Sky Sports have reaped the rewards of a truncated Formula 1 season as the season heads towards its finale in Abu Dhabi, analysis of viewing figures conducted by Motorsport Broadcasting shows.
After a four month delay due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the 2020 season eventually started in Austria on Sunday 5th July.
Since then, a further ten races have taken place across Europe, with six more currently scheduled to take place between now and the middle of December.
Analysis of the first 10 races suggests that Sky’s audience figures have increased significantly, according to consolidated data produced by BARB.
As always, viewing figures below are for the TV set only, excluding on-demand platforms such as Now TV, Sky Go, All 4, as well as those who consume their F1 experience via BBC Radio 5 Live.
Sky’s viewing figures increase…
The pandemic means that year-on-year comparisons are very difficult, however it is still possible to draw some high-level conclusions from the current data points.
During the pandemic world, Sky have split their race day programme into three segments: the pre-race build-up, the race itself, and post-race analysis.
Every race this season has averaged comfortably above one million viewers on the pay TV platform, with 1.20 million viewers tuning into the action on average, an increase by around 17 percent compared to the final position last year.
Last year’s races (excluding build-up and post-race analysis) averaged around 1.02 million viewers, although this figure includes races such as Australia, Singapore, and Mexico.
Removing all Asian and American-based races from the 2019 data set makes little difference, as the Asian and American time-zones races largely off-set each other (Asian races draw low audiences, American races draw higher audiences).
In other words, Sky’s 17 percent increase year-on-year is a true reflection of reality, and not a massaged picture because of the unusual 2020 calendar.
Last year, seven European races struggled to reach one million viewers on Sky. Excluding Britain, last year’s European races stretched from 799,000 viewers (for Spain) to 1.41 million viewers (for Bahrain).
The inaugural Styrian Grand Prix is this year’s nadir for Sky so far at 1.05 million viewers, with the season-opening Austrian Grand Prix hitting a 2020 high of 1.37 million viewers one week earlier, a far smaller spread than previous years.
As well as Austria, the Spanish Grand Prix was Sky’s other big rater so far in 2020, helped by its Sky Sports Main Event simulcast. The race itself averaged 1.33 million viewers, almost double last year’s figure.
Normally, the Barcelona race clashes with the final weekend of the football season, whereas this year’s running in mid-August meant it ran with little sporting opposition compared to usual, boosting numbers.
Pierre Gasly’s shock win in the Italian Grand Prix drew fewer viewers, averaging 1.22 million viewers, however did not enjoy the luxury of also airing live on Main Event.
…helping the overall picture
Overall, Channel 4’s highlights programming has brought in a similar average audience to last year. Excluding Silverstone (which the free-to-air broadcaster covered live), their highlights have averaged 1.75 million viewers on average, including pre- and post-race analysis.
In comparison, highlights of last year’s European races averaged 1.81 million viewers, a slight year-on-year drop, perhaps surprisingly when you consider that Channel 4 are airing a longer race edit compared to twelve months ago.
Last year, highlights of the Monaco and German rounds exceeded two million viewers, a barometer this year’s highlights have yet to hit.
Helped by the chaos in the early phases, highlights of the Tuscan Grand Prix proved to be Channel 4’s high point from a highlights perspective so far this year, averaging 1.99 million viewers.
Overall, an audience just shy of three million viewers on average are watching each race across Sky and Channel 4, peaking with around four million viewers. At its peak, the figures suggest around 1.5 million viewers are watching on Sky, with a further 2.5 million viewers following on Channel 4.
The key overriding message is that Formula 1’s viewing figures have remained incredibly stable throughout the pandemic. Are there lessons to learn for the championship moving forward?
Arguably the pandemic is an excellent opportunity to review the fundamental structure of the Grand Prix calendar, grouping races into clusters and making it easier for fans to follow the championship through the season, boosting audience figures.
Critically for Sky, their viewing figures show no sign of any ‘second season’ dip in the second year covering F1 exclusively, with viewing figures not only increasing for Formula 1, but also increasing for feeder series’ Formula Two and Formula Three.
Viewing figures may drop if, as looks likely, Lewis Hamilton does clinch the championship with a few races to spare, but so far, the picture is looking good.