Normally British success in sport leads to an increase in television audiences for that particular event. In Formula 1, over the past eighteen months, the opposite appears to have occurred. Based on unofficial overnight viewing figures, the 2015 Formula One season recorded the lowest average audience since the 2007 season. Lewis Hamilton’s and Mercedes’s dominance has not had the intended effect.
> BBC records lowest average in modern times
> Sky average drops back to 2013 level
> Only two out of last eight races increased year-on-year
As I have done in previous years, it is worth re-iterating what exactly the numbers represent for those of you that are new to the blog. For Sky Sports F1, all viewing figures are for the three and a half hour race day slot. This covers the ‘Pit Lane Live’ and ‘Race’ segments in the EPG, the reason for this is to allow a fair comparison year-on-year. As thus, the equivalent slots are used for 2012, 2013 and 2014 to present a transparent picture and so the viewing figures presented are not misleading. Numbers also include any Sky simulcasts on Sky Sports 1, where applicable. For the BBC, the figures are all programme averages, irrespective of whether the programme was live or in highlights form, and irrespective of channel. Repeats are accounted for where Asian-based races were covered by the BBC live. As always, viewing figures do not include over the top methods of viewing such as BBC iPlayer and Sky Go.
The 2015 story
The trajectory that the 2015 season took is largely similar to that from two years ago. In my Summer post, I stated that 2015 was up on 2012 and 2014, but down on 2013. In 2013, the dominance of Sebastian Vettel sent audiences tumbling. In 2015, it is the dominance of Mercedes that appears to have a profound effect on viewing figures.
Sky Sports F1’s race day programme has averaged 638k from 12:00 to 15:30, or equivalent this season. That number is down 19.3 percent on 2014’s figure and down 0.4 percent on 2013’s figure of 640k. 2015’s average is also down 10.3 percent on 2012’s average of 711k. By a margin of around two thousand viewers, Sky’s average Formula 1 viewing figures are at their lowest level since they joined the sport in 2012. Given that the gap between 2013 and 2015 is only two thousand viewers, I’m reluctant to read too much into it as two thousand viewers is within the margin of error.
So what has happened here? In essence, any gain that Sky made last season has disappeared. A near 20 percent drop in viewers is bad, whichever way you look at it. There is perhaps some knowledge to be gained in stating that Sky’s numbers are back at 2013 levels when you consider both season’s followed similar patterns on the track. Whilst Sky was no doubt hampered by some races starting earlier, it is a fact that only four races increased year-on-year: Spain (+5.0%), Austria (+4.4%), Britain (+27.3%) and Italy (+7.5%). Twelve races recorded double digit drops compared with 2014, including the US Grand Prix which dropped 15.3 percent. That is not good and is a stark contrast to this time last year. The comparisons include the relevant Sky Sports 1 simulcasts for this year. I think Sky’s drop is a combination of the on-tract action being resolved early this year and also viewer apathy towards the product that Sky Sports have been putting out this year.
The BBC’s figures have dropped year-on-year by 3.6 percent, recording an average of 3.11m. It is their lowest average under this current deal, and therefore their lowest since the BBC returned to the sport in 2009. 2014 averaged 3.22m, whilst 2013 averaged 3.42m. At a time when the BBC’s current coverage is under threat, any drop does not make for good reading. However, eleven races actually increased their average audience compared with 2014. The biggest gainers were Bahrain (+60.9% – BBC showed highlights in 2014), Britain (+28.6%) and Austria (+27.0%). The reason that BBC’s average number is down is because of Mexico, a low-rating highlights race, plus the fact that three races lost over a quarter of their audience year-on-year (Singapore, Japan and Abu Dhabi). Undoubtedly, BBC’s biggest problem, and one of the major flaws in this current contract was that Lewis Hamilton’s championship victory was not screened live on free-to-air television.
An eight year low in the TV same day world
The combined average of 3.74m is down 6.7 percent on 2014’s 4.01m, down 7.3 percent on 2013’s 4.06m and down 4.5 percent on 2012’s 3.92m. For the first time since the current rights agreement between BBC and Sky started, both channels dropped year-on-year based on overnight viewing figures. Last year I commented on the closeness of the figures from 2012 to 2014. 2015 has dipped below that line as it were, meaning this season sits between 2007 and 2008 in the popularity stakes. Considering Formula 1 has a British world champion, the idea that viewing figures have dropped to an eight year low in the UK may be considered alarming to those within the sport.
The most watched race in 2015 was the Canadian Grand Prix which averaged 5.35m, whilst the season ending Abu Dhabi Grand Prix falls at the opposite end of the spectrum with 2.61m. As I noted earlier, all the numbers exclude online viewing, including iPlayer, Sky Go and Now TV. Including those methods of viewing would send 2015 above 2008’s average of 3.94m, but I would be surprised if it made much of a difference year-on-year, unless there has been drastic changes of viewing habits to more online methods from Grand Prix fans. If people are changing their viewing habits in relation to Formula 1, the question is why. There is always a reason if habits have changed, a live viewer does not become an on-demand viewer for an event which should be viewed live without a good reason.
It would be amiss I feel to write off 2015 as saying “well, online would increase numbers”. To do so would ignore the bigger picture. Formula 1 has well documented issues on and off the track at the moment concerning the spectacle the sport is presenting. One team dominating is historically a turn off for the casual viewer. Ferrari’s dominance in the mid 2000s led to a worldwide switch off (Germany and Italy aside). If the dominance of Mercedes is leading to the same pattern, then you have to be concerned. The casual viewer does not want to watch one team dominating. You can’t punish dominance, of course you can’t. But it does not help when that same team appears to be anti-racing, repeatedly. That is a switch off. Maybe you could blame Lewis Hamilton himself as the reason for the decline, in that he is in BBC’s and Sky’s coverage too much, and there is an argument that features with him as the main attraction do not move television ratings at the moment.
Heading into 2016
A dominant Mercedes or not, Formula 1 needs three things in 2016 if viewing figures are to move in a positive direction. A resurgent McLaren. Formula 1 cannot have two world champions at the back of the field. Fernando Alonso and Jenson Button should be near the front, competing for points and podiums, week in, week out. Secondly, Ferrari to challenge Mercedes. We did see flashes of it at the start of this season, but nothing ever materialised, aside from Singapore.
From a media perspective, Lewis Hamilton versus Sebastian Vettel writes itself. We never quite got it when Vettel was at Red Bull, plus other drivers were involved in the championship battle too. Hamilton versus Vettel, Mercedes vs Ferrari. It is something the casual audience would watch and become invested in. One of the reasons why 2011 was the most watched season in the modern era was not only because of Vettel, but because of Hamilton’s on-track duels with Felipe Massa. We need to see Hamilton versus Vettel, and I hope we see that in 2016. It would draw audiences, not only in the UK but in Germany too. In my opinion, Hamilton vs Nico Rosberg is not something the general public are interested in and the viewing figures reflect that.
Lastly, Formula 1 needs the BBC. Formula 1 needs the BBC more than the BBC needs Formula 1. The BBC could replace Formula 1 with repeats on a Sunday afternoon and claim one million viewers, whereas Formula 1 would need to find a new home on ITV or Channel 4, to a significantly reduced audience, more so on the latter. I’ll finish this piece with a quote from David Coulthard: “My personal view is that if F1 allows itself to lose free-to-air television coverage in the UK, it will not only affect the popularity of the sport, and by extension the teams’ ability to raise money to compete, but it will also reduce its exposure to the next generations of engineers and mechanics. F1 has inspired people to enter a workforce that numbers tens of thousands of people – the drivers are just the lucky ones at the end of the rainbow.”