Generation 1 of the electric Formula E series ended last weekend in New York, with Jean-Eric Vergne picking up the season four crown. In December, the next iteration blasts off the starting grid in Saudi Arabia.
For fans in the UK, whilst coverage will remain on Eurosport, the free-to-air home of the championship is again up in the air. I look at where the series may end up…
The UK’s largest commercial free-to-air broadcaster, ITV aired the championship during its first two seasons. Live coverage aired on ITV4, with Jennie Gow fronting the extensive coverage from ITV’s London Studios. ITV4 typically dedicated an hour of build-up to the race, followed by half an hour of reaction following the podium celebrations.
In Formula E’s first season, ITV aired the season ending London E-Prix live on their main channel, to a peak audience of 1.18 million viewers, which remains Formula E’s biggest audience to date. Unfortunately, audience figures slipped for season two, and both sides parted company. This was not all Formula E’s fault, and ITV should take some blame for the drop in audience figures.
Is a return to ITV4 likely? On the basis that audience figures have not improved significantly since ITV left the party, one would think not. However, North One Television have created a well-oiled product on Channel 5 with Vernon Kay at the helm, and persuading ITV4 to get back in on the act might be easier if North One remain involved. After all, North One and ITV have history on four-wheels…
Channel 5 took on the Formula E baton from ITV, in a two-season deal covering the 2016-17 and 2017-18 seasons. Unfortunately, it quickly became apparent that Channel 5 were unprepared, having had little experience in broadcasting live motor sport.
Eventually, studio coverage did appear, but technically was far behind what ITV had been producing beforehand. With problems from the outset, North One Television coming into the Formula E fold came at an opportune time, as they also grappled control of Channel 5’s live coverage ready for Channel 5’s second season covering the sport.
It was clear though that Channel 5’s executives were not in the game for their second year, with live coverage regularly demoted to 5Spike in favour of repeats on their main channel. In their defence, and regrettably for the series, repeats would regularly out-rate Formula E. I would be surprised if Channel 5 continue to cover Formula E moving forward.
After ditching Formula 1 at the end of 2015, are the BBC likely to get back involved in top-level motor sport? Bear in mind that the reason F1 left the BBC was purely financial, which does not apply to Formula E given that its contract value is currently very small.
Back in March, highlights of the Mexico City E-Prix surfaced on the BBC Sport website as part of efforts from Formula E to try to boost its mainstream media profile in the UK. The BBC described the agreement at the time as a one-off, which remains the case today. Formula E averaged around 300,000 viewers when it aired on Channel 5, so it is feasible that its audience would double if races aired live on BBC Two.
At this stage, I do not see BBC getting involved, at least in the television space. One possibility is that an online-only offering could appear, with television rights heading elsewhere. A presence on the BBC’s online platforms would help Formula E significantly, in turn helping their audience figures wherever Formula E turns up.
The decision here could hinge on whether the metrics for the short-form Mexico highlights were any good. If they were, who knows, maybe an online offering could become a regular thing from season five onwards.
Having filled 170 hours with Formula 1 action in 2017, Channel 4 have a gaping hole in their schedules from next year. Even if the broadcaster airs highlights from 2019, they still have ten empty daytime weekends that need original content and repeats of Come Dine with Me and The Simpsons only go so far.
Formula E is a perfect fit for the network and would help fill some of the Formula 1 hole. There are a lot of questions around what Formula E would look like for Channel 4, and arguably until we know the answer with F1, we are unlikely to find out the Formula E answer.
For Channel 4, retaining Formula 1 in some form is their number one priority. The terms of that deal dictate the way forward. Is Channel 4’s F1 programming a Whisper Films production or a Sky Sports one? How long will their highlights shows be? Will Channel 4 take Sky Sports F1’s commentary? Would Liberty Media have a problem with Formula 1 and Formula E on the same network?
Until we know those answers, only then can we start to wonder whether Whisper or North One will produce Formula E for Channel 4 if they are interested in the electric championship. David Coulthard is certainly interested, he has been around the Formula E paddock lately, and did commentate on the Berlin E-Prix back in May alongside Jack Nicholls.
If all else fails, as it appeared to with live coverage of the 24 Hours of Le Mans in June, the fall-back option could be Discovery-owned Quest. Eurosport currently airs Formula E live, so a deal where a specific number of races air live on Quest could be an option.
But for Formula E, this option will send the series into oblivion in the UK and should be avoided. In its fifth season, Formula E still needs free-to-air television more than a free-to-air station needs Formula E. Like in the first four seasons, any new television deal is unlikely to come with a significant financial cost to whichever network chooses to air the championship.
Only once viewing figures and prestige increases can Formula E start to ask for cash. Until then, they are unlikely to get much, if any. Free coverage on Formula E’s social media channels such as YouTube is unlikely as this could be in violation of Eurosport’s current agreement with the series.
Whoever does air Formula E next season, do not throw the series into a graveyard time slot, or onto a sister network because it under performs initially. Give it a hug, wrap your arms around it. Perseverance does pay off and viewers do not come overnight. It takes time, and future Formula E broadcasters in the UK must be prepared to give it that time and not expect big numbers on day one.
Where do you think Formula E is heading next? Have your say in the comments below.
A further piece analysing Formula E’s season four viewing figures will be posted in August.