The first three quarters of 2015 saw a lot of ‘mini stories’, from Formula One Management overhauling their online output to the inaugural Formula E season coming to a successful conclusion. But the events of the last two weeks have set the scene for what looks set to be a busy start to 2016.
A lot is going to unfold over the course of the next three months concerning Channel 4’s Formula 1 coverage. In no particular order, Channel 4’s…
– scheduling (and pick process with Sky Sports)
Each one of those bullet points sets off a new story. Does Channel 4’s line-up have any new faces? Is Channel 4’s scheduling different to that we have seen on the BBC in the past four years since 2012? How will their production fare, will Channel 4 be on location for every race? There are endless number of questions that we do not know the answer to at this stage. The countdown is on until the Australian Grand Prix.
Aside from Channel 4, there will be inevitably be other broadcasting stories in the Formula 1 landscape. With the BBC now back to their pre-2009 coverage level, attention turns to Sky Sports F1’s coverage as Sky enter year five. Over on the social media side, surely 2016 is the year we see Formula One Management launch an official presence on Facebook. “A day late and a dollar short” is the phrase, but FOM cannot afford to be a dollar short with this one.
Elsewhere, there will be the usual articles covering BT Sport’s MotoGP coverage and ITV’s Formula E programming. MotoGP was fantastic this season, and I hope that 2016 is just as good on BT Sport. Formula E looks set to get a boost from season three onwards with Jaguar joining the fray, although the alarmingly low UK viewing figures as of late should be a cause for concern. As for Formula 1, I’m hopeful that the talking in 2016 happens on the track rather than off it as was the case in 2015.
The BBC’s return to Formula 1 has been a rollercoaster ride that began almost eight years ago. Here, The F1 Broadcasting Blog tracks the past eight years, in which the team went to a high never seen before in this country, to a low just four years later…
March 20th, 2008 – It was announced that Formula 1 would be return to BBC television, starting with the 2009 season. It was a five year rights agreement, set to continue through to the end of 2013. Roger Mosey, then Head of BBC Sport, said: “…we’re absolutely delighted F1 will be back on the BBC this time next year.”
November 24th, 2008 – Rider and Blundell out, Humphrey, Jordan and Coulthard in. The BBC were keen to bring fresh faces to their coverage, and they made their intentions clear towards the end of 2008. Alongside the trio at the head of BBC’s coverage, it was announced that Jonathan Legard would lead the commentary, replacing James Allen, with Martin Brundle joining from ITV. Meanwhile, behind the scenes in production, the BBC were already realising what a financial error this new Formula 1 deal was going to be. I quote Steve Rider’s book: “When [senior BBC producer] was told there would not be much change out of £8 or £9 million [in production costs] there was silence, then ‘Oh shit…’, and the line went dead.”
February 24th, 2009 – The BBC confirm their coverage plans for the 2009 season, including every practice session live and a one-hour interactive forum after each race, both behind the Red Button service.
March 4th, 2009 – Called “The World’s Greatest Car Chase”, the BBC unveiled their pre-season trailer, with that famous bass riff at the end…
March 26th and 27th, 2009 – Every session live, with one hour build-ups and a ton of reaction. Formula 1 had returned to the BBC, with Jenson Button winning in style. A peak audience of nearly seven million viewers watched across live and repeat.
July 25th, 2009 – Probably the first real low point of BBC’s Grand Prix coverage. Immediately following the crash of Felipe Massa during the Hungarian Grand Prix the team, notably Jordan, discussed Massa’s condition, with Jordan speculating about ‘rumours’ that he had heard minutes after the crash happened.
November 1st, 2009 – BBC’s first season came to a successful conclusion with the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix. From a personnel perspective, the team was well received, the exception being Legard, however the decision was made to retain him for the 2010 season.
July 11th, 2010 – The production team consolidated what they had in 2009 with more fantastic features airing during the 2010 season. Viewing figures increased, and notably the team stayed live on BBC One until 15:40 during the British Grand Prix. Over two million viewers stayed with them during the hour of post-race analysis on BBC One (excluding the forum that followed!), showing how much the audience liked and appreciated the BBC coverage. The trio of Humphrey, Coulthard and Jordan quickly built rapport with each other and it showed on air. It was clear that Formula 1 in the UK was heading into a golden age…
January 11th, 2011 – As good as BBC’s coverage was, it was clear that something was not quite right with the commentary team. The decision was made at the beginning of 2011 to remove Legard from the team, with Coulthard now co-commentating alongside Brundle. It was a marked departure from the usual set-up, with now two ex-racers commentating on the action.
June 12th, 2011 – “He’s gone wide, he’s gone wide! Button leads the Grand Prix!” Just two hours earlier, they were talking about ducks floating in the water. Of course, it could only be the Canadian Grand Prix, probably one of the best races I have watched. A peak audience of 8.5 million watched on the BBC, as the dramatic race tore up BBC’s primetime schedules. Their coverage was flying high. Sebastian Vettel may have been dominant, but viewing figures were still soaring. BBC’s F1 coverage was on top of the world. And then…
July 29th, 2011 – BBC and Sky awarded rights in new Formula 1 deal. The deal had been done. The costly error not to negotiate with Formula One Management three years earlier, plus the new licence fee settlement meant that half the races from 2012 would be aired exclusively live on pay television, an irreversible move. At the time, Barbara Slater, director of BBC Sport, said: “We are absolutely delighted that F1 will remain on the BBC. The sport has never been more popular with TV audiences at a 10-year high and the BBC has always stated its commitment to the big national sporting moments. With this new deal not only have we delivered significant savings but we have also ensured that through our live and extended highlights coverage all the action continues to be available to licence-fee payers.”
July 29th, 2011 – Martin Brundle on Twitter: “BBC/Sky/F1 2012+. Found out last night, no idea how it will work yet I’m out of contract, will calmly work through options Not impressed”
January 12th, 2012 – With Sky taking Brundle and Kravitz from BBC’s TV team, the BBC regrouped. Veteran motor sport voice Ben Edwards led the way alongside Coulthard in the commentary box, with former Jordan technical director Gary Anderson joining the team as analyst.
March 17th and 18th, 2012 – A new era began. The 2012 Australian Grand Prix was broadcast exclusively live on Sky’s new Formula 1 channel to a peak audience of just over one million viewers. The BBC aired an extended highlights programme later that day in a two-hour timeslot. One aspect which frustrated fans to begin with was the lack of forum for non-highlight races. One of the best aspects of BBC’s programming had disappeared.
December 21st, 2012 – It was announced that Suzi Perry would become the new presenter of BBC’s Formula 1 coverage, following in the footsteps of Steve Rider, Jim Rosenthal and Humphrey. Perry said: “I am so excited to be joining the BBC. Working alongside such an eminent team and the F1 world is a huge honour and I can’t wait to get started.” The low-key addition of Tom Clarkson (a relative unknown) halfway through 2012 meant that arguably BBC’s team was stronger than ever before, despite not covering every race live.
Summer 2013 – I described the BBC team “as close to the perfect time as you would find” and that their programming is “still up there with the best.” Therefore, the very next point makes perfect sense.
January 13th, 2014 – Understanding your audience is important. In a move that baffles me to this day, the news was broken on this blog that Gary Anderson and the BBC had parted company. We found out later that, according to Anderson, the BBC thought viewers were not interested in technical analysis. Tom Clarkson filled Anderson’s role throughout 2014 and 2015. As good as Clarkson is, the move to reduce Anderson’s input was not well thought through and in the end resulted in something that no one benefited from. 72 percent of you believed that BBC’s Formula 1 coverage needs a technical expert.
November 19th, 2015 – Multiple reports stated that the BBC went to Bernie Ecclestone in his Kensington office to renegotiate the financial side of their contract. It was reported that Ecclestone declined any offer the BBC made to him.
November 29th, 2015 – Unbeknown to the viewing public at the time, the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix aired for what would be the last live race under the current contract on the BBC.
December 17th, 2015 – Broadcast reported that ITV will broadcast Formula 1 from 2016.
December 21st, 2015 – A press release officially confirms BBC’s departure from Formula 1 after covering the sport for seven seasons.
The youngest line-up on the grid in 2015 of Max Verstappen and Carlos Sainz not only made an impact on the track, but they also made an impact off it as Toro Rosso jumped up the social media standings. Analysis from The F1 Broadcasting Blog shows that, across Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, the team is close to overtaking Sauber whilst recording higher increases than the likes of Williams and Lotus since July. That was not the only social media story in the latter half of 2015.
Overall, the 2015 Formula One season was disastrous for McLaren, with an unreliable Honda engine down on power affecting their performance throughout the season. Their social media highlight was generated by the average fan from off the street. #PlacesAlonsoWouldRatherBe quickly became a trend following the Brazilian Grand Prix qualifying session and was a moment of light relief during what was a sombre weekend due to events outside of the paddock. McLaren’s performance on the track hurt their social media following off the circuit. McLaren started the Summer with 4.37 million accounts following them across the three main social media platforms, climbing to 4.71 million accounts as the season came to a close, an increase of 7.6 percent. Only Mercedes, Manor and Lotus recorded a lower percentage increase during the second half of 2015, showing that McLaren’s poor on track performance had a negative impact when it came to a social media meaning that they were unable to further exploit the McLaren brand name.
Mercedes’ percentage increase of 6.0 percent is the lowest of any team in the field, but when you’re coming from a high user base in the first place, a lower percentage increase than the midfield teams should be expected. An increase from 11.90 million to 12.61 million accounts following their activities is still a sizeable increase for the Brixworth based team. McLaren’s poor performance not only affected the brand following, but also adversely affected Fernando Alonso and Jenson Button’s following. Button’s following increased 9.9 percent compared with the Summer, however Alonso’s percentage increased only 3.9 percent, from a combined audience of 4.00 million to 4.16 million. Those are not good numbers for what is supposed to be one of Formula 1’s biggest drivers, and is further proof of why Formula 1 needs a successful McLaren as soon as feasibly possible.
Is Max Verstappen the future?
Alonso’s raw increase of 156,000 from July to December was the eighth highest in the field, again across Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Up front you had Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg, the latter recording an increase of a whopping 1.21 million followers largely due to a huge uplift in Instagram numbers. Hamilton’s numbers will only surge further as he tries to break America. Behind the Mercedes drivers you had Button, Daniel Ricciardo and Felipe Massa. No major surprises there, Ricciardo continung to get a boost from his fantastic 2014 season. In sixth position, and ahead of Alonso, enter Verstappen. At the half-way stage of the 2015 season, a combined audience of 247,000 were following Verstappen’s activities. That number climbed to 479,000, a whopping increase of 94.1 percent! Facebook led the way from a percentage perspective for Verstappen, increasing from 57,000 to 118,000. Of course, these numbers are miniscle in comparison to Lewis Hamilton, whose increase of 1.21 million since the Summer dwarfed the majority of the field. But a year or two from now? If Verstappen continues to perform on the circuit, then who knows. Based on the latter half of this season, I would expect Verstappen’s combined audience to quickly surpass one million in early-2016.
We should not forget Carlos Sainz, Jnr and the Toro Rosso team as a whole in the Verstappen puzzle. In the second half of 2015, Sainz’s following has increased 44.6 percent from 273,000 to 395,000. The reason Sainz has fallen behind Verstappen is because the Dutchman has surged ahead on Facebook, whereas Sainz’s increase since the Summer has been relatively slow in comparison. Toro Rosso is the only big surprise from a team perspective, jumping by 282,000 followers from July to December, an increase of 44.8 percent. I suspect as soon as either Verstappen or Sainz switch teams then Toro Rosso’s following will stagnate again. Either way, they have made enough of an impression to climb over the back of Sauber’s gearbox and has, for the moment, given them an identity.
All social media outlets have grown in size and stature versus July, but it was Instagram who jumped the biggest, with their Formula 1 reach growing from a cumulative total of 5.34 million to 8.57 million, an increase of over three million accounts. As a result, Instagram’s Formula 1 market share on social media increased from 9.0 percent to 12.8 percent at the expense of both Facebook and Twitter. Bear in mind that all numbers presented in this piece are a combined count, there is no way to work out distinct people across different social media sites. What we do know is that 2.29 million people follow Lewis Hamilton on Instagram, so the distinct count of accounts that follow F1 related accounts on Instagram is probably around the ~5 million range.
We come to the end of another season though where I place the URL https://www.facebook.com/F1 in the middle of a post and I get the result “Page not found.” To see that heading into 2016 is immensely disappointing and frustrating. Why there is such a barrier towards creating exciting, innovative and groudbreaking content for Facebook users, I do not know. We knew Facebook would come later than Twitter and Instagram in terms of content, Marissa Pace, part of the Formula One Digital Media team told us that this time last year. And at a time when Formula 1’s viewing figures are dropping as the population exploits new and emerging technologies, having a presence on Facebook is more critical in my opinion than ever before. The now infamous #SepangClash between Valentino Rossi and Marc Marquez during this year’s MotoGP championship was viewed 15 million times on Facebook. You cannot buy numbers like that, and you cannot let opportunities like that slip through your figures. The longer Formula One Management waits to exploit Facebook, the harder their task becomes, it is as simple as that. #SepangClash was also a fantastic example of on the spot thinking from Dorna’s social media team, instantly creating that hashtag to drive conversation across every platform: TV and online. It was successful, and it kept MotoGP in the spotlight between Sepang and Valencia. Something for F1 to learn should a big on-track clash occur in 2016.
Whilst Facebook is yet to come, the team at FODM have done some fantastic work creating content for both Twitter and Instagram. Really, this season has been what you should expect from those platforms, with discussion based talking points, fan voting and video content being posted, the video content in conjunction with SnappyTV. Understandably, there has not been video content posted ‘live’ yet given the agreements FOM have with broadcasters’. Over on YouTube, archive footage is the clear winner, something that is became more apparent as the season progressed. This reminds me of when BBC returned to Formula 1 in 2009. Fans made it clear to the BBC that they wanted archive footage, and the same message is being put to FOM now.
The question for FOM going into 2016 has to be, how do they exploit their archive without treading on broadcasters’ toes? Of course, FOM own any footage filmed inside a race track, but putting extensive archive highlights online may rub broadcasters’ up the wrong way. I do think there is middle ground though, and certainly one that should be investigated. I think there is a market for creating 20 minute highlight packages of past classic races for the YouTube market. All of FOM’s videos so far have been ‘bite size’, clocking in at under five minutes. The benefit of creating longer highlights packages now of archive races will help them later, if they were to go down the ‘F1 Network‘ route sometime. Again, with viewing figures from the traditional viewing methods dropping, the potential for an over the top network has to be considered within the next few years.
In terms of their social media following, Formula One Management’s two accounts on Instagram and Twitter respectively have increased from a combined audience of 1.71 million in July to 2.36 million, an increase of 37.7 percent. In comparison to the teams (see the first figure in this post), that is a huge increase and shows how important it is for FOM to have a profile on social media. Instagram is the main factor in the increase, jumping 395,000 followers despite a much lower base than Twitter. The good news is that Formula 1 teams, drivers and media are exploiting Instagram more than previously, and that is replicated in the numbers. Whilst Formula One Management smashed into social media in March, at the same time the team also relaunched the official Formula 1 website. The relaunch seems to have been successful, the old version of the website let us not forget was horrendously behind the times from what you would expect out of a modern-day site.
The biggest part of the website relaunch was F1 Access. The main difficulty in the early days was that the website version of F1 Access failed to link to the app version of F1 Access. To be honest, I have not purchased F1 Access. I know it is only £2.29 a month, but as of writing I haven’t heard anyone shout from the rooftops about it. Is there anything in F1 Access that, as a fan, I desperately need to get my hands on? I suspect not, and until there is a compelling reason for me to subscribe to F1 Access, I can’t see myself subscribing anytime soon. Looking ahead to 2016, I think FOM to some degree can continue to do what they are currently doing on Twitter and Instagram. Some exploration needed in relation to YouTube, and a kick-start needed on Facebook sooner rather than later.
Normally British success in sport leads to an increase in television audiences for that particular event. In Formula 1, over the past eighteen months, the opposite appears to have occurred. Based on unofficial overnight viewing figures, the 2015 Formula One season recorded the lowest average audience since the 2007 season. Lewis Hamilton’s and Mercedes’s dominance has not had the intended effect.
> BBC records lowest average in modern times > Sky average drops back to 2013 level > Only two out of last eight races increased year-on-year
As I have done in previous years, it is worth re-iterating what exactly the numbers represent for those of you that are new to the blog. For Sky Sports F1, all viewing figures are for the three and a half hour race day slot. This covers the ‘Pit Lane Live’ and ‘Race’ segments in the EPG, the reason for this is to allow a fair comparison year-on-year. As thus, the equivalent slots are used for 2012, 2013 and 2014 to present a transparent picture and so the viewing figures presented are not misleading. Numbers also include any Sky simulcasts on Sky Sports 1, where applicable. For the BBC, the figures are all programme averages, irrespective of whether the programme was live or in highlights form, and irrespective of channel. Repeats are accounted for where Asian-based races were covered by the BBC live. As always, viewing figures do not include over the top methods of viewing such as BBC iPlayer and Sky Go.
The 2015 story
The trajectory that the 2015 season took is largely similar to that from two years ago. In my Summer post, I stated that 2015 was up on 2012 and 2014, but down on 2013. In 2013, the dominance of Sebastian Vettel sent audiences tumbling. In 2015, it is the dominance of Mercedes that appears to have a profound effect on viewing figures.
Sky Sports F1’s race day programme has averaged 638k from 12:00 to 15:30, or equivalent this season. That number is down 19.3 percent on 2014’s figure and down 0.4 percent on 2013’s figure of 640k. 2015’s average is also down 10.3 percent on 2012’s average of 711k. By a margin of around two thousand viewers, Sky’s average Formula 1 viewing figures are at their lowest level since they joined the sport in 2012. Given that the gap between 2013 and 2015 is only two thousand viewers, I’m reluctant to read too much into it as two thousand viewers is within the margin of error.
So what has happened here? In essence, any gain that Sky made last season has disappeared. A near 20 percent drop in viewers is bad, whichever way you look at it. There is perhaps some knowledge to be gained in stating that Sky’s numbers are back at 2013 levels when you consider both season’s followed similar patterns on the track. Whilst Sky was no doubt hampered by some races starting earlier, it is a fact that only four races increased year-on-year: Spain (+5.0%), Austria (+4.4%), Britain (+27.3%) and Italy (+7.5%). Twelve races recorded double digit drops compared with 2014, including the US Grand Prix which dropped 15.3 percent. That is not good and is a stark contrast to this time last year. The comparisons include the relevant Sky Sports 1 simulcasts for this year. I think Sky’s drop is a combination of the on-tract action being resolved early this year and also viewer apathy towards the product that Sky Sports have been putting out this year.
The BBC’s figures have dropped year-on-year by 3.6 percent, recording an average of 3.11m. It is their lowest average under this current deal, and therefore their lowest since the BBC returned to the sport in 2009. 2014 averaged 3.22m, whilst 2013 averaged 3.42m. At a time when the BBC’s current coverage is under threat, any drop does not make for good reading. However, eleven races actually increased their average audience compared with 2014. The biggest gainers were Bahrain (+60.9% – BBC showed highlights in 2014), Britain (+28.6%) and Austria (+27.0%). The reason that BBC’s average number is down is because of Mexico, a low-rating highlights race, plus the fact that three races lost over a quarter of their audience year-on-year (Singapore, Japan and Abu Dhabi). Undoubtedly, BBC’s biggest problem, and one of the major flaws in this current contract was that Lewis Hamilton’s championship victory was not screened live on free-to-air television.
An eight year low in the TV same day world
The combined average of 3.74m is down 6.7 percent on 2014’s 4.01m, down 7.3 percent on 2013’s 4.06m and down 4.5 percent on 2012’s 3.92m. For the first time since the current rights agreement between BBC and Sky started, both channels dropped year-on-year based on overnight viewing figures. Last year I commented on the closeness of the figures from 2012 to 2014. 2015 has dipped below that line as it were, meaning this season sits between 2007 and 2008 in the popularity stakes. Considering Formula 1 has a British world champion, the idea that viewing figures have dropped to an eight year low in the UK may be considered alarming to those within the sport.
The most watched race in 2015 was the Canadian Grand Prix which averaged 5.35m, whilst the season ending Abu Dhabi Grand Prix falls at the opposite end of the spectrum with 2.61m. As I noted earlier, all the numbers exclude online viewing, including iPlayer, Sky Go and Now TV. Including those methods of viewing would send 2015 above 2008’s average of 3.94m, but I would be surprised if it made much of a difference year-on-year, unless there has been drastic changes of viewing habits to more online methods from Grand Prix fans. If people are changing their viewing habits in relation to Formula 1, the question is why. There is always a reason if habits have changed, a live viewer does not become an on-demand viewer for an event which should be viewed live without a good reason.
It would be amiss I feel to write off 2015 as saying “well, online would increase numbers”. To do so would ignore the bigger picture. Formula 1 has well documented issues on and off the track at the moment concerning the spectacle the sport is presenting. One team dominating is historically a turn off for the casual viewer. Ferrari’s dominance in the mid 2000s led to a worldwide switch off (Germany and Italy aside). If the dominance of Mercedes is leading to the same pattern, then you have to be concerned. The casual viewer does not want to watch one team dominating. You can’t punish dominance, of course you can’t. But it does not help when that same team appears to be anti-racing, repeatedly. That is a switch off. Maybe you could blame Lewis Hamilton himself as the reason for the decline, in that he is in BBC’s and Sky’s coverage too much, and there is an argument that features with him as the main attraction do not move television ratings at the moment.
Heading into 2016
A dominant Mercedes or not, Formula 1 needs three things in 2016 if viewing figures are to move in a positive direction. A resurgent McLaren. Formula 1 cannot have two world champions at the back of the field. Fernando Alonso and Jenson Button should be near the front, competing for points and podiums, week in, week out. Secondly, Ferrari to challenge Mercedes. We did see flashes of it at the start of this season, but nothing ever materialised, aside from Singapore.
From a media perspective, Lewis Hamilton versus Sebastian Vettel writes itself. We never quite got it when Vettel was at Red Bull, plus other drivers were involved in the championship battle too. Hamilton versus Vettel, Mercedes vs Ferrari. It is something the casual audience would watch and become invested in. One of the reasons why 2011 was the most watched season in the modern era was not only because of Vettel, but because of Hamilton’s on-track duels with Felipe Massa. We need to see Hamilton versus Vettel, and I hope we see that in 2016. It would draw audiences, not only in the UK but in Germany too. In my opinion, Hamilton vs Nico Rosberg is not something the general public are interested in and the viewing figures reflect that.
Lastly, Formula 1 needs the BBC. Formula 1 needs the BBC more than the BBC needs Formula 1. The BBC could replace Formula 1 with repeats on a Sunday afternoon and claim one million viewers, whereas Formula 1 would need to find a new home on ITV or Channel 4, to a significantly reduced audience, more so on the latter. I’ll finish this piece with a quote from David Coulthard: “My personal view is that if F1 allows itself to lose free-to-air television coverage in the UK, it will not only affect the popularity of the sport, and by extension the teams’ ability to raise money to compete, but it will also reduce its exposure to the next generations of engineers and mechanics. F1 has inspired people to enter a workforce that numbers tens of thousands of people – the drivers are just the lucky ones at the end of the rainbow.”