The Chinese Grand Prix continued what is turning into a difficult start to the year for Formula 1 in the United Kingdom, overnight viewing figures show.
Live coverage of the race, broadcast on Sky Sports F1 from 06:00 to 09:30, averaged 484k (13.5%). This is a relatively strong number, an increase of around 50,000 viewers on last year’s average of 433k (11.1%). However, it is still a drop on 2015’s average audience of 589k (15.2%), which aired in the same time slot.
Sky’s coverage peaked with 813k, compared with 687k last year, an increase of 18.5 percent year-on-year. Certainly, Sky’s numbers appear to have been boosted by a competitive start to the championship between Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel, which they will be looking to maintain going forward.
Channel 4’s coverage was not boosted to the same effect, dropping slightly year-on-year. Their highlights programme, which aired from 14:30 to 16:45, averaged 1.52m (18.5%), a drop on last year’s average audience of 1.68m (17.0%), although the percentage share did rise. Coverage of Lewis Hamilton’s win peaked with 2.06m (22.3%) at 16:05, compared with a peak audience of 2.25m (21.6%) in 2016.
The combined audience of 2.00 million viewers is for the second year running the lowest for the Chinese round of the championship on record, a drop of 5.4 percent year-on-year. The combined peak audience of 2.87 million viewers is down slightly on last year’s peak audience of 2.94 million viewers.
In response to a Twitter user who wondered how this compared with 2011: yesterday’s average audience was down 57.8 percent on the 2011 average audience of 4.74 million viewers. That is a lot of lapsed viewers… a small portion will have moved onto other forms of viewing (such as Now TV and online streaming), but the harsh reality is that Formula 1 has lost a significant chunk of viewers in the past five years. Some of that can be blamed on the change of television deals, but some of it can also be blamed the haphazard direction of the sport in recent years.
Channel 4’s highlights of qualifying, which aired from 13:00 to 14:30, averaged 861k (13.6%). The raw audience is down 27.8 percent, but the percentage share was down only 3.3 percent on last year’s average of 1.19m (14.1%). Whilst Formula 1 was on air (including VOSDAL), the total television audience was 6.3 million viewers, compared with 8.5 million viewers from 2016. Clearly, the number is also a sizeable drop on historical BBC and ITV numbers for the Chinese Grand Prix qualifying sessions.
Sky Sports F1’s live coverage of qualifying averaged 255k (5.3%) from 07:00 to 10:00, the programme being extended due to the red flag caused by Antonio Giovinazzi. In any event, Sky’s average audience is down slightly on 2015 and 2016’s averages of 324k (6.2%) and 308k (5.9%) respectively. The average is, however, up on the 2014 fiugure of 236k (7.1%), although it should be noted that the 2014 qualifying session occurred an hour earlier than later years.
The combined average of 1.12 million viewers is down 27 percent on the 2016 combined average of 1.50 million viewers, and half of that recorded in 2015.
As with the Australian Grand Prix two weeks ago, the Chinese Grand Prix saw some hefty drops across the board. You could argue that this is the start of a trend, showing that viewers are not interested in the new style Formula 1, and that the lack of overtaking is turning viewers off. It is an easy conclusion to come to, with multiple data points across two rounds supporting that argument.
However, such an argument at this stage is narrow-minded. Let us take a look at the total television audience for the slots that Formula 1 highlights programming has aired in for both Australia and China historically. This takes into account any VOSDAL activity within these slots as well, making up the overnight audience.
|Australia – Qualifying
||9.0 million (-0.3 million)
||6.7 million (-2.3 million)
|Australia – Race
||11.1 million (+0.2 million)
||8.0 million (-3.1 million)
|China – Qualifying
||8.5 million (-0.2 million)
||6.3 million (-2.3 million)
|China – Race
||9.9 million (-2.3 million)
||8.2 million (-1.7 million)
What does this tell us? That, beyond Formula 1, television viewing figures on these particular Saturday and Sunday afternoons are down significantly compared with 2015 and 2016. Clearly with less of an audience around (whether it is sunshine related or not), audiences are bound to drop to some degree year-on-year, although this does not change the long-term problem for the sport.
For those hoping that Formula 1 was going to receive some ratings boost in the off-season, that has not happened – yet. With Hamilton and Vettel tied in the championship standings heading into this weekend’s Bahrain Grand Prix, live across Channel 4 and Sky Sports, broadcasters and paddock people alike will be hoping for a reverse in ratings fortunes, starting with Bahrain.
The 2016 Chinese Grand Prix ratings report can be found here.