Ahead of 2019, Sky’s Formula 1 viewing figures have jumped to their highest level since 2014, analysis of overnight audience figures shows.
> Audience figures static year-on-year
> Pendulum swings slightly towards pay-TV
> Free-to-air still makes up 75% of UK F1 TV audience
All viewing figures on this site, supplied by Overnights.tv, are known in the industry as ‘overnight viewing figures’. These numbers include both live viewers and those viewing on the same day as live (live + VOSDAL).
The audience figures presented do not include viewers who watched Formula 1 via on-demand platforms such as All 4, Now TV and Sky Go. As part of the consolidated numbers that BARB release, they are also now including on-demand figures, however this data set is in its infancy and we should treat it with caution.
We also have no historical comparison for BARB’s on-demand figures, and broadcasters may have a different set of metrics, meaning that it is difficult to say how many viewers watch Formula 1 in the UK outside of the television set – whether it is 5, 10 or 20 percent, perhaps more.
What is clear is that fans tend to view sporting events live, or as close to live as possible, meaning that the jump F1 makes between the overnight viewing figures and the consolidated viewing numbers is insignificant in the broad picture.
Industry body RAJAR processes and releases all radio data separately, including BBC Radio 5 Live. We exclude these figures from this article as RAJAR calculates the data using a different methodology to BARB.
Channel 4’s overnight figures
To work out Channel 4’s average audience across the season, and to provide a fair historical comparison, this site uses their full highlights slot, as well as their build-up and race segments from their live race day programme.
An average audience of 1.84 million viewers watched Channel 4’s race day programming in 2018, a decrease of 1.5 percent on their 2017 average of 1.87 million viewers. With 21 races of the calendar, Channel 4 aired eleven races as highlights and ten races live, the additional highlights programme deflating their average slightly.
The highlight of Channel 4’s season was the United States Grand Prix, which averaged 2.55m (11.9%) from 18:00 to 21:15 on October 21st, although that figure was down 8.4 percent year-on-year. After a bright start to 2018, the last third of the season proved to be Channel 4’s nadir.
Throughout 2018, 2.10 million viewers watched the ten races live on Channel 4, a slight dip on the equivalent 2017 figure of 2.13 million viewers. The Belgian Grand Prix leaped significantly year-on-year, jumping by 30.4 percent to its highest free-to-air audience since 2015, largely a result of torrential UK weather during the August Bank Holiday weekend.
At the other end of the live spectrum, the Austrian Grand Prix dropped by 13.2 percent year-on-year because of World Cup fever that gripped the nation, whilst both the Singapore and Japanese rounds dropped by double-digit percentages as Lewis Hamilton gained control of the championship.
Channel 4’s eleven highlights programmes averaged 1.61 million viewers, in-line with last year’s figure of 1.62 million viewers, although the difference is within the margin of error. Spain and Italy were top of the tree for Channel 4 in this respect, both becoming the most watched highlights show since 2015, a remarkable achievement.
Although not quite on the level of Spain and Italy, China also performed well year-on-year, increasing its audience by 23.8 percent. Like with the live audience figures however, as the championship battle slipped away from Sebastian Vettel, so did Channel 4’s viewing figures with a series of poor performances.
Mexico and Brazil struggled badly in late-night time slot, and again the scale of the drops for both races (down by 38.7 percent and 22.8 percent respectively) meant that any early season gains vanished as the season ended for the free-to-air broadcaster.
The Italian round was the last time until Abu Dhabi that Channel 4 managed to increase its average audience compared with 2017, in other words, Channel 4’s average audience dropped year-on-year for six consecutive races. Compared with 2016, Channel 4’s first year covering Formula 1, all three metrics (combined, live and highlights) are down by around five percent.
Across the year, Channel 4’s coverage peaked with 2.63 million viewers, an identical figure to 2017. Their highlights peaked with 2.20 million viewers, a drop on last year’s number of 2.25 million viewers, whilst the ten live races peaked with 3.18 million, a slight increase on the 2017 audience figure of 3.13 million viewers.
Sky’s overnight figures
The audience figures presented for Sky’s Formula 1 coverage on this site consists of a 210-minute time slot, traditionally from the top of the hour before lights out to the start of their Paddock Live show. For 2018, this slot is 13:00 to 16:30, or equivalent for non-European races.
Sky’s audience figures include simulcasts, which is worth bearing in mind. The latter phases of the season saw Sky broadcast several races on their general entertainment channel Sky 1 as well as Sky Sports F1.
An average audience of 669,000 viewers watched Sky’s race day programming throughout the 2018 season, an increase of 2.6 percent on their 2017 average audience of 652,000 viewers.
Eagle eyed readers will clock that 669,000 viewers also watched Sky’s F1 coverage in 2016, but rounding means that 2018 is Sky’s most watched season of Formula 1 since 2014, although it is within the margin of error. 722,000 viewers watched Sky’s exclusive races in 2018, with 611,000 viewers choosing Sky for races that they shared with Channel 4.
For Sky, it is a significant turnaround on their mid-season performance when 2018 was on-track to be their least watched season ever. Although Spain and Monaco increased their audience by over 20 percent year-on-year, five of the first nine races suffered heavy declines.
As with Channel 4 due to the World Cup, Austria’s viewing figures plunged by 27.9 percent, whilst Azerbaijan (which Channel 4 also showed live) dropped by 31.7 percent year-on-year. Australia, Bahrain, and Canada also did not cover themselves in glory, whilst France’s return to the calendar failed to make an impression.
All of this meant a rather torrid outlook heading into July for Sky. Yet, the broadcaster then went to increase their audience figures for seven of the last ten races. Hungary’s audience figure jumped by 46 percent year-on-year, to become Sky’s second-best race of 2018, and one of their most watched European races ever.
Belgium, USA, Mexico, and Abu Dhabi all recorded double-digit increases in the latter half of the season, with only Italy struggling badly. It really was a season of two halves for Sky, slow out the gates, yet bounced back in superb fashion from Hungary onwards.
Since 2016, Sky’s viewing figures have increased in the latter half of the season on every occasion, even when the free-to-air broadcaster has failed to see an increase. Some of this is inevitably down to the placement of the races: Mexico, USA and Brazil are all in the latter half of the season, and all are in prime time viewing hours.
The difference this year between Sky’s mid-season average and the end of season average is the largest it has ever been at 16 percent (577,000 at half way compared with 669,000 at the end), with Sky 1 simulcasts reversing some of the early season damage. Only Sky will know how many viewers watched their Sky 1 output, who never once tuned into the F1 channel.
Another factor inevitably is the football cycle. The F1 season begins in March as the football ramps up to its conclusion, meaning F1 does not get a look in for casual Sky Sports fans until May. This year, the World Cup meant that Sky’s F1 coverage only found itself with a decent audience after the tournament concluded.
Across the year, a peak audience of 1.09 million viewers watched Sky’s coverage, an increase of 5.3 percent year-on-year. The highlight in this respect for Sky was the Mexican Grand Prix, where a peak of 1.87 million viewers watched Hamilton clinch the 2018 championship.
Despite the positive audience figures to round off 2018, it remains a fact that Sky’s F1 coverage has never peaked with more than two million viewers. Will that fact change with exclusive live coverage in 2019?
Overall audience and final thoughts
The margins between 2017 and 2018’s audience figures are relatively fine, with very little difference, perhaps not a surprise considering the way both seasons transpired on the track.
2018 saw a slight shift from Channel 4 to Sky, which makes a large difference to the Sky’s audience figures, but very little difference to Channel 4’s. After all, when both broadcasters aired live coverage of Formula 1, just over three in every four people chose the free-to-air broadcaster.
A combined average audience of 2.51 million viewers watched Formula 1 in 2018 across Channel 4 and Sky, in-line with the 2017 audience of 2.52 million viewers. Nevertheless, rounding means that 2018 is the least watched season of F1 in the UK on record, at least according to overnight viewing figures.
On-demand audience figures are likely to increase the average closer to three million viewers, but does not close the historical gap compared to several years ago when an average of over four million viewers were watching F1 via the traditional television set.
When F1 aired on free-to-air television as highlights in 2018, a combined audience of 2.33 million viewers watched, compared with 2.71 million viewers when F1 aired live on free-to-air television. Both indicators are in the same ballpark as 2017, with little movement.
Only five races jumped or declined significantly (over 15 percent) compared with 2017. Daniel Ricciardo’s victory in the Chinese Grand Prix helped the Shanghai race increase its audience by 19 percent year-on-year, whilst the Belgian Grand Prix surged by 28 percent.
In contrast, the Austrian and Japanese rounds plummeted by 17 and 21 percent respectively, the former clashed with the World Cup, whilst the latter was a victim of Hamilton extending his legs at the top of the championship mountain.
Overall though, the positives and negatives cancel each other out. During the three-year contract between Channel 4 and Sky, Formula 1 has lost on average just over 100,000 viewers, which is peanuts.
The main thing for Formula 1 is that there has not been a continued, sustained decline during the three-year contract. Yes, the initial drop from 2015 to 2016 was significant, but numbers have held up since Channel 4 have come on-board.
However, even with Channel 4 airing highlights in 2019, expect another audience drop. The worry for Formula 1 is the scale of the drop, as any major drop will send the sport towards an average of close to two million viewers, an alarming number for those both inside and outside of the sport.
Is 2019 the year where the general media starts referring to F1 as a “minority sport” within the UK? Will Sky’s viewing figures rise sufficiently next year, and if not, will Sky choose to pull the plug on Channel 4’s highlights contract before 2020? It is all to play for…