Formula 1 smashes Channel 4’s slot averages, but large drops across the board

Channel 4 may have delivered a solid package over the weekend, but Formula 1 felt the brunt of no presence on BBC TV or ITV, the two largest networks in the United Kingdom, meaning that overnight viewing figures tumbled.

As always at the start of a new Grand Prix season, context is needed as to what the numbers represent. For Channel 4, it is the same as the previous BBC contract: their full highlights programme. Two new things though to note. Firstly, the numbers include advertisements, these are only stripped out in the final consolidated numbers. Secondly, the numbers include Channel 4’s +1 service. Over on Sky Sports F1, it is their three-and-a-half-hour slot which covers Pit Lane Live and the Race itself, so for example from 12:00 to 15:30. Note that due to the red flag period, Australia’s slot is longer as Paddock Live started later than usual.

It was a weekend of contrasting fortunes. After Saturday’s qualifying fiasco, Sunday delivered when it needed to on the circuit. Channel 4’s highlights programme averaged 2.11m (19.0%) from 13:30. The audience peaked in the five-minutes from 15:20 with 2.67m (21.9%) watching. The average is down 30.4 percent on BBC One’s average from last year of 3.03m (27.6%), with the peak measure down 21.0 percent – the difference between the two drops due to Channel 4’s longer programme. Despite the drop, the programme comfortably won its slot and thrashed Channel 4’s slot average.

Live coverage of the race on Sky Sports F1, which aired from 04:00 to 07:45, averaged 271k (18.7%), with Sky Sports 1 adding a further 89k (6.1%), bringing the total audience to 360k (24.8%). The combined peak of 558k (37.4%) came at 06:00 as the race restarted following Fernando Alonso and Esteban Gutierrez’s crash. The average is down 30.4 percent on Sky’s average last year of 517k (29.5%). Despite this year’s race being more exciting than last year’s, the peak was down 29.2 percent on the peak figure from last year of 789k (50.3%). All the figures presented include anyone who watched the live airing later in the day.

The combined audience of 2.47 million is the lowest audience for the Australian Grand Prix since records began (i.e. since at least 2005). The previous lowest was an average audience of 3.18 million in 2006. It is the lowest audience for a Formula 1 race since the 2013 United States Grand Prix.

When Channel 4 signed up to cover Formula 1, they probably did not anticipate that their first qualifying session would be remembered for all the wrong reasons. Their highlights programme from 12:30 to 14:10 on Saturday (19th March) averaged 1.38m (15.4%). The programme recorded a five-minute peak audience of 1.74m (17.9%) at 13:50.

In comparison, last year’s BBC One highlights programme averaged 2.29m (24.5%) over a shorter 75-minute slot. The drop year-on-year is between 30 and 40 percent depending on whether you’re comparing the peak or average figure. Channel 4’s qualifying highlights programme was in line with BBC Two’s Australian qualifying highlights in 2012 and 2014. It should be said that, despite the reduced audience, Channel 4’s programme won the timeslot and was significantly above their own slot average. To give an idea of how well the F1 did on Channel 4 compared to their usual Saturday numbers Channel 4 Racing, which followed the F1, averaged 511k (4.6%).

Live coverage of qualifying over on Sky Sports F1 from 05:00 to 07:45 averaged 184k (11.5%), with Sky Sports 1 adding a further 51k (3.2%). Their coverage recorded a combined peak audience of 423k (17.7%) at 06:50. Sky’s combined audience is down 30.4 percent on last year’s audience across Sky Sports F1, Sky Sports 1 and Sky 1 of 339k (16.4%).

The combined qualifying audience of 1.61m is down 38.6 percent on last year’s figure of 2.63m. Unofficially, it is the lowest number for the Australian Grand Prix qualifying session since 2006. As an aside, Sky’s nine repeats of qualifying averaged a combined audience of 314k, compared to four repeats last year which averaged 202k. Whether viewers made a conscious decision to watch one of the many qualifying repeats on Sky Sports F1 instead of recording the live airing, I don’t know. I don’t include the repeat numbers in the combined audience because you just have no idea how many of those viewers are new viewers.

Analysis – Good for Channel 4, bad for Formula 1
I wrote the following in December when reviewing 2015’s viewing figures:

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 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.

Channel 4 will be pleased that Formula 1 smashed their slot average, by around 360 percent on Sunday. It should not be overlooked that the numbers Formula 1 delivered over the weekend for them are fantastic numbers in off-peak slots.

For Formula 1 as a whole, however, the moment the switch to Channel 4 was announced, 2016 was always going to be an uphill struggle. The idea that Channel 4 were going to match the BBC’s figures was inconceivable given the reach that the latter has on TV, online and radio. On Saturday, Channel 4 was down 39.7 percent and 33.7 percent (average/peak) year-on-year, compared with 30.4 percent and 21.0 percent on Sunday. Already in the course of 24 hours, both of those metrics were better than before, although Saturday may be influenced by the farcical qualifying session.

It could be argued, from a reach perspective, that this deal will be worse than the previous BBC and Sky deal simply because Formula 1 is not on BBC or ITV. I think it is too early to say that, but the above quoted text (paragraph one) has never been more true. If Bahrain is a Mercedes walkover, I fear for the viewing figures for the remainder of the season. It is easy to say that more people may be watching via other methods, but that will not offset the drops that we could see as the season progresses.

Whilst the drop in numbers year-on-year is somewhat due to the change in the broadcasting rights, Sky Sports dropped by a similar percentage. On both Saturday and Sunday, Sky was down around 30 percent across average and peak. That suggests a much wider problem than simply a change of broadcasting rights that needs to be addressed. Despite having a British world champion, it is clear that viewers were being turned off in the latter half of 2015 and a substantial proportion of the hard-core audience have not returned. Sky’s drop also implies that, if the BBC had retained F1, there would have been a drop for the free-to-air highlights regardless – not by 30 percent but a drop of some proportion, except the change to Channel 4 has exaggerated the drop.

Bahrain will be fascinating with it being Channel 4’s first live race. A battle between Hamilton and Vettel, or a close contest, will help viewing figures. Let’s hope Bahrain delivers on the promise displayed at the Australian Grand Prix.

Speed with Guy Martin impresses
Ahead of the new Formula 1 season, Channel 4 aired a one-hour special edition of Speed with Guy Martin last Thursday (17th March). The show, which featured him going head-to-head with David Coulthard, averaged a strong 2.80m (14.2%) from 21:00 to 22:00. It was second in the slot, only behind BBC One. Impressively, the show had the highest share of adults aged between 16 to 34, 14.9% across the hour. It ended up being the most watched F1 related programme, which shows how vital it is to crossover where possible.

It was Guy Martin’s biggest ever rating on Channel 4, and will probably consolidate to around 3.5 million viewers. At Channel 4’s press launch, Coulthard suggested that there may be more specials with himself and Martin down the road. Given the number for last week’s special, I think the chances of something happening in the future has increased fourfold.

The 2015 Australian Grand Prix ratings report can be found here.


8 thoughts on “Formula 1 smashes Channel 4’s slot averages, but large drops across the board

  1. Ch4’s decent coverage deserves better ratings, which may yet arrive as the season unfolds & viewers become aware of what’s on offer. Isn’t it sad (& stupid) that the owners & chief executive of F1 seem unconcerned with falling audience numbers, as long the the PAY TV money rolls in. Any properly run business in this situation would be mounting massive multi-media advertising campaigns to bring Ch4’s coverage to everyone’s attention, but that would be actually investing in the sport rather than divesting it of funds, so that won’t happen. Given the wealth of the owners, an effective ad campaign (which Ch4 couldn’t possibly afford) would be less than a drop in their proverbial bucket & could make millions of potential viewers aware of F1’s presence on non-Pay TV.
    But no one cares at the top, do they?

    1. Yeh so many watch via all kinds of catchup now and sky go and of course the new sky q apps now too. Not having that included in those figures is meaningless to me. Im sure the advertisers know what the better figures are, they seem to have plenty of ads on many channels.

  2. Guy Martin makes really good shows.

    I did not bother watching qually at all. Cant say I cared about missing it. The other thing that stuck me was lack of sponsor logos on cars. I started watching f1 1988 and I have never seen cars so bare

  3. In the UK F1 is a niche sport, and this is reflected in the viewing figures. There’s the hardcore fans who watch it all, as I do, and then there’s the casual fans who dip in and out. It’s the casual fans that are affected by such things as Mercedes dominance, the ineptidude of the governance of the sport, such as changing qualifying 3 times in as many weeks, and when it goes wrong they all blame someone else.

    If you ignore online for a moment, C4, unlike Sky, has the same reach as the BBC so there’s no reason why C4 could not achieve the same viewing figures as the BBC. What does affect C4 is what the BBC and ITV are showing at the same time, again influencing the casual viewers.
    I would think that the percentage of casual viewers is very high compared to most other sports, add to that the comparitively low fan base and you will always get high percentage swings in viewers.

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