Formula E jumps to second highest number ever

The power of being live on free-to-air television in primetime showed yesterday, as Formula E recorded its highest number in the UK since the 2015 London ePrix, overnight viewing figures show.

Live coverage of the Buenos Aires ePrix, which aired on Channel 5 from 18:30 to 20:15, averaged 426k (2.2%). This is one of Formula E’s highest ever numbers, only behind the second race of the 2015 London ePrix weekend, which averaged 700k (6.8%) on ITV. Yesterday’s number was higher than the 2016 season finale in London. That race averaged 411k (3.8%), albeit in a longer slot on ITV. Last year’s Buenos Aires ePrix on ITV4 averaged 132k (0.6%), peaking with 248k (1.2%).

Yesterday’s ePrix, won by Sebastien Buemi, hit a 5-minute peak of 604k (3.2%) at 19:05, the series’ second highest peak number ever, again behind London 2015 (1.18 million) and ahead of London 2016 (600,000). What might take the edge off yesterday’s numbers is that not all the viewers stuck with the race action, with audiences stabilising around 500,000 viewers.

The average audience was in-line with Channel 5’s slot average for 16 to 54 year olds, but significantly down on Channel 5’s usual audience in that slot amongst the older 55+ age group. The FA Cup game between Wolves and Chelsea on BT Sport 2 from 17:00 to 20:00 averaged 652k (4.0%), higher than Formula E’s free-to-air audience.

Qualifying and Analysis
Live coverage of qualifying on Spike from 14:45 to 16:20 averaged 60k (0.7%), peaking with 91k (1.0%) at 16:05.

There are certainly positives to take away from Formula E’s figures yesterday, the demographic breakdown being one of them. Recording an audience, which tripled last years’ number on ITV4, justifies Formula E’s decision to agree a deal with Channel 5. The main negative is that the audience share (2.2%) is low for a free-to-air broadcast on Channel 5, and lower than both the programme before it, and the programme after it.


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 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.

After Rosberg’s exit, what happens next?

In my Abu Dhabi Grand Prix ratings report, I said that the UK viewing public did not find the duel between Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg in 2016 as exciting as their first battle in 2014. This comes from purely anecdotal observations, the impression that I got was that the Hamilton and Rosberg rivalry did not excite or bring in new fans to the sport. This, alongside general apathy in recent years thanks to rule tinkering for example, has resulted in declining interest.

I noted how Formula 1 needed someone new and different to challenge the authority in 2017. Just five days after Abu Dhabi, the bombshell was confirmed: the reigning champion Nico Rosberg would be retiring from Formula 1 with immediate effect. Immediately, 2017 just became much more interesting. Potentially. Liberty Media and Bernie Ecclestone will be keeping a close eye on what happens next, and perhaps even trying to influence who joins Lewis Hamilton at Mercedes.

I rarely venture into speculation within the drivers’ market, but the potential impact on viewing figures both here in the UK and overseas will be significant depending on what direction Mercedes heads into. I’m going to assume that the pecking order will remain roughly the same with the Silver Arrows in front, however the rule changes could lead to a shake-up. Here, we examine the possibilities and which combination will serve up the most enticing season:

Scenario 1 – Sebastian Vettel partners Lewis Hamilton at Mercedes
Despite Sebastian Vettel’s dominance at the head of Formula 1 between 2010 and 2013, viewing figures held up remarkably well in the UK. 2010 and 2011 saw the highest Formula 1 ratings in the UK for a generation, although it is unknown whether that was down to him or instead due to the other stories of that time. His controversial win in the 2013 Malaysian Grand Prix peaked with six million viewers, whilst two years later his surprise win against Hamilton peaked with a similar audience.

You cannot outright claim that X or Y driver ‘draws’ more viewers without sufficient evidence, as there are a wide variety of factors involved: time of day, weather, other sporting events and so on, but races where Vettel is leading tend to draw a larger audience than where he is struggling. Vettel’s dominance was done in such a way that it became appealing to audiences watching: the style in which he was able to throw his car into places others were unwilling to tread. A Vettel and Hamilton partnership would help viewing figures in both Germany and the UK. It would also remove Vettel from Ferrari, where he has been the underdog against Mercedes in recent times.

This scenario is unlikely (Vettel himself denied it shortly after this piece was written), but if you wanted two champions in one team, Vettel has to be at the top of Mercedes’ Christmas list. I think a Vettel move would also create another battle for the Ferrari number one seat, which could result in a further domino effect.

Scenario 2 – Mercedes swoop for one Red Bull driver, Kvyat takes the spare Bull seat
The idea of Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton at this stage of Verstappen’s career is a mouth-watering prospect, but one that the British driver would probably veto. A reverse of 2007 is not a situation Hamilton would want to be in. From the casual punter perspective, interest would surge in the Netherlands as a result of this move. Verstappen would find himself in potentially a title-winning position in only his third season. However, interest is likely to increase anyway if Verstappen continues to improve.

You could have a blockbuster 2017 with Verstappen and Hamilton at Mercedes, but would the two drivers coexist? And if so, for how long? I couldn’t see this partnership lasting beyond a season. If Hamilton walked, would he walk from Formula 1 as a whole? For Formula 1, this scenario is far more dangerous than the others mentioned. If Verstappen joined Mercedes, it could trigger a series of moves over the next season or two assuming Hamilton did not want to work with Verstappen.

Interest would increase, but with more volatility the bubble could burst far, far quicker if this avenue was explored. I wouldn’t like to predict this one…

Scenario 3 – Fernando Alonso partners Lewis Hamilton at Mercedes, Button comes out of retirement
A rekindling of their 2007 rivalry, and more in line with the first scenario. Alonso in the Mercedes would help reignite interest in Formula 1 in Spain, which has dwindled slightly since his title-winning years in 2005 and 2006. Now that Alonso is in the latter stages of his career, this opportunity could be his last chance of winning a championship. You would imagine that the respect between Alonso and Hamilton is greater now than what it was back in 2007.

If McLaren let Alonso go, in theory it could lead to the return of Jenson Button to partner Stoffel Vandoorne. Abu Dhabi did have some kind of ‘finality’ to it though and I don’t see Button wanting to return to McLaren if a vacancy did appear. An alternative would be for Button to jump to Mercedes for a final swan song whilst they prepare the man mentioned below…

Scenario 4 – Pascal Wehrlein partners Lewis Hamilton at Mercedes
This is a difficult situation. As a fan, I want to see new talent up at the sharp end in Formula 1. But, I fear that another season of Mercedes domination would result in a Hamilton walkover in this scenario. Yes, Wehrlein is ready for Formula 1, of course he is. Some of his standout qualifying performances with Manor this year support that theory.

But, if Mercedes were a clear front-runner, and if Wehrlein was a clear number two driver, then the 2017 season will lack a championship battle. That won’t be good for worldwide viewing figures. You don’t want an artificial fight by any stretch of the imagination. I would prefer to see the likes of Valtteri Bottas or Nico Hulkenberg receive a chance at Mercedes, with Wehrlein promoted elsewhere.

I say all the above without having seen a 2017 car turned in anger yet. Mercedes could be a flop with the new regulations (highly unlikely, I know). For me, the idea of having Lewis Hamilton partner either Verstappen, Alonso, Vettel or Ricciardo with both drivers running the same equipment is a prospect that I would love to see, whether it happens for one season or five. Some of those combinations will bring new fans to Formula 1. The next few weeks could dictate the prospects for the next few seasons. Will Mercedes shake the Formula 1 cart, or will they go with the ‘safer’ option in Wehrlein? We’re about to find out…

Rosberg’s title victory peaks with 5 million viewers

A peak audience of 4.99 million viewers watched Nico Rosberg clinch his first ever Drivers’ Championship at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, overnight UK viewing figures show.

Live coverage of the race, broadcast on Channel 4 from 12:00 to 16:35, attracted 2.25m (19.1%), peaking with 3.85m (29.5%) at 14:35 as Lewis Hamilton won the Grand Prix. The average was depleted more than usual due to the longer broadcast. From 12:00 to 15:30, an average of 2.57m (22.3%) watched the broadcast.

Of course, Channel 4’s viewing figures were always going to be down on the BBC’s past title deciders, but the scale of the drop is higher than anticipated. In 2014, when Hamilton became a two-time champion, BBC’s coverage peaked with 6.53m (42.1%). So, at the time of the peak, Channel 4’s coverage was down by around 2.7 million viewers (or 41 percent) compared with the BBC in 2014.

Yes, the BBC reaches a lot more viewers than Channel 4. But, on the other hand you would expect Channel 4 to claw back some viewers with it being the championship decider. Channel 4’s coverage did thrash its own slot average, but the audiences were marginally down on Silverstone in July and Mexico last month. In 2010 and 2014, when Abu Dhabi was the last race and played host to the title decider, it soared to season high numbers by a comfortable margin. That didn’t happen yesterday.

Sky Sports’ coverage of the race from 12:00 to 15:30 averaged 770k (6.7%). 557k (4.8%) watched on the Formula 1 channel, with a further 212k (1.9%) watching on Sky Sports 2. Sky’s programme peaked with 1.15m (8.8%) at 14:35. Both metrics are down around 15 percent on 2014’s average of 963k (7.1%) and peak audience of 1.36m (8.8%). So, despite a far more exciting race yesterday than in 2014, viewing figures were down. Sky planting a triple bill of football against the F1 couldn’t have helped.

The race started off with 3.95m (36.3%) at 13:00. Audiences climbed during the first phase of the Grand Prix to 4.55m (39.2%) at 13:25. At this point, audiences stabilised around the 4.4 million mark, which isn’t too much of a surprise as there was a mid-race ‘lull’ as Hamilton temporarily disappeared into the distance. At 14:10, 4.40m (36.0%) were watching and it was at this point where casual viewers started to tune into the F1. The audience climbed again, peaking with 4.99m (38.3%) at 14:35.

The combined audience of 3.01 million viewers is up on last year’s non-title deciding number, but heavily down on 2010 and 2014 by around 2.5 million viewers. The combined peak audience of 4.99 million viewers is the third highest of 2016, only behind Silverstone and Mexico. Again, the peak was down on the 2010 peak audience of 7.35m (46.3%) and the 2014 peak audience of 7.89m (50.9%).

Qualifying and Analysis
Live coverage of qualifying averaged 1.15m (13.7%) on Channel 4, with Sky Sports F1 adding a further 330k (3.9%). The combined audience of 1.48 million viewers is actually on the lower end of the spectrum for the 2016 season as a whole.

I don’t fully blame Channel 4 for this. I do, however, blame them for the lack of advertising in the latter end of the season. A genius move would have been to not only advertise on their own channel but to buy slots on other channels to get word out about the season decider. Advertising through the season is critical, and some of the low figures above may be attributed to failing to get word out to the harder to reach audiences.

However, the figures also tell us that interest simply was not as high as first time around for a battle between Hamilton and Rosberg. For all the previous title battles that went to the wire, the fight was new: Hamilton vs Massa in 2008, the four-way fight in 2010 and Hamilton vs Rosberg in 2014. They were new and would have hooked on a significant portion of new viewers. Hamilton versus Rosberg, part II was not interesting. Unfortunately for Formula 1, the abject failure of Ferrari not turning up in 2016 has meant that we have gone another season without a compelling, multi-team championship battle.

There will be more analysis on this in a next few weeks, but if a Verstappen or Ricciardo or Vettel or Raikkonen challenges Rosberg and Hamilton for the championship in 2017, then viewing figures will rise. That I admit is easier said than done…

The 2015 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix ratings report can be found here.

Formula E best of the rest as MotoGP season comes to an end

The 2016 MotoGP season ended on Sunday live on BT Sport, but was beaten by Formula E’s second round of its new season in Morocco, overnight viewing figures show.

Formula E continues solid start on Channel 5
Live coverage of the Marrakesh ePrix aired on Channel 5 from 15:30 on Saturday (12th November). The two-hour programme averaged 281k (2.1%), peaking with 443k (3.3%) at 16:40. Bearing in mind that Formula E was resoundingly beaten on ITV4 whenever it clashed with Formula 1, this is a solid number.

The Marrakesh event also holds the feat of being one of the most watched races so far in Formula E’s history, only behind the London ePrix and the inaugural Beijing ePrix. This shows that their deal with Channel 5 is already paying off, and helping the championship reach a larger audience than it could on ITV4. Formula E at the moment needs to take baby steps on Channel 5, to try to increase the audience.

However, Formula E’s numbers were lower than Channel 5’s slot average which might be concerning for the network. Formula E’s deal with Channel 5 is two years long, so there is time to improve numbers. The large calendar gaps won’t help, but hopefully Formula E can maintain a positive trajectory when it returns in February.

MotoGP bows out lower than 2015, but up on 2014
The 2016 MotoGP season has done as well as you would probably expect, given the way Marc Marquez wrapped up the championship several races early. Live coverage of the Valencian MotoGP averaged 107k (1.2%) from 09:30 to 14:15 on BT Sport 2. The MotoGP segment itself from 12:30 to 14:00 averaged 176k (1.8%), peaking with 234k. Unsurprisingly, overnight viewing figures are down around 45 percent on last year’s record high audiences for Valencia.

Across the season as a whole, the pattern is repeated year-on-year. BT Sport’s MotoGP race day programmes in 2016 averaged 114k (1.9%), compared with 132k (2.3%) in 2015 and 90k (1.4%) in 2014. The MotoGP portion of BT’s programming from 12:30 to 14:00 or equivalent averaged 181k (3.1%), compared with 212k (3.6%) in 2015 and 139k (2.0%) in 2014. Cal Crutchlow’s maiden victory in the Czech Republic peaked with a strong 282k, up 13.5 percent on 2015. The highest peak audience of 2016 went to Austin, which peaked with 325k.

It should not be a surprise to see 2015 with higher viewing figures: the season went down to the wire and would have hooked the attention of a broader range of viewers. On the other hand, 2016 was much more exciting than 2014 for MotoGP with nine different winners. I think the viewing figures are about where I would expect for BT. Not amazing, but not poor by any stretch of the imagination. As always, viewing figures do not include BT Sport’s app, nor MotoGP’s Video Pass which will make up a small portion of the difference year-on-year.

ITV4’s highlights programme continued to drop compared with 2014 and 2015. Their highlights programme, which aired on Monday nights, averaged 285k (1.4%) according to overnight viewing figures, compared with 306k (1.5%) in 2015 and 344k (1.7%) in 2014. A drop of 7 percent is smaller than the 11 percent drop experienced between 2014 and 2015. I don’t have the numbers to hand, but I believe ITV4’s viewing share is down as a whole, which may explain why MotoGP has followed that trend.

The combined UK audience for MotoGP is made up of BT’s MotoGP portion (90 minutes or equivalent) plus ITV4’s highlights. The total of 466k is a record low, down on both 2014 and 2015, which is slightly disappointing. I do think audiences would improve if ITV4’s highlights programme was better placed, or aired on the Sunday evening for European races, but I doubt BT would allow that. The same goes for BT with MotoGP as it does for Sky with Formula 1: both need to find ways to make their channels more accessible to the wider public, as pay TV audiences have stagnated. TV does make up a smaller piece of the pie than in previous years, but it is still an incredibly important piece of the jigsaw.