As the first round of the 2019 World Rally Championship concludes in Monte Carlo, it looks increasingly unlikely that the championship will have a presence on free-to-air television in the United Kingdom this season, this site can reveal.
The championship has enjoyed mixed success in the UK over the years. The series was a mainstay on BBC’s Grandstand in the 1990’s, before moving over to Channel 4 and then ITV1 in the early 2000’s. Viewing figures dropped off as the series switched from ITV1 to ITV4 in 2007, and then onto Dave one-year later.
Audiences continued to slip on Dave, leading to the championship’s exit from free-to-air television beginning with the 2011 season, arguably its lowest ebb. It was not long before WRC returned to free-to-air television however, ITV4 picking up the action from the third round of the 2013 season. Liking what they saw, Channel 5 snatched the rights at the start of 2016, airing highlights in the week following the event at 19:00.
However, sources close to the situation have told this site that there will be no extension to the Channel 5 deal. It is the second time in recent months that Channel 5 have not renewed one of their motor racing contracts (either through choice or not), the first being Formula E last November.
Since moving to Channel 5, an average audience of around 300,000 viewers have watched the WRC highlights programme, according to overnight viewing figures supplied by Overnights.tv. In 2016, an audience of 337k (1.8%) watched highlights, but figures have dipped in the past two seasons to 275k (1.5%) and 281k (1.6%) respectively.
Although the viewing figures are much higher than what WRC attracted than when the series was not on free-to-air television, the viewing figures are below Channel 5’s average audience in that slot. Perhaps crucially, WRC’s figures are below what MotoGP has attracted in the same slot in recent years, the bike series regularly attracting more than 400,000 viewers.
It is currently unknown if MotoGP highlights will air on Channel 5 this season. It may be that Channel 5’s bosses have simply fallen out with motor sport and have decided to head in a different direction rather than WRC wanting to seek other alternatives.
I understand that WRC’s organisers are happy with their new multi-year contract with BT Sport, and that a new deal with a free-to-air broadcaster currently looks unlikely. Of course, that is subject to change, as we saw in 2013 when ITV4’s deal kicked in from round three onwards.
Aside from BT Sport, and WRC’s over-the-top All Live platform, the free alternative online is Red Bull TV which has highlights of each day on their website, and has had for many years.
As fantastic as these platforms are, in my opinion the sport still needs that one-hour free-to-air television shop window for those viewers who want to dip in and out of the action throughout the season. If the championship does not secure a slot soon on one of the main Freeview channels, I will be very surprised.
But, for the moment, rallying is again without a free-to-air home in the UK. Both Channel 5 and WRC were unable to offer further comment.