive coverage.

Fortunately for Sky, the race by race picture is positive, with four races (Australia, China, Canada, and Azerbaijan) recording increases of 10 percent or above year-on-year. What distorts the picture for Sky is a hefty year-on-year drop for the Austrian Grand Prix, which dropped by one-third, an unusually high drop in the context of their viewing figures so far, this season. It is easy to dismiss Sky’s numbers as poor and going in the wrong direction, but there are one or two stand out audience figures that skew the picture. Overall, Sky’s viewing figures on the whole look okay compared with 2016. However, the numbers are not great and they should be higher, after all Sky are the exclusive F1 broadcaster in two years’ time. The viewing figures are currently middle of the road.

A peak audience of 954,000 viewers have watched Sky’s coverage across the first ten races of 2017, a drop of 3.6 percent year-on-year compared with last year’s peak audience of 989,000 viewers. Sky’s peak audiences recently have been incredibly stable: the last four races before the Summer break peaked between the 1.04m and 1.08m range, again suggesting that exclusivity is having no impact on their overall viewing figures this season. Sky’s high point this season came with the Canadian Grand Prix, which drew a peak audience of 1.47 million viewers, beating Channel 4 in that metric.

Channel 4’s 2017 story
On race day, Channel 4’s coverage has averaged 1.86 million viewers, a decrease of 8 percent year-on-year. Worryingly, Channel 4’s race day programme has lost 47 percent of the viewers that the BBC had in 2015, when it averaged 3.51 million viewers. The viewing figures this year have not been positive for the broadcaster, with only two races seeing year-on-year increases. There are a multitude of reasons in play: their live races have generally under delivered on the track, promotion in year two sign-posting their coverage has not been as significant, and the warmer weather impacted their early season viewing figures. Splitting their programme into three has had a detrimental impact, some opting to skip the first portion of the broadcast.

Channel 4’s live coverage of the five races that they have aired so far have averaged 2.11 million viewers, with their highlights programming averaging 1.60 million viewers, meaning their live coverage gets around a 32 percent uplift. The two most important races in the championship battle so far, the Spanish and Azerbaijan Grand Prix are the only two rounds that have increased year-on-year for Channel 4, both by around 10 percent. Channel 4 covered Spain in highlights form this year, and likely a bigger draw compared with 2016 due to Lewis Hamilton surviving past lap one, whilst Azerbaijan saw the controversy between Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel. Every other race has lost viewers compared with 2016. Australia, Canada, and Austria all suffered audience drops of over 20 percent. In the case of Australia and Canada, viewers turned to Sky in both cases (presumably due to the late highlights time for the latter), whilst Austria dropped across the board.

Generally, Channel 4’s live coverage peaks with around one million more viewers than their highlights programming. A peak audience of 2.59 million viewers have watched Channel 4’s coverage so far this year, 3.10 million viewers for their live shows and 2.18 million viewers for the highlights. Even if Sky does decide to sub-let a Formula 1 highlights package to a terrestrial free-to-air station, you can immediately see that the sport is going to lose some casual viewers in the process by switching to a new model. The difference in peak audiences is invisible in the Sky only figures up the article, and certainly will not be cancelled out through the likes of Sky Go and Now TV. It is an undeniable fact that Formula 1 attracts a larger total audience when it is live on free-to-air television. Channel 4’s 2017 high so far came with the Bahrain Grand Prix, which attracted a peak audience of 3.42 million viewers.

Combined audience and final thoughts
Although figures for Sky Go and Now TV are not readily available, streaming platforms are growing year-on-year, admittedly perhaps at a slower rate than to overhaul the TV decline. Data from shows that the All 4 platform is growing month by month, with Formula 1 one of the primary factors for the increase. Whilst live sport is still primarily consumed by those watching on television, there are a range of other techniques that fans can watch the action by. However, whilst the on-demand growth is good for Formula 1, we must not forget that the action was available via BBC iPlayer two years ago. Has All 4’s numbers for F1 overhauled the numbers that BBC iPlayer was delivering when it was covering the sport. I suspect the answer is no, simply because of the size and availability of both platforms. Of course, F1 coverage is available via BBC Radio 5 Live (numbers also not readily available) which may well be delivering stronger audiences since the move of their television product from the BBC to Channel 4.

At the half way stage of 2017, the UK combined television average audience stands at 2.46 million viewers, a decrease of 7 percent compared with 2016’s average audience of 2.63 million viewers. Perhaps showing the draw of live Formula 1 on free-to-air television, the five races live on free-to-air averaged 2.72 million viewers (down 2 percent), versus 2.19 million viewers (down 13 percent) for the races exclusively live on Sky. Four of the top five races this year had live coverage on free-to-air television:

01 – 2.99 million viewers – Azerbaijan Grand Prix (live)
02 – 2.86 million viewers – British Grand Prix (live)
03 – 2.82 million viewers – Bahrain Grand Prix (live)
04 – 2.65 million viewers – Spanish Grand Prix (highlights)
05 – 2.55 million viewers – Monaco Grand Prix (live)

The season high is clearly Azerbaijan across the metrics analysed, not only the highest average of the season but also recording a decent percentage rise year-on-year. The only other race to increase year-on-year is Spain, the Catalunya race seeing a 6 percent rise compared with 2016. From the championship perspective, the two races that have seen wheel to wheel action between Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel are the two events that have seen jumps, perhaps no coincidence. Whilst the other races have contributed to the story between the two drivers, Spain and Azerbaijan were clearly the ‘flash points’ so far, this season. Arguably, Spain could have brought a higher audience had the race aired live on free-to-air television.

At the other end of the spectrum, Australia and Austria saw drops of 17 and 26 percent respectively year-on-year. Of course, Australia in 2016 had extra promotion from Channel 4 given that it was their first ever race, whereas the early season promotional hype this year from the broadcaster was underwhelming in comparison. The Austrian Grand Prix suffered across the board in both Sky’s live broadcast and Channel 4’s race highlights, like Russia the race was distinctly average until the final stages. A rise for Azerbaijan followed immediately by a drop for Austria does beg the question: why did F1 not benefit from the Hamilton and Vettel spat in Baku in forthcoming races? Did broadcasters not use the clash between the two drivers to aid the promotion of future races? Without wanting to bang the ‘live free-to-air’ drum again, I raise the point that F1 struggles to capitalise on flash points when live behind a pay wall.

Three of the five races broadcast live across free-to-air and pay television have peaked with above 4 million viewers, whilst Monaco and Russia peaked with around 3.5 million viewers. The races where Channel 4 aired highlights have peaked with a cumulative three million viewers, Spain the exception with a stronger peak of 3.78 million viewers.

Neither of the television broadcasters, or the BBC regarding their radio figures, have yet responded to a request for comment.


Hungarian Grand Prix dips slightly year-on-year

Sebastian Vettel’s victory in the Hungarian Grand Prix peaked with a combined audience of 3.6 million viewers last Sunday (30th July), overnight viewing figures show.

Live coverage of the race, broadcast across Sky Sports F1 and Sky’s new Main Event channel, averaged 698k (8.5%) from 12:00 to 15:30. An audience of 401k (4.9%) watched on the dedicated F1 channel, with a further 297k (3.6%) watching via Main Event. Despite having exclusive live coverage, Sky’s average is down on their shared number from last year. In 2016, their show averaged 733k (7.3%) across Sky Sports 1 and F1.

This is not the first time we have seen this trend has occurred year-on-year for Sky. There is growing evidence to suggest that Sky Sports’ TV viewing figures are not benefiting as much this year from showing Formula 1 exclusively live compared to their shared coverage, which I will investigate further in the mid-season analysis piece coming soon.

Channel 4’s highlights offering, which aired from 17:00 to 19:15, averaged 1.96m (13.8%), their highest highlights audience since Spain. Considering the show aired earlier due to the channel’s Euro 2017 coverage, this is a good number. However, their live coverage last year averaged 2.06m (21.0%), and in the context of Sky’s number sliding, you might have expected Channel 4’s programme to break the two million mark, but it was not to be.

The combined average audience of 2.65 million viewers is slightly down last year’s audience of 2.80 million viewers, the lowest number for the Hungarian round since 2006. A peak audience of 1.08m watched Sky’s coverage, with 2.56m watching Channel 4’s coverage at its peak, bringing together a combined peak audience of 3.64 million viewers.

Whilst the average audience is down 5 percent, the peak audience is down a more severe 12.4 percent year-on-year. The take away from this is that the peak audience drops more when live coverage is not on free-to-air television, as live events are more of a draw to viewers as they reach towards their climax, this of course not the case with highlights programming where the outcome is already known.

Live coverage of qualifying fared well on Saturday, increasing by a healthy margin year-on-year. Live coverage across Sky Sports F1 and Sky Sports Main Event averaged 406k (5.7%), a rise of around 50,000 viewers compared with 2016. Channel 4’s highlights aired from 18:00 to 19:25, averaging 1.51m (10.5%), a strong number.

Amazingly, the combined audience of 1.92 million viewers is the highest for qualifying since the 2015 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix! There is no major explanation for this, to be honest, lack of sporting competition from other channels will have helped though in comparison to previous races this season. The 2017 average audience is an increase of 378,000 viewers compared with last year’s viewing figure of 1.54 million viewers.

The 2016 Hungarian Grand Prix ratings report can be found here.

Hamilton’s Silverstone dominance peaks with 4.45 million viewers

Lewis Hamilton’s victory in British Grand Prix recorded solid audiences over the weekend, but was down slightly on 2016, overnight viewing figures for the United Kingdom show.

As usual for the home round, the race was available live on terrestrial television, which makes it one of the races where we can make a proper comparison. However, the usual historical factors skew comparisons: Wimbledon, the weather or British fortunes in F1. All viewing figures exclude audiences who watched via other platforms, such as Now TV, All 4 or Sky Go.

Channel 4’s live race broadcast averaged 2.20m (20.4%) from 12:00 to 15:20, which compares with an average of 2.36m (17.9%) from 12:00 to 15:55 from 2016. I should note that Channel 4 did not split their shows last year, whereas the broadcaster split their programming into three chunks this year (quite clearly, the show this year recorded a decrease via both metrics). Fewer people chose to record Channel 4’s reaction to the race, which averaged just 543k (4.4%) from 15:20.

Live coverage on Sky Sports averaged 652k (6.0%) for the three and a half hours from 12:00, compared with an average last year of 736k (5.8%). Sky simulcast their coverage across Sky Sports F1 and, for the last time, Sky Sports 1. An audience of 373k (3.4%) watched on the dedicated F1 channel, with a further 279k (2.6%) watching via Sky Sports 1, a split of 57:43.

Both broadcasters recorded higher shares, but lower audiences compared with 2016. I suspect Andy Murray’s failure to get to the Wimbledon final caused this effect. Murray would have brought more viewers indoors to their television sets last year, inflating the F1 which preceded Wimbledon. This year, no Murray, resulting in no positive effect on audiences.

The combined average audience of 2.86 million viewers is down 8 percent on last year’s average of 3.10 million viewers. It means that, at the half way stage of the season and for the first time on record, not one race has reached a combined average of three million viewers. For the British Grand Prix, yesterday’s audience is the lowest since 2006. So, whilst attendances at the circuit are at their highest, the action on the circuit is not connecting to viewers at home. It does suggest though that the F1 is becoming more of a ‘may watch’ than a ‘must watch’ to the viewing public.

The Grand Prix started with 4.29m (41.0%) at 13:05, compared with 4.44m (38.6%) at the same point last year. However, the 2017 race only just hit that point at the very end, peaking with 4.45m (34.6%) at 14:25. At the time of the peak, 1.04m (8.1%) were watching on Sky, with 3.41m (26.5%) watching on Channel 4, a split of 77:23. The combined peak audience of 4.45 million viewers was the highest of 2017, but down 11 percent on last year’s peak of 4.99 million viewers.

Qualifying and Analysis
Live coverage of qualifying, broadcast on Channel 4 from 11:55 to 14:30, averaged 1.37m (15.2%), a marginal drop on the equivalent number from 2016 of 1.43m (16.2%). Sky Sports F1’s programming added an additional 413k (4.0%) on top of Channel 4’s audience, again a very slight drop on the combined Sky Sports F1 and Sky Sports 1 audience from 2016 of 421k (4.7%).

There is an amusing anecdote within the figures here: Sky Sports F1’s qualifying coverage beat their race day programme, 413,000 viewers for qualifying compared with 373,000 viewers for the race! Of course, there is a valid reason for this statistic. Sky simulcast their race day programme on Sky Sports 1 spreading the audience more thinly, whereas Sky kept their qualifying show exclusive to the dedicated F1 channel. It does not matter in the grand scheme of things, after all both channels show the same content on race day.

The combined average audience of 1.78 million viewers is, as you probably guessed by now, also down on the 2016 average audience of 1.85 million viewers. The combined peak audience followed an identical trend, with qualifying peaking with 2.64 million viewers (27.6 percent share) at 13:20, around 100,000 viewers lower than 2016.

I noticed a few comments over the weekend across social media platforms saying that the British Grand Prix, from a broadcasting perspective, felt like it was another race on the calendar. The race no longer feels like a special race that broadcasters give special treatment to, like the BBC and ITV did in yesteryear, and to be honest I agree with those sentiments. There are plenty of ways both broadcasters could make the Grand Prix feel more special.

In Sky’s case, simply treating Formula Two and GP3 as part of their Silverstone schedule instead of relying on World Feed only coverage and staying on air ‘round the clock’ like BT Sport currently do with MotoGP would suffice. Charles Leclerc is currently dominating Formula Two and will more than likely be in Formula 1 next year, yet viewers currently know little about him.

Over on Channel 4, their magazine programme called Sunday Brunch was the usual affair and not broadcast from Silverstone, under a ‘Grand Prix Sunday’ banner for example. If broadcasters are unprepared to give the Grand Prix a special feeling and spice up their programming, why should viewers treat the race any differently?

Coming up in the next few weeks on the site will be the annual mid-season viewing figures analysis as we dissect the audience patterns year-on-year and try to establish what has, and has not, been a rating draw this year.

The 2016 British Grand Prix ratings report can be found here.

Austrian Grand Prix viewing figures tumble year-on-year

Just two weeks after a season high, the Austrian Grand Prix struggled to attract viewers compared with last year’s running, overnight viewing figures show.

Sky Sports’ exclusive live coverage of the race aired to an audience of 588k (7.2%) from 12:00 to 15:30. This is a poor number, lower than Monaco and Baku despite both events being non-exclusive. Sky Sports F1’s programme averaged just 390k (4.8%), with 197k (2.4%) watching the simulcast on Sky Sports 1.

Sky’s coverage dropped on a third compared to their 2016 average of 866k (9.9%). The total television audience was down slightly yesterday year-on-year, but the audience share from 2014 to 2016 has always been around 9 percent, so yesterday represents a drop of 2 percentage points.

Highlights on Channel 4 were not immune to the audience drop. Their programme, which aired from 17:45 to 20:00, averaged 1.75m (11.7%), a drop of half a million viewers compared with 2016. The figures are worrying considering that this is the stage of the season where momentum should be building before the Summer break.

The combined average audience of 2.33 million viewers is down 26 percent on last year’s combined audience of 3.15 million viewers. It is the first time the Spielberg round has dropped below three million viewers since its return to the calendar.

Live coverage of qualifying across Sky Sports 1 and F1 was also down year-on-year in both audience and share. Coverage from 12:00 to 14:30 averaged 298k (4.8%), down on last year’s figure of 422k (5.3%).

Channel 4’s highlights programme, which aired from 17:30 to 19:00, averaged 1.09m (9.2%), down on last year’s audience of 1.32m (9.2%), but level in share. The combined average audience of 1.38 million viewers is down 21 percent on last year’s combined audience of 1.74 million viewers.

From a ratings perspective, this was not a good news weekend for Formula 1, more disappointing coming off the controversy from the Azerbaijan Grand Prix. Of course, weather does play a factor, but to record lower audience shares year-on-year is not good news for either broadcaster. Earlier in the season, we had one or two occasions where the audience went down, but the audience share went up, whereas in Austria both metrics decreased.

The 2016 Austrian Grand Prix ratings report can be found here.

Brilliant Baku helps Formula 1 attract season high

Formula 1 attracted its highest average audience of the season thanks to a dramatic Azerbaijan Grand Prix, overnight viewing figures in the United Kingdom show.

Even though this was the first race under the Azerbaijan Grand Prix banner, it was the second race held at the Baku City Circuit. Given that both races in Baku have occurred in June, it makes sense to compare to the equivalent European Grand Prix viewing figures from twelve months ago. Live coverage of the race overran on Sky Sports due to the red flag period, with their programme finishing at 17:45. As thus, the figure in this section is from 13:00 to 17:00 for Sky, whilst Channel 4’s audience is from 13:00 to 16:40 instead of ten past the hour as in previous races.

Channel 4’s coverage from 13:00 to 16:40 averaged 2.26m (21.6%), the channel’s highest Formula 1 audience of the year so far. I should note that Channel 4 have circulated a figure of 2.6m (25.2%) to the written press, which excludes all the pre-race and post-race discussion. The release compares it to last year’s programme average audience of 2.03m (19.3%), an apple and oranges comparison. So, the average audience is up by 227,000 viewers and 2.3 share points, but other media outlets may report a larger increase. Importantly though, the release does note that Channel 4’s programme had “the largest share of 16-34 year old viewers across the afternoon”, which is good news for Formula 1.

Compared with the difference in peak (more on that further down), the average audience increase year-on-year is not as high as you might expect considering that the race filled a higher proportion of the air-time because of the red flag. The explanation for this is that the build-up started poorly, a result of Channel 4 following Sky’s approach of ‘splitting’ their programme into chunks. It may inflate their ‘race’ average, but it is a detriment to the overall average, as they are offering viewers an excuse to by-pass their pre-show completely.

Sky’s programme, excluding Paddock Live, averaged 730k (7.0%) across Sky Sports 1 and their dedicated F1 channel. Sky simulcast their coverage last year to an audience of 613k (5.7%) across the two channels, so the year-on-year comparison is valid. An audience of 541k (5.2%) watched on Sky Sports F1, with the remaining 189k (1.8%) watching via Sky Sports 1. It is good news for Sky to see a healthy increase, aided by no clash with the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

A dramatic race, won by Daniel Ricciardo, helped the combined average audience hit its highest number of the year with 2.99 million viewers, up 344,000 viewers on last year’s average audience of 2.64 million viewers. The audience helps show the power of free-to-air television: Canada just two weeks ago aired in highlights form on Channel 4, with a combined audience of just 1.93 million tuning in.

The action started at 14:00 with 3.39m (35.7%) watching. During the early stages, audiences stayed steady around the 3.65 million mark, reaching a high of 3.75m (36.0%) at 14:45 as Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel collided. Viewing figures dipped during the red flag period to 3.45m (32.4%) at 15:00, but jumped back to 4.07m (35.5%) at 15:20. Impressively, the audience remained above four million as Hamilton and Vettel fought through the pack, with 4.31m (35.4%) watching the closing laps at 16:05.

At the time of the peak, 3.25 million viewers were watching Channel 4, with a further 1.06 million viewers watching across Sky Sports 1 and F1. The combined peak audience of 4.31 million viewers is the second highest of 2017, marginally behind Bahrain’s peak audience of 4.34m (25.9%). In that instance, the majority of the Bahrain Grand Prix was below four million viewers in the overnight viewing figures, showing the difference between a good race and a great one. The peak audience is up 464,000 viewers and 3.2 share points year-on-year.

Channel 4’s live coverage of qualifying, which aired from 12:55 to 15:30, averaged 1.19m (15.4%), an increase of 104,000 viewers and 3.9 share points on last year’s average audience of 1.08m (11.5%).

When factoring in Sky Sports 1, Sky’s programming performed well, averaging 405k (5.2%), compared with an audience last year of 306k (3.2%). Sky Sports F1 alone though was down year-on-year, averaging 281k (3.6%), with no simulcast in play last year.

Coverage of qualifying peaked with 2.21m (25.9%) at 15:05 as Hamilton claimed his 66th pole position. At the time of the peak, 1.59 million viewers were watching on Channel 4, with a further 656,000 viewers watching on Sky Sports, a ratio of 70:30. Channel 4’s coverage peaked slightly higher than 1.59m, with 1.62 million viewers (19.3%) watching at 14:55.

The combined average audience of 1.59 million viewers is up on last year’s audience of 1.39 million, a healthy increase. The peak audience of 2.21 million is up as well, albeit a smaller margin, with an increase of 55,000 viewers on last year’s number of 2.16 million viewers (20.3%).

We are moving into a phase of the season where viewing figures tend to increase, with three European races following in quick succession: Austria, Britain, and Hungary, which normally results in good viewing figures. The championship battle between Hamilton and Vettel will only help viewing figures further as we head towards the half way point of the season.

The 2016 European Grand Prix ratings report can be found here.