Looking ahead to 2018

Heading into 2018, there are several stories which promise to keep bubbling away during the next twelve months, some of which have significant relevance to UK readers.

new look Formula 1 will greet fans at the start of the 2018 season, both on and off the track. On track, we say hello to the Halo. Will the introduction of the cockpit protection system cause a ratings drop worldwide for F1, or will audiences continue to be enticed by the machinery on offer?

Off the track, F1 unveiled its new branding at the end of the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, which will be rolled out across all forms of media at the start of 2018. How will fans react to the new visual on-screen look? Friendly, more playful is the intention, we wait to see if fans like what they see come Melbourne, if not earlier.

Also, Formula 1’s new over-the-top services are highly anticipated, which should launch in a number of countries. Sean Bratches publicly confirmed the service during the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix weekend, but early 2018 will see firm details unveiled, such as pricing and content. Will an entry level tariff allow F1 to reach new fans and markets? Will the platform make a noise to start with if the initial user base with access is low?

With an over-the-top network comes personnel. Will Formula One Management poach personnel from their existing broadcasters’, or bring new pundits into the sport? Will we see the likes of Will Buxton and Jason Swales (both part of NBC’s former F1 line-up) play a part?

In the UK, as readers are aware, Sky Sports hold exclusive television rights from 2019 to 2024, marking a significant shift in the market. However, is there appetite from them to sublet a highlights-only package to a free-to-air station, allowing Formula 1 to continue to reach the masses? As it stands, 2018 will be Channel 4’s third and last season covering Formula 1.

We should also in the first half of 2018 find out which UK broadcaster will air MotoGP from 2019 onwards. BT Sport’s contract expires at the end of 2018. They are expected to retain the rights, but it is not a nailed on certainty, and Eurosport could still steal back the premier motorcycling sport.

So many questions unanswered as we head into 2018. If you love your broadcasting news, do not change the channel…


Rosberg highlights strong end to 2017 for Sky’s F1 coverage

Gone are the days of Sky being the new kids on the block. 2017 marked Sky Sports’ sixth season covering Formula 1. Simon Lazenby again led the presentation team, alongside the likes of David Croft, Ted Kravitz and Martin Brundle, a situation that has remained status quo since 2012. But, has Sky’s coverage improved since their early years?

Regular readers of this site will know that I have been critical of Sky’s Formula 1 coverage historically past from time to time. Like everything in life, you have your difficult periods, the times where you need to regroup and refocus. Sky launched their F1 channel at the beginning of 2012, but efficiency savings have restricted what the channel can offer in recent years. Sky axed the studio editions of The F1 Show, whilst F1 Legends is currently on a hiatus.

The savings inevitably have had a downstream effect on the weekend product that Sky’s F1 team could offer to viewers. However, the latter half of 2017 saw a notable uptick in the quality of Sky’s broadcasts, with emphasis on taking viewers behind the scenes, with a fresher punditry line-up complimenting their coverage.

Access all areas
The reasons for the quality increase are likely two-fold. As noted recently, there have been changes at the top of the Sky F1 hierarchy, with their Executive Producer Martin Turner retiring. In situations like this, new creative talent rises to the top and fresh ideas generally come to the forefront, which may be the case here. That is not to dismiss the excellent work that happened previously, merely to acknowledge that changes at a senior level influences those further down the food chain.

In addition, Liberty Media’s takeover of Formula 1 may have loosened the red tape where broadcasters are concerned. It is unusual that, in year six of Sky’s coverage, a burst of creativity emerged. The impact of Liberty’s takeover means that broadcasters can be more creative in their overall output, and the viewer wins as a result.

Following the Summer break, Sky teamed up with Sauber, filming their every move from Spa Francorchamps to Monza between the Belgium and Italian races. The aim was to show how Formula 1’s teams transport equipment between races. Billed as ‘The Race Between Races’, a short VT aired during Sky’s weekend output, whilst a feature-length 30-minute episode aired prior to the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.

But that was not all from Sky: they also went behind the scenes with the FIA Medical Team in Singapore, inside the FIA stewards room in Japan, and then dived into the Formula One Management (FOM) production truck during the Mexican Grand Prix weekend. It felt as if someone had given Sky the magic keys, and they took advantage immediately.

Yet, the problem with some of their features is the “so what?” test, otherwise known as the memorability test. Sky’s pieces varied in quality: the Sauber segment and the medical team piece both hit the mark. The latter deserves more than a few words, because it is an element rarely covered by broadcasters. Sky righted this wrong, with a brilliant piece of television that made you fully appreciate the job that the medical team performs week in, week out.

In comparison, the stewards room and the FOM production truck pieces were not as memorable, and felt rushed in comparison. A few years ago, Formula E uploaded a fantastic piece to their YouTube channel showing how a TV recce works. At eight minutes in length, an equivalent F1 piece might not be appropriate as one cut in a television broadcast, but it would work split across two different shows, something Sky should have considered doing with the production truck piece.

The Sauber piece stands out alongside Guy Martin’s Pit Stop Challenge in terms of quality. Martin’s documentary, which aired on Channel 4, was enough to breathe outside the of the confines of the usual race day coverage. A lesson for Sky is that their pieces should go into ample detail, and not scrape over the surface to fit a given time limit. The BBC used to do this on occasion, with Top Gear style pieces, but it is something that we have lost somewhat with F1 now on commercial television.

Rosberg’s punditry allows for new perspective
Sky’s coverage took on a new element during the Japanese Grand Prix weekend when 2016 Drivers’ Champion Nico Rosberg appeared as a pundit during their qualifying and race day programming.

When Sky first announced this, I was worried that the hype would be unfulfilled, with only short appearances on-screen. As it turned out, Rosberg went the extra mile than what you may expect, appearing as a fully fledged member of Sky’s line-up alongside Lazenby, Brundle and Anthony Davidson. Japan was arguably Sky’s strongest team of 2017 as a result, and Rosberg’s contributions did not disappoint.

A bit of variety never hurts broadcasting, and that was the case here. Rosberg was keen to give his expertise and opinion on current events, whilst also reflecting on his own title challenges prior to last season. His rapport with the current Formula 1 line-up was evident throughout the weekend live interviews, notably with Red Bull drivers Daniel Ricciardo and Max Verstappen, only strengthening Sky’s coverage more.

My only minor criticism is that Sky did not manage to get Rosberg behind the scenes in the Mercedes garage, maybe interviewing one or two of the people who Rosberg worked with during this time there. As much as I would like to see Rosberg return, RTL have snapped him up instead for 2018, which is unfortunate from a UK broadcasting perspective, but brilliant for RTL and the German audience.

Pat Symonds was also a fresh face with Sky for 2017, appearing sporadically throughout the season. Fresh off his stint with Williams as technical director, Symonds helped strengthen Sky’s output throughout the year. Symonds assisted with Sky Pad analysis alongside Ted Kravitz, ensuring that Sky was the place to be for technical coverage.

One person who was not with Sky as much as in previous years was Johnny Herbert. Eagle eyed readers will have spotted him working with FOM, both during the race build-up and around their Esports output towards the end of 2017. Unconfirmed, but Herbert may well end up with FOM a little bit more than just ‘occasionally’ in 2018.

Overall, I think Sky have made encouraging strides in the latter half of 2017, with new voices appearing, and exposing areas previously hidden. But, some areas remain formulaic (such as the usage of ‘Coming Up’ trailers), and need to change for 2018. Nevertheless, I am hopeful the wave of creativity from Sky continues into 2018. If there was ever a year to try to hook new viewers into their broadcasts, 2018 is the year….

MotoGP’s UK audience rises thanks to Channel 5 switch

MotoGP’s viewing figures in the UK rose during 2017, because of the move of its highlights programming to Channel 5, overnight numbers show.

As regular readers will know, MotoGP aired on the BBC until the end of 2013, regularly averaging around one million viewers. With pay-TV money arguably more important to MotoGP than it is to other forms of motor sport, Dorna left the BBC at the end of 2013, instead choosing BT Sport as their new home, the rights fee rising considerably as a result.

BT Sport has been the sole live broadcaster of MotoGP since 2014, with free-to-air highlights airing on ITV4 from 2014 until 2016. This season, Channel 5 took over the baton on that front, exposing MotoGP to a larger audience in the same Monday evening time slot. The one down side is that Channel 5 also have the rights to some England cricket highlights, which caused MotoGP to air in a midnight time slot for the British round in August, a less than ideal situation.

In 2017, the MotoGP championship battle between Marc Marquez and Andrea Dovizioso went down to the wire in Valencia, with Marquez coming out on top. This was the second season finale championship decider that BT have aired live, the first being the controversial tussle between Valentino Rossi and Jorge Lorenzo in 2015.

The BT Sport picture
Throughout 2017, BT Sport’s live coverage of race day, around five hours of coverage in total, has averaged 100k (1.7%), a decrease of around 12 percent on last year’s audience average of 114k (1.9%). BT’s average audience is their lowest since their opening year in 2014, which averaged 90k (1.4%).

All figures in this article are overnight audience figures (live, plus VOSDAL supplied by Overnights.tv, and exclude viewers who watched via BT Sport’s online platform, nor does it include fanatics who may have ventured towards the official MotoGP app to consume their coverage.

The patterns presented above repeated themselves for the other two key metrics: the MotoGP segment and the peak audience. The 18 races, using the 90-minute slot covering 30 minutes of build-up and a small wrap-up at the end, averaged 165k (2.6%), a slightly smaller drop of 9 percent compared with 2016’s equivalent audience of 181k (3.1%). In 2015, BT Sport’s coverage of each MotoGP race averaged 212k (3.6%), meaning that 2017’s numbers represent a 22 percent drop.

BT Sport’s coverage throughout 2017 peaked with 223,000 viewers for each race, a drop on last year’s peak audience of 245,000 viewers. The picture is the same throughout the trends, with BT Sport’s coverage of 2017 slotting in below 2015 and 2016, but ahead of 2014, despite this year’s action going down to the wire. In comparison, live coverage of British Superbikes peaks with around 130,000 viewers on Eurosport, inflated to 190,000 viewers if you include viewers watching on Quest. Contrary to popular belief, British Superbikes does not bring in higher audiences than MotoGP.

Marquez versus Dovizioso not a draw for UK audiences
In 2015, the season finale in Valencia recorded BT Sport’s highest ever audience for a MotoGP race, peaking with 433k (3.9%), a figure that has yet to be beaten. Whilst low compared with the BBC days, the figure showed that there was clearly a portion of the audience who do not normally tune into MotoGP, yet chose to watch the race on that day.

Fast-forward two years, and the 2017 season finale in Valencia peaked with 254k, not far above the season average, and not the highest peak audience of the season either. Live coverage of the season finale across the five hours of coverage from 09:30 to 14:15 averaged 125k (1.5%), with the MotoGP segment averaging 173k (1.9%). The programme average was 25 percent above the season average (and their highest programme average since Austin in April), but the MotoGP element was lower than the likes of Austria and San Marino just a few months earlier.

You normally expect a noticeable boost for any championship decider, yet such a boost did not materialise this year, suggesting that the battle between Marquez and Dovizioso did not appeal to BT’s audience. To put it another way, you may argue that BT not market the battle very well to their audience in other popular junctions (such as football). In 2016, Cal Crutchlow’s two victories helped BT Sport, Britain’s first premier class wins in over 30 years.

Channel 5’s highlights boosted compared to ITV4’s numbers
Highlights of MotoGP averaged 406k (2.4%) on Channel 5 this season, an increase of 42 percent on ITV4’s average audience from 2016 of 285k (1.4%), a pleasing rise. ITV4’s audience dropped across their three years, meaning that compared with 2014’s ITV4 number, Channel 5’s average audience is up 18 percent.

Channel 5’s highest audience in 2017 came with the Australian round of the season in October. The thrilling race, which arguably was the one which helped decide the destination of the championship, with Marquez winning and Dovizioso down in 13th, averaged 487k (2.6%) for the free-to-air broadcaster, peaking with 636,000 viewers. Audience figures like that show why MotoGP needs a free-to-air presence of some form after 2018.

Despite the promising numbers in some areas, Channel 5’s broadcasts lost steam after the Summer break, averaging 365k (2.3%) for the second half of the year, compared with 446k (2.5%) for the opening phase of the season. This impacted on the overall combined figures for the season…

Final thoughts and combined audiences
The switch to Channel 5 helped MotoGP bring in its highest combined audience since leaving the BBC, with an audience of 571,000 viewers watching. As noted above, the second half of the season struggled, with the phase from Austria through to San Marino struggling on Channel 5. An average of 632,000 viewers watched during the first half of the year, dropping to 509,000 viewers for the second half.

The Grand Prix of the Americas from Austin in April brought in a combined average audience of 701,000 viewers (split 475,000 to 226,000), peaking with 951,000 viewers (split 668,000 to 282,000). Including the BT Sport and MotoGP app, it is highly likely the peak audience will have exceeded one million viewers, a major achievement.

Aside from Britain, the Austrian Grand Prix was the low-light, averaging 456,000 viewers, whereas every other race before it had averaged 544,000 viewers or higher.

If the ITV4 trajectory is to go by from 2014 to 2016, then Channel 5’s audience figures might see a second-year dip in 2018. Next year will be fascinating on the MotoGP broadcasting front, as the destination of the series for 2019 onwards should be known, with BT Sport’s contract expiring.

Speaking to this site earlier this year, Dorna did not give anything away, but did say that they were happy with BT’s coverage and in negotiations with them post-2018. But do not rule out Sky or Eurosport snapping up the rights, with the latter becoming a more prominent player in the market. Where MotoGP ends up in 2019, is anyone’s guess.


F1’s UK television audience stabilises in 2017

Formula 1’s viewing figures dropped slightly year-on-year, following on from last year’s significant decline, overnight audience numbers show.

> Both Channel 4 and Sky record marginal drops
> Anti-climatic championship fight hurt audiences
> Combined audience lowest since 2006

2017 was Formula 1’s second season on Channel 4, coverage was shared with Sky Sports. The viewing figures in this article are overnight average audiences supplied by Overnights.tv for Channel 4’s and Sky Sports’ broadcasts, including Sky Sports Main Event and Mix where applicable. Sky’s numbers are for their three-and-a-half-hour broadcast covering ‘Pit Lane Live’ and the race itself from 12:00 to 15:30, or applicable. Channel 4’s numbers broadly follow the same pattern, excluding their post-race reaction show.

Viewing figures presented in this piece exclude viewers who watched via the likes of Sky Go, Now TV and All 4. The numbers also do not include audiences who did not watch Formula 1 on the same day. Overnight audience figures are known in the industry as ‘Live + VOSDAL’ (video on same day as live). So, if you chose to record Channel 4’s highlights programme to watch on a Monday morning, you are excluded from the overnight audience numbers. Overnight figures are still important, especially for sports programming which fans view live, or as close to live as possible.

Radio audience figures are reportedly separately by RAJAR, and use a different methodology compared to television, meaning that you cannot compare BBC’s 5 Live audience figures with the television figures presented in this piece.

Channel 4’s overnight figures
In 2017, Channel 4 aired ten races live, with the remaining ten races airing in extended highlights form. Their race day coverage in 2017 averaged 1.87 million viewers, a decrease of 4.5 percent on last year’s average audience of 1.96 million viewers. Their live programming averaged 2.13 million viewers, with their highlights shows bringing 1.62 million viewers to the channel. Year-on-year, Channel 4’s live shows dropped by just 2.5 percent, whilst their highlights output decreased by 8.1 percent.

The season highlight for Channel 4 came towards the end of the season, with live coverage of the United States Grand Prix averaging 2.78m (12.8%) in peak time. One week later, Lewis Hamilton clinched his fourth world championship, resulting in an audience of just 968k (13.0%) watching Channel 4’s Brazilian Grand Prix highlights programme in mid-November.

Channel 4’s problem in 2017 was with the way they started the season, with double-digit drops for four of the first ten races. Once you start off from a low base, it is very difficult to recover that position. For the first half of the year, only Spain and Europe were the stand-out races compared with 2016, both increasing their audience figures by around 10 percent. The post-Summer break period offered more promise as Channel 4’s race day programming increased for five races on the bounce from Italy through to USA.

An average peak audience of 2.63 million viewers watched Channel 4’s programming, a decrease of 4.5 percent year-on-year. For the first time since Channel 4 started their coverage, however, the broadcaster recorded a peak audience of over 4 million viewers, with the US Grand Prix. USA was the stand out, with all of Channel 4’s other peak audiences below 3.5 million viewers, a disappointment considering three races were above the same last year. Behind USA, were Bahrain and Malaysia, both peaking with 3.42 million viewers.

Sky’s overnight figures
Now in its sixth year as Formula 1’s main broadcaster in the United Kingdom, Sky Sports’ viewing figures continued to ebb and flow, with little upsurge. Live coverage of Sky Sports’ race day programming in 2017, excluding Paddock Live, averaged 652,000 viewers, a slight decrease of 2.5 percent on last year’s average audience of 669,000 viewers.

An average of 699,000 viewers watched Sky’s exclusive coverage, whilst 605,000 viewers watched Sky’s programming when shared with Channel 4. In the pecking order for Sky, 2014 stays on top with an average audience of 790,000 viewers watching Lewis Hamilton’s third world championship; 2012 a distant second on 709,000 viewers. Sky’s other four seasons remain closely clustered together between 635,000 viewers and 670,000 viewers.

The highlight for Sky in 2017 was the Mexican Grand Prix, which averaged 1.09m (4.8%) in prime time, helped by Hamilton winning the championship on that day. Like Channel 4, Sky had a strong mid-season run, with eight consecutive races from Canada to Singapore peaking with over one million viewers, a strong run for the pay-TV platform. As a result, an average peak audience of 1.03 million viewers watched Sky’s programming across the season.

For Sky, it is likely that their Now TV and Sky Go platforms have seen increased demand compared with 2016 and before, although figures for these platforms are not available in the public domain. With only one year left though before the major switch over to pay-TV, there are no substantial signs that viewers are migrating over from Formula 1’s free-to-air product to Sky’s pay-television product despite having the access to do so.

Overall audiences
During 2017, a combined average audience of 2.52 million viewers watched Formula 1’s race day action across Channel 4 and Sky Sports, a decrease of 4.0 percent on last year’s average audience of 2.63 million viewers. F1 has lost exactly a third of its UK television audience since it left the BBC in 2015. The BBC’s television audience in 2015 was 3.74 million viewers, meaning that 2017 results in a 33 percent drop. Like last year, this year’s audience will be the lowest for Formula 1 since at least 2005.

A year that promised so much failed to deliver a spectacular championship decider. The headlines do not tell the full story, and I feel that is the case here. The battle between Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel enticed viewers, with Spain (up 6%) and Europe (up 10%) proving that point. However, their on-track battles were too infrequent to have an overarching impact. To go from a sizzling race in Baku to a cold race in Austria was to the detriment of the championship.

2016 started off on a low-note, with Formula 1 victim to a warmer Spring than usual in the UK: the season opening Australian Grand Prix lost 17 percent of its audience year-on-year. Sometimes audiences take time to arrive, and you need several good races for fortunes to turn. After Baku, the following four races failed to bring in the viewers. It was not until the Italian Grand Prix where viewing figures increased compared with 2016. And then, came the Singapore Grand Prix which ultimately decided the outcome of the championship.

What followed Singapore was a brief resurgence as Hamilton strolled his fourth championship, but audiences plunged for the final three races in Mexico (down 43%), Brazil (down 23%) and Abu Dhabi (down 20%). If you were to, hypothetically speaking, add 30 percent to the audience for the final three races, viewing figures across the entire season would be equal with 2016. One move decided the fate of the season, and with it probably sent millions of viewers around the world switching off their television sets for the final hurdle in the Formula 1 season.

However, where Formula 1’s viewing figures drop, it remains firmly head and shoulders above the rest of the motor racing pack thanks to its exposure which no other series has in this country. On four wheels, only Formula E comes close with live coverage on Channel 5, and as documented elsewhere on this site, it is struggling to pick up a significant following. To put it into context, F1’s 2017 season average of 2.62 million viewers is ten times higher than Formula E’s 2016/17 season average of 280,000 viewers.

Is Formula 1 set for a shock in 2018?
We talk about a ‘new era’ every season, it feels like. 2019 on the broadcasting front in the UK heralds a new era with Sky Sports taking full control of Formula 1’s television rights. Before then, there is the small matter of 2018 to plough through. And with that, the Halo. Safety first, aesthetics second in this instance, with the much-derided cockpit protection system coming into force from the 2018 season.

F1 has survived, and flourished, upon major rule changes. But, arguably, the Halo is the biggest aesthetic change that F1 has seen in generations, changing the ways that cars fundamentally look to fans at home. I can write words about Hamilton versus Vettel: Part II all I want, but if the reaction is negative by media and fans, I fear that viewing figures could be set for another shock in 2018.

Halo is not meant to look attractive, that is not its purpose (you can read about the positives of the Halo elsewhere, this is not the place for that). From a broadcasting perspective however, are casual fans less likely to watch Formula 1 because of this system? The answer, in my view, is likely to be yes.

How many viewers will turn off Formula 1 because of the Halo in 2018, we do not know. But, the viewing figures for the Australian Grand Prix next March may give Liberty Media an unpleasant surprise…