Vettel versus Hamilton not bringing new viewers to Formula 1, yet

The 2017 Formula One championship battle between Sebastian Vettel and Lewis Hamilton has not yet captured the imagination of viewers in the United Kingdom, audience figures for the first half of the season suggest.

> Channel 4 records big early season drops
> Azerbaijan Grand Prix the highlight so far
> On-demand audience growing

All figures in this post are ‘overnight’ audience figures supplied by, which includes everyone who watched the race before 02:00 the following morning, officially called Live + VOSDAL (viewing on same day as live). The Sky Sports viewing figures cover the ‘Pit Lane Live’ and ‘Race’ segments, normally covering the period from 12:00 to 15:30, although can be slightly longer, for example in Azerbaijan due to the red flag period.

Channel 4’s live race programmes last year were for the complete on-air slot. However, the broadcaster has stayed on-air longer this year for their post-race analysis. Furthermore, like Sky did a few years ago, Channel 4 made the decision to split their programming into three blocks: Build-Up, Race, and Reaction. This post covers the first two parts, but excludes the third section to present a fair and meaningful picture year-on-year for Channel 4’s live broadcasts.

This piece only covers the first half of the 2017 season, so I have excluded the Hungarian Grand Prix from this year’s average. Similarly, comparisons are with the first half of every preceding season.

Sky’s 2017 story
As usual, every race has aired live on Sky Sports F1, with simulcasts on other Sky Sports channels. Sky’s programming, from 12:00 to 15:30 or equivalent, has averaged 599,000 viewers, their lowest average audience since they started covering Formula 1 in 2012. The audience represents a drop of 3 percent on last year’s audience of 617,000 viewers.  Compared with 2012, Sky’s coverage has dropped by 23 percent, or by 174,000 viewers. What you cannot tell from these figures is whether these viewers have transitioned towards other methods of viewing, or have simply stopped viewing Sky’s F1 coverage. Has a quarter of Sky’s Formula 1 audience from 2012 really switched to Sky Go or Now TV as their method of viewing F1? The below paragraph might give a clue…

Coverage of the races exclusively live on Sky have averaged 592,000 viewers, compared with an average of 604,000 viewers for the races that Channel 4 also covered live. No, that previous sentence is neither a mistake, or a typo, Sky really does benefit from live Formula 1 on free-to-air television! However, the same phenomenon also occurred last year, although there are some interesting statistics within the detail this year. The Monaco Grand Prix rated higher than the Spanish round, yet Spain was the race Sky aired exclusively live. Furthermore, Britain’s audience was higher than Austria, yet Sky aired Austria exclusively live. The point I am making is that the value of Sky’s exclusive live coverage has evaporated compared to when they first started covering Formula 1 in 2012, to the degree where their coverage now sees little uplift for their exclusive coverage.

Fortunately for Sky, the race by race picture is positive, with four races (Australia, China, Canada, and Azerbaijan) recording increases of 10 percent or above year-on-year. What distorts the picture for Sky is a hefty year-on-year drop for the Austrian Grand Prix, which dropped by one-third, an unusually high drop in the context of their viewing figures so far, this season. It is easy to dismiss Sky’s numbers as poor and going in the wrong direction, but there are one or two stand out audience figures that skew the picture. Overall, Sky’s viewing figures on the whole look okay compared with 2016. However, the numbers are not great and they should be higher, after all Sky are the exclusive F1 broadcaster in two years’ time. The viewing figures are currently middle of the road.

A peak audience of 954,000 viewers have watched Sky’s coverage across the first ten races of 2017, a drop of 3.6 percent year-on-year compared with last year’s peak audience of 989,000 viewers. Sky’s peak audiences recently have been incredibly stable: the last four races before the Summer break peaked between the 1.04m and 1.08m range, again suggesting that exclusivity is having no impact on their overall viewing figures this season. Sky’s high point this season came with the Canadian Grand Prix, which drew a peak audience of 1.47 million viewers, beating Channel 4 in that metric.

Channel 4’s 2017 story
On race day, Channel 4’s coverage has averaged 1.86 million viewers, a decrease of 8 percent year-on-year. Worryingly, Channel 4’s race day programme has lost 47 percent of the viewers that the BBC had in 2015, when it averaged 3.51 million viewers. The viewing figures this year have not been positive for the broadcaster, with only two races seeing year-on-year increases. There are a multitude of reasons in play: their live races have generally under delivered on the track, promotion in year two sign-posting their coverage has not been as significant, and the warmer weather impacted their early season viewing figures. Splitting their programme into three has had a detrimental impact, some opting to skip the first portion of the broadcast.

Channel 4’s live coverage of the five races that they have aired so far have averaged 2.11 million viewers, with their highlights programming averaging 1.60 million viewers, meaning their live coverage gets around a 32 percent uplift. The two most important races in the championship battle so far, the Spanish and Azerbaijan Grand Prix are the only two rounds that have increased year-on-year for Channel 4, both by around 10 percent. Channel 4 covered Spain in highlights form this year, and likely a bigger draw compared with 2016 due to Lewis Hamilton surviving past lap one, whilst Azerbaijan saw the controversy between Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel. Every other race has lost viewers compared with 2016. Australia, Canada, and Austria all suffered audience drops of over 20 percent. In the case of Australia and Canada, viewers turned to Sky in both cases (presumably due to the late highlights time for the latter), whilst Austria dropped across the board.

Generally, Channel 4’s live coverage peaks with around one million more viewers than their highlights programming. A peak audience of 2.59 million viewers have watched Channel 4’s coverage so far this year, 3.10 million viewers for their live shows and 2.18 million viewers for the highlights. Even if Sky does decide to sub-let a Formula 1 highlights package to a terrestrial free-to-air station, you can immediately see that the sport is going to lose some casual viewers in the process by switching to a new model. The difference in peak audiences is invisible in the Sky only figures up the article, and certainly will not be cancelled out through the likes of Sky Go and Now TV. It is an undeniable fact that Formula 1 attracts a larger total audience when it is live on free-to-air television. Channel 4’s 2017 high so far came with the Bahrain Grand Prix, which attracted a peak audience of 3.42 million viewers.

Combined audience and final thoughts
Although figures for Sky Go and Now TV are not readily available, streaming platforms are growing year-on-year, admittedly perhaps at a slower rate than to overhaul the TV decline. Data from shows that the All 4 platform is growing month by month, with Formula 1 one of the primary factors for the increase. Whilst live sport is still primarily consumed by those watching on television, there are a range of other techniques that fans can watch the action by. However, whilst the on-demand growth is good for Formula 1, we must not forget that the action was available via BBC iPlayer two years ago. Has All 4’s numbers for F1 overhauled the numbers that BBC iPlayer was delivering when it was covering the sport. I suspect the answer is no, simply because of the size and availability of both platforms. Of course, F1 coverage is available via BBC Radio 5 Live (numbers also not readily available) which may well be delivering stronger audiences since the move of their television product from the BBC to Channel 4.

At the half way stage of 2017, the UK combined television average audience stands at 2.46 million viewers, a decrease of 7 percent compared with 2016’s average audience of 2.63 million viewers. Perhaps showing the draw of live Formula 1 on free-to-air television, the five races live on free-to-air averaged 2.72 million viewers (down 2 percent), versus 2.19 million viewers (down 13 percent) for the races exclusively live on Sky. Four of the top five races this year had live coverage on free-to-air television:

01 – 2.99 million viewers – Azerbaijan Grand Prix (live)
02 – 2.86 million viewers – British Grand Prix (live)
03 – 2.82 million viewers – Bahrain Grand Prix (live)
04 – 2.65 million viewers – Spanish Grand Prix (highlights)
05 – 2.55 million viewers – Monaco Grand Prix (live)

The season high is clearly Azerbaijan across the metrics analysed, not only the highest average of the season but also recording a decent percentage rise year-on-year. The only other race to increase year-on-year is Spain, the Catalunya race seeing a 6 percent rise compared with 2016. From the championship perspective, the two races that have seen wheel to wheel action between Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel are the two events that have seen jumps, perhaps no coincidence. Whilst the other races have contributed to the story between the two drivers, Spain and Azerbaijan were clearly the ‘flash points’ so far, this season. Arguably, Spain could have brought a higher audience had the race aired live on free-to-air television.

At the other end of the spectrum, Australia and Austria saw drops of 17 and 26 percent respectively year-on-year. Of course, Australia in 2016 had extra promotion from Channel 4 given that it was their first ever race, whereas the early season promotional hype this year from the broadcaster was underwhelming in comparison. The Austrian Grand Prix suffered across the board in both Sky’s live broadcast and Channel 4’s race highlights, like Russia the race was distinctly average until the final stages. A rise for Azerbaijan followed immediately by a drop for Austria does beg the question: why did F1 not benefit from the Hamilton and Vettel spat in Baku in forthcoming races? Did broadcasters not use the clash between the two drivers to aid the promotion of future races? Without wanting to bang the ‘live free-to-air’ drum again, I raise the point that F1 struggles to capitalise on flash points when live behind a pay wall.

Three of the five races broadcast live across free-to-air and pay television have peaked with above 4 million viewers, whilst Monaco and Russia peaked with around 3.5 million viewers. The races where Channel 4 aired highlights have peaked with a cumulative three million viewers, Spain the exception with a stronger peak of 3.78 million viewers.

Neither of the television broadcasters, or the BBC regarding their radio figures, have yet responded to a request for comment.

Hungarian Grand Prix dips slightly year-on-year

Sebastian Vettel’s victory in the Hungarian Grand Prix peaked with a combined audience of 3.6 million viewers last Sunday (30th July), overnight viewing figures show.

Live coverage of the race, broadcast across Sky Sports F1 and Sky’s new Main Event channel, averaged 698k (8.5%) from 12:00 to 15:30. An audience of 401k (4.9%) watched on the dedicated F1 channel, with a further 297k (3.6%) watching via Main Event. Despite having exclusive live coverage, Sky’s average is down on their shared number from last year. In 2016, their show averaged 733k (7.3%) across Sky Sports 1 and F1.

This is not the first time we have seen this trend has occurred year-on-year for Sky. There is growing evidence to suggest that Sky Sports’ TV viewing figures are not benefiting as much this year from showing Formula 1 exclusively live compared to their shared coverage, which I will investigate further in the mid-season analysis piece coming soon.

Channel 4’s highlights offering, which aired from 17:00 to 19:15, averaged 1.96m (13.8%), their highest highlights audience since Spain. Considering the show aired earlier due to the channel’s Euro 2017 coverage, this is a good number. However, their live coverage last year averaged 2.06m (21.0%), and in the context of Sky’s number sliding, you might have expected Channel 4’s programme to break the two million mark, but it was not to be.

The combined average audience of 2.65 million viewers is slightly down last year’s audience of 2.80 million viewers, the lowest number for the Hungarian round since 2006. A peak audience of 1.08m watched Sky’s coverage, with 2.56m watching Channel 4’s coverage at its peak, bringing together a combined peak audience of 3.64 million viewers.

Whilst the average audience is down 5 percent, the peak audience is down a more severe 12.4 percent year-on-year. The take away from this is that the peak audience drops more when live coverage is not on free-to-air television, as live events are more of a draw to viewers as they reach towards their climax, this of course not the case with highlights programming where the outcome is already known.

Live coverage of qualifying fared well on Saturday, increasing by a healthy margin year-on-year. Live coverage across Sky Sports F1 and Sky Sports Main Event averaged 406k (5.7%), a rise of around 50,000 viewers compared with 2016. Channel 4’s highlights aired from 18:00 to 19:25, averaging 1.51m (10.5%), a strong number.

Amazingly, the combined audience of 1.92 million viewers is the highest for qualifying since the 2015 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix! There is no major explanation for this, to be honest, lack of sporting competition from other channels will have helped though in comparison to previous races this season. The 2017 average audience is an increase of 378,000 viewers compared with last year’s viewing figure of 1.54 million viewers.

The 2016 Hungarian Grand Prix ratings report can be found here.

The difficult decisions that lie ahead for Sky

The British Grand Prix marked the half way stage of the 2017 Formula One season, in a championship that is shaping up to be a classic between Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton and Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel. The race from the famous Silverstone circuit also heralded the ‘notional’ half way mark of Channel 4’s current Formula 1 contract. In just a year and a half, Sky Sports in the UK will have the exclusive television rights to Formula 1.

Whilst the change is significant in that Formula 1 will not air live on free-to-air terrestrial television for 2019, the change is also significant because it is the first time that a group of talent has ‘disappeared’ from the UK scene. Yes, ITV’s coverage finished at the end of 2008, but some of their talent headed to the BBC.

Behind the scenes, and in front of the camera, ITV’s television talent moved to the BBC to cover Formula 1. Louise Goodman and Steve Rider may have stayed with ITV to cover the British Touring Car Championship, but the likes of Martin Brundle, Ted Kravitz and assistant editor Steve Aldous moved from ITV to the BBC. There was a natural decision made, no one was axed by the BBC as it was a new talent line-up.

The same happened when Sky appeared on the scene in 2012: talent moved around, talent appeared, but no one vanished. In 2008, there was a total of nine on-air personnel with ITV and BBC Radio 5 Live. Nearly a decade later, and that figure has swelled to around 23 personnel, depending on who you wish to count. In recent years, Gary Anderson, and the BBC parted ways in 2014, with the two parties disagreeing on the future direction of the BBC’s technical output, whilst Georgie Thompson and Sky separated at the start of 2013.

The remaining separations on the UK front have been amicable: Jonathan Legard and the BBC at the end of 2010, Legard since continuing radio and television work with the broadcaster. Jim Rosenthal and Tony Jardine left ITV’s F1 coverage at the end of 2005, but again that was a natural separation having both been part of their coverage since the very beginning.

It is rare in the sporting area for television bosses to bring multiple people in at once at the expense of others. However, if Sky want to make a good impression on new viewers ready for 2019, and bring in the largest possible audience, is it in their best interests to make some tricky and difficult decisions over the next 18 months?

As it stands, talent such as Ben Edwards, Karun Chandhok and David Coulthard will have no Formula 1 television work from the 2019 season onwards, assuming no free-to-air terrestrial television highlights package is available to the large UK broadcasters. This expands to all the Whisper Films crew who are currently working on Channel 4’s Formula 1 coverage, who arguably deserve to still play a part in Formula 1’s post-2018 output.

Sky’s Formula 1 executive producer Martin Turner recently retired, and one might assume that the new executive producer, whoever they are, will want to start planning for 2019 early. The growing opinion amongst fans, including myself, is that Sky’s television team is becoming tired and dated, with very little change since 2012. There might be an opportunity to start the changes from 2018. It is difficult game of chess, while the current line-up goes about its race-by-race business, it should not be destabilised.

The combination of Ben Edwards and Martin Brundle is one that remains in the eyes of many fans, a ‘dream’ commentary line-up, one that for reasons unknown did not come to fruition in either 2002 when Murray Walker retired or 2009 when Formula 1 returned to the BBC. Personally, I think it would be a mistake for Sky not to bring over anyone from Channel 4’s on-air team over for the 2019 season, but I do not know how likely that is.

The bigger loss will be behind the camera. The majority of Channel 4’s team through Whisper Films, bring with them a wealth of knowledge and experience. Their portfolio of staff includes ex BBC and ITV staff who have worked on programmes such as Top Gear, whereas on the other hand Sky has been in efficiency saving mode in recent years. It is plausible that some of Channel 4’s F1 talent might move onto an over-the-top service through FOM, should that opportunity arise.

Sky Sports is possibly one of the best F1 broadcasters’ worldwide. However, even the greatest can go stale if they fail to reinvent themselves and their output on a regular basis to stay ahead. Sky’s F1 coverage is falling into this category and actions should be taken, including looking at the personalities involved in their coverage.

Sky can bridge the best of both worlds in 2019, by taking the best talent from both rosters, creating a ‘dream’ line-up. Do they upset the apple cart by creating a fresh new line-up, mixed with the old and the new, or will they stick by their current talent? We shall soon find out…