Formula 1’s television audience in the United Kingdom has dropped by between five and ten percent compared with the first half of 2018, analysis conducted by Motorsport Broadcasting suggests.
2019 heralds the start of a new era for F1 in the UK, after Sky Sports snatched exclusive rights to the championship back in 2016, in a deal that lasts until the end of 2024. The broadcaster sub-let the free-to-air element of their contract to Channel 4, in a one-year deal. The free-to-air element covers highlights of every race, as well as live coverage of the British Grand Prix.
Now in their eighth season, Sky have cemented their status in the F1 paddock as one of the sport’s main broadcasters. But how have viewing figures stacked up in the first half of 2019 compared to last year?
Overnight viewing figures
Traditionally at this point, Motorsport Broadcasting would use the UK overnight viewing figures data to generate averages across several years, using the data for comparative purposes. Unfortunately, as of April, due to circumstances beyond Motorsport Broadcasting’s control, this site no longer has access to that data.
To continue to access overnight data would cost a significant amount, and is not a viable option financially for an independent writer. Instead, we must now rely on a limited amount of consolidated audience data via the BARB website.
Overnight audience figures, known in the industry as Live + VOSDAL (live and ‘video on same day as live’), are released the day after transmission, whereas consolidated audience figures include viewers who watched via the TV set within seven days of broadcast, and exclude commercial breaks.
Therefore, the consolidated audience figures in this piece cannot be compared to overnight audience data elsewhere on this site.
The consolidated data in this piece covers the TV set only, to allow for fair and accurate comparisons with 2018. The figures exclude viewers who are watching via on-demand platforms, such as All 4, Sky Go and Now TV, which is likely to make up a larger portion of Formula 1’s audience than in previous years.
Although Motorsport Broadcasting no longer has access to overnight audience figures, I still intend to present a fair and accurate picture of Formula 1 viewing figures in the UK, as increasingly difficult as that becomes over the months ahead.
The analysis in this article covers the first eleven races of the season, meaning that the Hungarian Grand Prix is excluded.
In 2018, Channel 4 aired five of the first eleven rounds live, with the remaining six airing in highlights form. Now in its new contract with Sky, only one of the first eleven rounds have aired live this season, that being the British Grand Prix.
The free-to-air broadcaster splits their live race day programming into three blocks: build-up, the race itself and post-race reaction.
To present a fair comparison between live and highlights, this site uses the first two portions to generate a weighted average. For ease of analysis, we assume that Channel 4’s build-up is 40 minutes long, with 160 minutes for the race segment.
Channel 4’s programming in the first half of 2019 averaged 1.71 million viewers a decrease of 18.4 percent on the equivalent 2018 figure of 2.10 million viewers, a loss of 387,000 viewers on average.
On a like-for-like basis, Channel 4’s six highlights programmes in 2018 averaged 1.93 million viewers, compared with 1.68 million viewers for their ten highlights programmes so far in 2019, a decrease of 12.8 percent, or 247,000 viewers.
There are two main factors as to why Channel 4’s audience has dropped by between 10 and 20 percent, depending on the metric you use. The first is simply that a portion of Channel 4’s audience has shifted to Sky since 2018 (see below).
However, the make-up of Channel 4’s highlights has changed since 2018, due to restrictions imposed on them by Sky. A two-hour programme, with less on-track action will inevitably result in a lower average audience for the entire programme. A portion of the audience only cares about the on-track action and will skip over the chatter.
2019 started on a painful note for Channel 4, with four of the opening five races recording drops of over 30 percent. It is no coincidence that the first three races also aired live on Sky’s general entertainment channel Sky One, suggesting that Sky’s move did significant damage to Channel 4’s audience in the early phase of the season.
The scale of the year-on-year drop has diminished as the season headed towards the Summer break, but only two races have increased their audience year-on-year on Channel 4. France (up 20.2 percent) and Austria (up 3.8 percent) recorded poor numbers in 2018 due to the FIFA World Cup.
A spectacular German Grand Prix proved to be Channel 4’s highlight in the first half of 2019, averaging 2.10 million viewers, but even that was down by 16.3 percent year-on-year.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, 1.20 million viewers watched the Canadian Grand Prix in a late-night 23:00 time slot which, although it is their lowest number of the year, is a respectable figure, and down a relatively small 5.1 percent year-on-year.
Ten out of the first eleven races in 2019 aired exclusively live on Sky. That, combined with a huge pre-season advertising campaign, means an increase in Sky’s audience figures is expected. But, has the pay television broadcaster clawed back the loss that Channel 4 has made, or do we end up with a net loss overall?
As highlighted above, Sky aired the first three races of 2019 on Sky One to try to attract further subscribers to Sky Sports F1. As in 2018, Sky split their programming into four blocks: Pit Lane Live, On the Grid, the race itself and Paddock Live.
Calculating a three-and-a-half-hour average, as this site has historically done, is impossible without access to detailed five-minute breakdowns. Instead, we will use the whole of On the Grid (35 minutes in length) and the race itself (around 135 minutes), using those figures to produce a weighted average per race.
Unfortunately, the data on BARB’s website for Sky’s F1 programming is incomplete, with the following data points missing:
- Australia – Sky Sports Main Event [On the Grid]
- China – Sky Sports Main Event [On the Grid]
- Monaco – Sky One [both]
- Canada – Sky Sports F1 [both]
- Britain – Sky One [both]
- Australia – Sky One [both]; Sky Sports Main Event [On the Grid]
- Bahrain – Sky One [On the Grid]
- China – Sky One [both]; Sky Sports Main Event [On the Grid]
- Germany – Sky Sports Main Event [both]
I appreciate this is far from ideal, but it cannot be helped, without paying to access the missing data points.
You might argue that, without these data points, analysis of Sky’s data is meaningless. I would argue in response that writing an analytical article on Channel 4’s viewing figures without mentioning Sky’s own figures only paints one side of the story, and is also meaningless without accounting for the wider context.
Of course, the analysis from this point forward should be treated with a degree of caution. But I would rather write about it and let an informed debate happen, instead of choosing not to publish an article at all.
Based on the published consolidated data, a weighted average of at least 782,000 viewers have watched Sky’s F1 programming in 2019, covering both On the Grid and the race itself, an increase of 27.7 percent, or 170,000 viewers, on the 2018 figure of 612,000 viewers.
The averages above include simulcasts where BARB have reported the data, and excludes Canada, as there is no 2018 data available. Sky’s 2019 audience figures are likely to be significantly higher when accounting for the missing 2019 data.
On balance, the average audience for Sky One’s simulcasts of Australia and China, plus Sky Sports Main Event’s coverage from Germany, will have a greater impact than the two Sky One simulcasts in 2018 (when both races also aired live on Channel 4).
We know that Sky One did very well for the opening rounds (although Australia and China failed to make Sky One’s top 15 in the respective weeks), whilst Germany will add a few hundred thousand viewers on Sky Sports Main Event (for which there is no data for that week).
The Bahrain Grand Prix has been Sky’s highlight of the season so far. Airing across Sky Sports F1 and Sky One, the race itself averaged 1.41 million viewers, a figure double last year’s Sky F1-only figure of 713,000 viewers.
Close behind, a controversial Canadian Grand Prix averaged 1.38 million viewers for the race segment across Sky’s F1 channel and Sky Sports Main Event. More impressively, Sky’s Paddock Live segment for Canada averaged 370,000 viewers from 21:25 to 22:00, one of their highest ever figures for the post-race show.
What can we decipher?
Based on the data we have available publicly, Channel 4’s coverage averaged 1.71 million viewers during the first half of 2019, a decrease of 387,000 viewers year-on-year. Sky’s coverage has averaged 782,000 viewers, an increase of 170,000 viewers (ignoring Canada).
Last year, the split between Channel 4 and Sky was 77:23, compared with 69:31 this year, both in Channel 4’s favour.
Combined, an average audience of at least 2.50 million viewers have watched Formula 1 so far in 2019, compared with 2.71 million viewers in 2018, a decrease of 217,000 viewers, or 8.0 percent. The decrease year-on-year is likely to be smaller than that, given the missing data points for Sky.
If we are to assume:
- Sky One’s 2019 simulcasts of Australia and China averaged 200,000 viewers each
- Sky Sports Main Event’s 2019 simulcast of Germany averaged 300,000 viewers
- Sky One’s 2018 simulcasts of Britain and Monaco averaged 150,000 viewers each
This would bring Sky’s average up to 837,000 viewers, an excellent increase of 201,000 viewers year-on-year. It would bring the combined average audience up to 2.55 million viewers, compared with 2.74 million viewers twelve months ago, a year-on-year decrease of 185,000 viewers, or 6.8 percent.
Whichever way you cut it, Formula 1’s viewing figures in the UK have dropped year-on-year. Whilst any drop is disappointing, the decrease is less than 10 percent, and could well be closer to 5 percent when including all the consolidated data.
Yes, the headline figures are down, but in the context of the changing television landscape and the new television deal, the figures are not actually that bad.
Formula 1 cannot be complacent though; the sport needs to work with broadcasters to try to stop the audience decline. An extension to Channel 4’s highlights package for 2020 is needed to keep the free-to-air, mass audience shop window open.
Research from UK’s telecommunications authority Ofcom, released on August 7th, showed that whilst traditional television viewing is still top dog, viewing is falling at a “slightly faster rate” than in previous years, which Ofcom attributes to “the changing habits and preferences of viewers.”
According to Ofcom, around half of UK homes now subscriber to at least one streaming service, whilst young people spend an hour a day on YouTube. With F1 now releasing highlights in a variety of formats across social media, it is inevitable that their television audience figures for non-live programming will be hit harder as a result.
What we have not mentioned at all so far in this piece is the impact that the on-track action can have on audience figures. Formula 1 has had a fantastic period on-track heading into the Summer break, with thrillers in Austria, Britain, Germany, and Hungary.
But what 2019 lacks that 2018 had is the championship battle up-front, and that could be a turn off for television viewers as the season heads into the final half, beginning with the Belgian Grand Prix in two weeks’ time.