A peak audience of 1.7m watched Lewis Hamilton become a triple world champion live on Sky Sports, overnight viewing figures show.
Live coverage of the race, simulcast across Sky Sports 1 and F1, attracted a weighted average of 1.13m (5.0%) from 18:00 to 21:30. Sky Sports 1’s airing from 18:55 to 21:30 averaged 313k (1.3%), with Sky Sports F1 averaging 900k (4.0%) over three and a half hours. Year-on-year, Sky Sports 1’s number is up slightly due to the channel only taking the race itself rather than the pre-race aspect. Despite it being a championship decider, Sky Sports F1’s number dropped just over 100k year-on-year, a decrease of 12.4 percent. It is worth noting that the race aired live an hour later last year, the race starting at 20:00 UK time instead of 19:00, but this is unlikely to make a significant difference to the total TV viewing audience.
The race started with 1.41m (6.7%) at 19:00 across both Sky Sports channels. Despite the quality of the race being one of the best of 2015 so far, the audience failed to nudge up to 1.5 million viewers until 20:20, showing that prime time races of pay-TV struggle to bring in a casual audience. Eventually, the audience peaked with 1.70m (6.9%) at 20:50 as the race came to a conclusion, with the audience split 1.21m (5.0%) on Sky Sports F1 and a further 487k (2.0%) on Sky Sports 1.
The peak of 1.70 million is down on 2014’s peak audience of 1.93m (7.5%). 2014’s race was also simulcast live across Sky Sports 1 and F1. In comparison, yesterday’s Manchester derby, broadcast live also on Sky Sports 1, secured a 5-minute peak audience of 2.39m (18.6%). In my opinion, Sky had to have expected some kind of boost with the expectation that Hamilton was going to secure a third championship. The fact that Sky’s numbers dropped is alarming. The fact that Sky failed to bring any casual viewers to the Grand Prix is not good. In their fourth year of broadcasting Formula 1, Sky have still failed to bring a peak audience of over two million viewers to any race.
Unfortunately, BBC’s figures are no better. Sunday’s race highlights programme on BBC One averaged 2.15m (22.4%) from 22:30 to 00:00. That figure is down on both 2012 and 2014. 2014’s highlights programme averaged 2.51m (22.9%), meaning that 2015’s number is down 14.2 percent. Again, that is a very disappointing number in the context of the race. Overall, it means a combined average for BBC and Sky of just 3.28 million, down significantly on 2014’s number of 3.84 million and down slightly on 2012. For a normal race, that number is on the low end of expectations. For a potential title decider, involving a British driver, the number is disastrous.
Disastrous may sound like an exaggeration, but last night was the first time a Drivers' Championship had been decided exclusively live on pay-TV since the current BBC and Sky deal came into effect at the beginning 2012. Compare the 3.28 million average, and a peak of just shy of 4 million with these figures. Last year's title decider the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, which was screened live across BBC One and Sky Sports F1, peaked with 7.89m (50.9%), whilst Hamilton’s first championship victory at the 2008 Brazilian peaked with 13.1m on ITV. It is the lowest rating for a title decider since 2004. Data is available back to 2006, whilst 2005’s title clinching race was Brazil and averaged 4.3 million. It should be noted that we have been lucky in recent years with last race title deciders, whereas we have three rounds left in 2015.
How high would the US Grand Prix have peaked had it been live on free-to-air television? I think we can go back to 2009 to find an answer. Jenson Button won the championship at the 2009 Brazilian Grand Prix. The race was not the last round of the championship, yet peaked with 9.09m (40.3%). I’m not saying it would have been that high, but you just get an idea of what could have been achieved yesterday, in different circumstances. Do viewing figures really matter? It is a question I get asked regularly. The more eye-balls the better. The more popular you are, the more attractive the product is to advertisers. We don’t want Formula 1 turning into a minority sport in this country.
As always, the figures above excludes viewing on internet based services such as Sky Go, Now TV and BBC iPlayer. My opinion is that those platforms would not make up the year-on-year difference of around 600k. BBC Radio 5 Live could make up the difference, but those figures are collected separately and I believe the methodology for radio, collected through RAJAR, is significantly different. Lastly, we have illegal streaming, however we can’t begin to estimate how much they may add, plus you would argue that the streaming is not legal and therefore should not count. The opposition year-on-year was largely the same: The X Factor, Strictly Come Dancing and Downton Abbey was again the main opponents last night.
To conclude, the numbers are bad, for both channels. For BBC, because their highlights programme failed to gain any viewers whatsoever. For Sky, because they failed to peak with over two million viewers. If they couldn’t bring a two million peak audience to watch Formula 1 on their platform last night, they never will. Whether the viewing figures show anything about Lewis Hamilton’s popularity in this country remains to be seen. If Hamilton was more popular, you would think that more people would have followed the race live on Sky Sports, evidently that was not the case.
Where we go from here, I don’t know.
Update on October 27th – A repeat of BBC One’s highlights programme on Monday afternoon on BBC Two at 13:00 averaged 364k (5.2%), peaking with 484k (7.0%) at 14:10 according to overnight viewing figures.
The 2014 US Grand Prix ratings report can be found here. Peak audience figures quoted in this article are five-minute numbers.