As the curtain draws on the 2018 British Touring Car Championship this weekend at Brands Hatch, attention will quickly turn to the 2019 season.
Next year is significant from a broadcasting perspective, as BTCC stands with Formula E as being the last two motor racing series with a major live free-to-air presence on UK television. From 2019, only one F1 race will air live on free-to-air television. But, can BTCC take advantage of the opportunity that lies in front of them, and grasp it with both arms?
On-track, the championship is in an excellent position, and has been for many years. “The BTCC has been in a dominant position in this country since the early 90’s. We’re going through a real boom period currently, with a full grid of 31 cars,” series director Alan Gow tells me.
“We’ve struck a terrific combination of the way our technical and sporting regulations all work, we’re delivering what people want to see. The series is absolutely in rude health.”
The BTCC headlines a packed weekend of action, with a variety of support races on action to whet the appetite. Whether it is the Renault Clio Cup, the Porsche Carrera Cup, or the single-seater British Formula 4 series, there is plenty on offer for everyone.
“There’s a lot of entertainment, and it is great value for money,” Gow says. “A family can come along and be thrilled and entertained all day from 9 till 6!”
Although BTCC is the main attraction for fans, ITV4 covers all the action, including support races, as it has done for the past decade. On Sunday’s, the broadcaster airs the three touring car races live, with support races covered either live or on tape-delay, helping the profile of the underclass events immensely.
Inevitably audience figures ebb and flow throughout the season, with rounds dented by the presence of Formula 1. In yesteryear, the championship did try to avoid the Grand Prix, but this is no longer a consideration.
“In the old days, I used to wait until the F1 calendar was out and then try to avoid the races, but I don’t bother any more. There’s too many of them! We put our calendar out in May, well before the F1 does. The only thing we do avoid is the British Grand Prix,” explains Gow.
Analysis of overnight audience figures supplied by Overnights.tv shows the impact that Formula 1 has on BTCC’s viewership. This site analysed audience figures for eight rounds so far this season, Croft the exception as it clashed with England’s World Cup game versus Panama.
Two of those eight rounds, Oulton Park and Snetterton clashed with F1 races that aired exclusively on Sky Sports. The full ITV4 programmes averaged 219k (3.0%) and 305k (3.1%) respectively. A further four rounds clashed with races that aired live on Channel 4, averaging 173k (1.6%).
In other words, live F1 on free-to-air television can wipe around 30 percent off ITV4’s programme audience for BTCC.
Regardless of whether there is a clash between touring cars and Formula 1 or not, the former regularly peaks with over 350,000 viewers each race day.
The peak metric does not fluctuate as much as the programme average, as the final BTCC race of the day takes place long after the F1 has concluded meaning that the audience level by that stage is similar across the season.
The highest peak of the season so far came with the second Snetterton race in July, which peaked with 529k (5.6%) moments before the Hungarian Grand Prix started.
The audience figures suggest that live F1 predominantly moving to pay-TV will boost ITV4’s touring car numbers somewhat. “Every time we come up against a Grand Prix in our time zone, our numbers in the afternoon will take a bit of a dent for that two-hour period while the race is on, and then increase afterwards,” Gow tells me.
“I think the F1 change will drive more people to the BTCC. We’ll be the only live major motor sport on mainstream TV. The audience that Sky gets for Formula 1 is so much less than what Channel 4 gets, so it will have less of an impact on our audience.”
Gow, who himself had interest from Sky in the mid-1990s, takes viewers over the potential financial incentive. “I’m old schools, I want the eye balls, I want people to watch our motor racing, it’s what makes it attractive for teams, for sponsors, manufacturers,” Gow says.
“Taking the money and putting it behind a pay wall just doesn’t sit well with my old school way of thinking. I’m sure our attendances would drop behind a pay wall. That’s what sets us apart from others, the accessibility of it, you don’t have to pay to watch it on-screen.”
Whilst the championship is in the right place within the ITV family due to the presence it provides, is there an argument to suggest that, some touring car action should air on ITV’s main channel?
From the outset, shifting all the action to ITV’s main channel is a non-starter, given that ITV is a general entertainment channel. However, in addition to the current ITV4 programme, airing race three live on ITV’s main channel in a two-hour programme from 16:30 to 18:30 on a Sunday evening could appeal to a wider family audience.
It is not like ITV (1) has forgotten about sport. This year alone, the main channel has aired live horse racing, cycling, and coverage of the Goodwood Revival. Notably, ITV placed a lot of effort behind the resurrection of the popular World of Sport Wrestling brand, which was a household name in yesteryear.
However, audiences reacted negatively to the wrestling show. The first episode aired in a Saturday evening time slot at 17:00, attracting around one million viewers. Audience figures quickly slumped by half, with ITV slowly moving the show further into a daytime slot.
Prior to its launch, WOS Wrestling benefited from cross-promotion on ITV’s daytime shows, such as Good Morning Britain and This Morning, as do many of their other sports brands that air live on ITV’s main channel. Why does BTCC not get the same level of attention?
With live Formula 1 primarily on pay television from 2019, now is a good a time as any to experiment more with touring cars and to give it a bit more love and attention across the ITV network. To the contrary, one might argue that, ITV’s BTCC coverage is fine as-is, so what is there to fix?
Whether ITV’s higher-ups beyond the sports division have fallen out with motor sport, giving motor racing a wide berth from their main channel where live coverage is concerned (see also: Formula E), is unclear. For the moment, Gow is clear that BTCC will remain on ITV4.
“We take a lot of air time on ITV4, and you can’t take seven or eight hours out of ITV,” Gow continued. “We want to make ITV4 the destination for touring car fans. ITV shows our highlights programme, and that gets good numbers. Of course, if ITV said to me ‘we’d like to do this,’ I wouldn’t say no, but there’s absolutely no plans at all to do it.”
Gow is happy with BTCC’s current partnership with ITV. “We have such a great relationship with ITV, and I’m very proud of that relationship. At the time they’d signed it, they had never signed a five-year sports deal, so it was a ground-breaking thing for them. They had the faith in us, and were confident in dealing with us.”
“We never relax, but importantly it means the teams know what the championship looks like for the next five years. They have the comfort of knowing what the broadcast arrangements are so they can build their teams and build their business, and that’s really important.”
It is an impossible question as to how many people, if any, new or old, are likely to seek out BTCC again because of Formula 1 moving to pay-TV. ITV commentator David Addison says that touring cars cannot fill the gap ‘like for like’, but for very good reason.
“You are comparing two very different categories, a race that can be up to two hours against one that is 20 minutes. BTCC is elbows out, crash and bash, push and spin, nudge and overtake, drama, tyres, reverse grids, heroes and villains, it’s a bit like apples and pears comparing F1 with touring cars, that’s perhaps why we can’t fill that gap like for like,” Addison comments.
“But if you want to watch motor racing on a Sunday afternoon, I think more people these days come away buzzing about a touring car race than an average Grand Prix.”
Can BTCC capitalise on Formula 1’s live free-to-air demise? They, and ITV, would be foolish not to…