How the BBC / Sky deal changed F1 broadcasting in the UK

Sebastian Vettel dominated the 2011 Formula One season, clinching his second Drivers’ Championship with four races to spare in Japan.

Although dominant up front, the 2011 season was competitive behind Vettel. One of the major talking points on-track was the frequent clashes between Lewis Hamilton and Felipe Massa, in what would turn out to be Hamilton’s penultimate season with McLaren.

Off-track, as the teams headed into the Hungarian Grand Prix weekend before the summer break, storm clouds began to emerge.

Hamilton may have topped a mundane first practice session in Hungary, but closer to home, a bombshell press release that landed just hours earlier sent shockwaves through the paddock and F1’s UK fanbase…

Here, Motorsport Broadcasting looks at the events that have unfolded since, and whether F1 is in a better place in the UK than what it was a decade ago.

The split

Ten years ago today, the BBC and Sky Sports confirmed that, from 2012, Formula 1 would air across both free-to-air and pay television as part of a new agreement between two of the biggest broadcasters in the UK.

2011 was the last season covered exclusively live, free-to-air by the BBC, the season becoming the highest watched in the UK on television.

BBC TV and Sky Sports have been awarded the live rights to Formula 1 ™ between 2012 and 2018.

The move will bring increased choice, innovation, and breadth of coverage to UK and Irish motor racing fans.

Press Release: BBC and Sky partner for live Formula 1 rights – Friday 29th July 2011

Since 2012, Sky Sports has aired every race live. The BBC’s programming supplemented Sky’s comprehensive offer, the free-to-air broadcaster airing half the races live and the other half in highlights form.

The previous Autumn, in October 2010, the government confirmed a licence fee freeze for six years which, in real terms, was a 16% cut to the BBC’s budget.

Cutbacks were necessary in some areas, and F1 was in the firing line.

The BBC’s original contract was set to expire at the end of 2013 and, writing at the time on the BBC website, their Head of F1 Ben Gallop said that the deal with Sky “extends the BBC’s commitment to F1 by a further five years.”

“Given the financial circumstances in which we find ourselves, we believe this new deal offers the best outcome for licence-fee payers,” Gallop said.

Some of the headlines following the announcement of the BBC and Sky Sports F1 deal in 2011. Headlines from The Guardian, BBC, RaceFans.net, Crash.net, Adam Cooper’s blog, Motorsport.com and Autosport.

At the time, the deal generated a lot of response from fans. The likes of Autosport described the deal as ‘controversial’ on their magazine cover, and it is easy to see why considering the magnitude of the change.

With the benefit of hindsight, it is possible to look at the 2011 deal through a different lens.

What has happened since?

The BBC’s commitment to F1, which was meant to last until the end of the 2018 season, was short lived.

Another round of cuts was to come, and this time, BBC’s television coverage of Formula 1 was to disappear altogether.

Channel 4 succeeded the BBC as Sky’s free-to-air partner, retaining largely the same team both in front and behind the camera, as their coverage began in 2016.

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.

Barbara Slater, BBC’s Director of Sport, speaking in 2011

If the 2011 bombshell was not big enough, a further bombshell was to follow.

Just one race into Channel 4’s new Formula 1 deal, Sky announced that they had secured the rights to air F1 exclusively live from 2019 to 2024 in a six-year deal.

Channel 4 would later secure free-to-air highlights, plus live coverage of the British Grand Prix from Sky.

By securing the pay-TV rights early, Sky fended off potential competition from rivals BT Sport, who were rumoured to be interested in F1 at the time.

The current Sky deal, mooted to be around £1 billion across the duration of the contract, or around £160 million per season, is significantly higher than what any free-to-air broadcaster could bid for the rights.

Let us rewind back to the 2011 deal and think about alternative scenarios. Had the BBC pulled out altogether, F1 may have moved on a full-time basis to Channel 4 or ITV.

With Sky lurking in the background though, it is difficult to imagine how many years such a deal would have lasted without Sky intervention.

The only alternative that could have had a material impact, even today, would be a joint BBC and ITV deal, like the current Six Nations rugby arrangements. On a 22-race basis, the BBC could air 7 races live, with ITV airing the remaining 15 races.

The two free-to-air broadcasters pay around £100 million per year for the Six Nations. The rugby tournament is a more attractive proposition to broadcasters than F1, with higher viewing figures and a higher proportion of action in primetime.

Any combined bid therefore would likely be under £100 million, even if you swap the BBC with Channel 4.

While it is a nice idea, the finances do not stack up when compared with the amount of money Sky have invested in F1.

The first BBC F1 forum at the 2009 Australian Grand Prix. Jake Humphrey (l), Ted Kravitz and Lee McKenzie (top r), David Coulthard, Eddie Jordan and Martin Brundle (bottom r).
The first BBC F1 forum at the 2009 Australian Grand Prix. Jake Humphrey (l), Ted Kravitz and Lee McKenzie (top r), David Coulthard, Eddie Jordan, and Martin Brundle (bottom r).

Did Sky walk through an open door when the BBC approached them in 2011? Absolutely. But the destination, and where we are currently in 2021, was always going to be the same irrespective of the journey taken.

The BBC’s deal with Sky in 2011 delayed the inevitable. It was not a question of if, it was a question of when.

The transfer of rights from free-to-air to pay in the UK has been gradual, in stark contrast to Germany where audiences have slumped by around 70% because of the ‘big bang’ rights change imposed on audiences.

The pros and cons of the UK F1 broadcasting arrangement

On and off-air, the UK F1 broadcasting arrangements over the past decade have helped talent step into the motor sport arena, who may never have had a chance had F1 remained solely on BBC television.

The likes of Rachel Brookes, Jack Nicholls, and Steve Jones to name a few have benefited over the past decade.

Brookes joined Sky’s F1 setup when their coverage started, while both Nicholls and Jones joined the F1 paddock on a permanent basis later.

Nicholls became BBC’s lead radio commentator in 2016, a role once held by David Croft; while Jones became Channel 4’s F1 presenter having never presented an F1 race!

This is fantastic news for F1 fans and Sky Sports will be the only place to follow every race live and in HD. We will give F1 the full Sky Sports treatment with a commitment to each race never seen before on UK television. As well as unrivalled build up to each race on Sky Sports News, we will broadcast in-depth live coverage of every session. Sky customers with Sky Sports will also be able to enjoy F1 across multiple platforms and devices, including Sky Go.

Barney Francis, Managing Director of Sky Sports, speaking in 2011

Having several broadcasters in the mix presenting their own bespoke output not only gives emerging talent more opportunities to break into the sport, but it gives viewers access to a broader roster of pundits.

From the BBC’s Jolyon Palmer, through to Channel 4’s Mark Webber and onto Sky’s Anthony Davidson, there should be something for everyone across the talent pool, across live and highlights.

The broadcasting arrangements since 2012 have resulted in every F1 session airing live, as well as the vast majority of Formula Two and Formula Three sessions.

Having multiple broadcasters air live F1 from 2012 to 2018 meant that the two could push each other to produce better content, with the fans watching at home benefiting overall.

I think it is important to emphasis at this point that Sky have an excellent team: Davidson, Jenson Button, Martin Brundle and Karun Chandhok to name a few, a rotating talent set helping to keep their coverage fresh race-by-race.

While Sky do produce excellent features (and I suspect the upcoming feature with Mick Schumacher in the Jordan 191 will fit into this category), including high-quality Sky Pad analysis, these sometimes feel isolated in amongst their lengthy pre-shows.

George Russell and Fernando Alonso analyse their practice laps from the 2021 Styrian Grand Prix with Anthony Davidson on the Sky Pad.

COVID has restricted what Sky can do, as Brookes outlined to this writer earlier this year. That combined with the number of races on the calendar now, dilutes the quality of programming on offer to the viewer.

Broadcasters want more races, as races attract viewers, but it means that their supplementary programming takes a hit.

Formula Two and Formula Three feel like an afterthought (not helped by the changes beyond Sky’s control), while Sky have failed to replicate the attraction of BBC’s post-race show, F1 Forum, in my view, where the team used to perch themselves in a motor home.

Despite the criticism, since Sky moved to the podium set up in the paddock, their post-race shows have improved, and is heading in the right direction.

Worryingly for Channel 4, their free-to-air highlights audience has slumped over the past two years, to the point where Sky is moving into a position whereby it has the lion’s share of the F1 audience, an unthinkable statement even two years ago.

The good news in totality for F1 is that Sky’s audiences are increasing rapidly, and are at their highest level yet (more to follow on this front over the forthcoming weeks).

Yes, television audiences have decreased compared with a decade ago, but fans have a much wider range of viewing options now.

Back in 2011, F1 did not upload highlights to YouTube, podcasts did not exist, and the F1 social media community was insignificant. Oh, and that thing called Drive to Survive was still eight years away.

Sky may have Bernie to thank for the initial deal signed in 2016, but they absolutely have Liberty Media to thank for maximising F1’s potential across the digital platforms.

If F1 is going to continue to sign exclusive pay TV deals, then they need an action plan on how they aim to reach fans that do not have pay TV. Otherwise, F1 will haemorrhage fans.

A Formula 1 only accessible behind a pay wall is not a fruitful Formula 1.

A Formula 1 that exploits social media, is available to fans at a reasonable price, and finds new, innovative ways to harness their audience, is a fruitful Formula 1.

Motorsport Broadcasting, writing in 2016 [pleasingly I think F1 currently aligns more into the second category. Not fully, but the second category resonates more with me].

A survey by The Race Media, which operates both The Race and WTF1, shows that most fans on both platforms watch F1 via pay-TV, with less than a quarter watching via free-to-air television.

It is plausible that F1 in the UK has lost older viewers over the past decade (‘lapsed fans’), thanks to the move away from the BBC, but gained some younger fans through the likes of Drive to Survive, thanks to Netflix and Liberty Media. It may still result in a net loss, but the picture is not as black and white as the headline suggests.

A major gripe for UK fans is that fans do not have access to F1’s premium tier over-the-top service, meaning that the only way fans can watch live F1 is through Sky Sports.

How open Sky are to this position changing is unclear. Suggestions last summer that Sky would offer F1 TV Pro through their TV platform have yet to come to fruition.

Nevertheless, for everything that has changed over the past decade, F1 remains king and is by far the leading series when it comes to motor sport in the UK, with no other form of motor sport eroding its dominant market position.

What is next?

While Hamilton may retire in 2024, the prospects of both Lando Norris and George Russell look bright, which should keep interest in the sport high, which is great news for Sky Sports moving forward.

We can reminisce about every F1 race airing live on free-to-air television all we want, but the chances of F1 returning to that position in the UK after 2024, when Sky’s current deal expires, is close to zero.

In a sense this partnership with Sky is another example of how the landscape of sports broadcasting has been transformed in recent years. There was a time when the BBC and other public service broadcasters could expect to televise all the big sports themselves. Now though we have a ‘mixed economy’, with some events on satellite while others are on terrestrial.

Ben Gallop, BBC’s Head of Formula 1, speaking in 2011

In my view, I expect Sky to renew beyond 2024, with confirmation to come within the next 12 to 18 months.

Such a renewal may seem far too early, but remember that Sky sealed the 2019 deal three years in advance. F1 is Sky’s second biggest sport, only behind football, and the earlier they can renew on a like-to-like basis, the better for them.

Furthermore, the economic climate post-COVID means that F1 is unlikely to see an increase in rights fees from the UK market. As thus, extending the current agreement with Sky may be in F1’s best interests too. Stability is in the interests of both parties.

When I outlined the above to someone close to the situation recently, what was their response? “I think you’re on the money, Dave…”

How have your viewing habits of Formula 1 changed in the past decade? Have your say in the comments below.

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5 key stories from the 2021 British Grand Prix weekend

The key talking point after last weekend’s British Grand Prix was, of course, that incident between Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen which has generated column inches across the board.

On the broadcasting side, it was a newsworthy weekend, for multiple reasons.

Alongside the previously announced offline HDR test, there were other things that caught the eye over the Silverstone weekend. Here are just a few…

New format, new graphics…

A new experiment for Formula 1 brought with it new graphics for the Sprint session.

The changes were visible to fans immediately after the F1 opening titles, with the usual fly-over coming in the form of enhanced augmented reality graphics.

The pre-race graphics detailed the same information as usual, such as the track layout and starting grid, but in a different format to the Grand Prix graphics.

In my view, the changes helped to differentiate the Sprint to the main event on Sunday.

I know sometimes F1, and other forms of motor sport, sometimes have a habit of implementing ‘change for changes’ sake, but I thought that this was a cool change.

As a wrestling fan, it reminded me of WWE’s broadcasts, the wrestling juggernaut having used augmented reality to their advantage throughout the pandemic with no fans in attendance.

The graphics which followed during the race had mixed execution, however.

A graphic depicting the live speed of McLaren’s Daniel Ricciardo at The Loop and Aintree fell into this category.

If this was a top speed graphic, it might make sense, displaying the live speed at one of the slowest parts of the circuit added little to the broadcast.

In contrast, F1 used augmented reality to highlight Alpine’s Fernando Alonso when riding on-board with McLaren driver Lando Norris, a graphic which worked well.

McLaren’s Lando Norris chases down Alpine’s Fernando Alonso in F1’s new Sprint experiment.

Others suggested that the Alonso graphic resembled a video game, but that for me is not a valid criticism.

Not every livery stands out as easily as a McLaren (orange) or Ferrari (red), especially when viewing from behind.

If F1’s implementation helps new viewers engage in our sport, then this is a change for the better.

Besides F1 are not the first (see: MotoGP, NASCAR, amongst others), and certainly not the last, to implement a graphic of the nature. 

…as audiences in the Netherlands remain strong

In the Netherlands, ratings bureau SKO reported that Friday’s evening qualifying session averaged 552,000 viewers (15.5% audience share) on Ziggo Sport.

The figure in-line with Saturday’s afternoon qualifying session from Austria, which brought 585,000 viewers (31.7% audience share).

The higher share for Austria is reflective of the fact that the Silverstone qualifying session aired in an evening time slot, so whilst more viewers could have watched Friday qualifying in the Netherlands, they opted not to.

Saturday’s Sprint averaged 717,000 viewers (28.9% audience share), a significant volume increase on Austria qualifying, with a slight share drop.

The race on Sunday, from the start of the red flag period, averaged 1.31 million viewers across Ziggo Sport and Ziggo Sport Select, equating to a 62.9% audience share.

In the US, 529,000 viewers watched the new Sprint format on ESPN, while the race averaged an excellent 1.03 million viewers, continuing F1’s positive trajectory in the States.

The picture was less positive in Spain, where the Sprint generated no additional interest.

According to Formula TV, 114,000 viewers (1.3% audience share) watched the Sprint programme on DAZN, compared with the 116,000 viewers who watched the Austria qualifying session.

Sustainability on the agenda…

Wherever you looked across the F1 weekend, sustainability was one of the main topics featured across F1’s UK broadcasts.

Sky’s #GoZero campaign was in the spotlight during the coverage, with all their presentation team using green ‘Sky Zero’ microphone coverings and recycled clothing.

The broadcaster hopes to become net zero carbon by 2030, and is working in collaboration with F1 to help bring down carbon emissions across the sport. F1 themselves announced that the Silverstone weekend was their first ever Carbon Neutral broadcast.

Writing on Sky’s F1 website, senior producer Jamie Coley explained how he plays his part in Sky’s Sustainability Content Group.

“The group brings producers and journalists together from across Sky Sports to find ways of achieving tangible results and awareness around the environmental problems our world faces through our sports coverage,” he says.

“Over the last year, this group has achieved some significant milestones, including making all our host broadcast sports productions albert certified sustainable productions, and joining the UNFCCC’s Sport for Climate Action Framework.”

“It has also led to Sky Sports marking a ‘Summer of Sustainability’ at some of the biggest events on the sporting calendar this week, including the British Grand Prix.”

“As a producer for Sky Sports F1, my part in this is helping to tell the great stories of how Sky and F1 are going green.”

“The best person to showcase the great work F1 has done and continues to do to improve its environmental impact, which for a petrol sport is no way easy feat, is Nico Rosberg who I filmed a special feature with that airs during this weekend’s coverage at Silverstone.”

Over on Channel 4, a feature involving Aston Martin’s Sebastian Vettel aired. Vettel, along with Lee McKenzie, visited a local school to help engage children on how to live sustainability in the future.

…as Channel 4 teams up with Hollywood stars

Channel 4 splashed out on their live offering from Silverstone, with Hollywood stars Tom Cruise and Ryan Reynolds featuring through their broadcasts.

Reynolds introduced viewers back to Channel 4’s programming throughout the weekend through short VTs.

Meanwhile, Cruise featured in the broadcaster’s excellent opener to their race day coverage alongside Steve Jones, David Coulthard and Mark Webber.

In the build-up to the Grand Prix, the BBC’s Top Gear team were also in action, preparing for the next series, which will air in the Autumn.

The feature sees Sebastian Vettel, Antonio Giovinazzi and Lando Norris taking on Paddy McGuiness, Freddie Flintoff, and Chris Harris in a head-to-head challenge.

Elsewhere, a week of contract signings

Outside of the F1 world, it has been a big week for a few rights holders.

Stateside, the IndyCar Series and NBC have extended their partnership in a multi-year agreement. Normally, a rights renewal is not surprising news, however in this instance it is, as earlier suggestions linked IndyCar to CBS.

NBC’s main station will air 13 races next season, with the remaining races airing on USA Network and NBC’s over-the-top platform Peacock.

No races will air on NBC Sports Network after this season, following NBC’s decision to close the channel at the end of 2021.

In the UK, BT Sport will remain home to the World Rally Championship until the end of 2024, after the two parties agreed a new three-year deal.

On the personnel front, Will Buxton has joined Motorsport Network’s portfolio of talent, the network has this week confirmed.

While Buxton will continue his F1 commitments, his YouTube show (This Week with Will), will move across exclusively to Motorsport.tv’s over-the-top platform on a free-to-view basis.

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F1 to perform HDR test during 2021 British Grand Prix weekend

Formula 1 is to perform a full offline HDR test during the upcoming British Grand Prix, the series has confirmed.

Prior to the 2021 season, F1 revealed that HDR (high dynamic range) tests would take place this year, but did not offer further information on the nature of the test.

Now, F1’s director of broadcast and media Dean Locke has confirmed further details about their foray into the HDR world.

“We’re doing a full major offline test in Silverstone,” Locke confirmed, speaking at the SVG Europe Motorsport Show.

“I think we already know an awful lot around acquisition, how we’re going to capture the imagery, how we’re going to rack it and everything around that.”

“This test is more around our distribution network, which is pretty complicated! There’s lots of different flavours to what we produce as well and how we do that. We’re looking to do an offline test to iron that bit and to find out what we don’t know as well.”

While Locke refused to commit to a date for F1’s formal HDR launch, Locke believes that F1 should have a much clearer indication of timescales post-Silverstone.

Locke also explained why F1 is moving ahead with HDR quickly despite being slower in the HD space a decade ago.

“We were a little slower with HD and that was mainly because our broadcast partners weren’t requesting it, they didn’t feel it was on their road map,” Locke says.

What is High Dynamic Range?

High dynamic range (HDR) video technology is the next great leap forward to reproducing what the naked eye sees in colours and in contrast between the brightest whites and the darkest blacks.

HDR video is about recreating image realism from camera through postproduction to distribution and display.

Technically speaking, HDR video standards encompass more than just higher peak brightness and lower black levels. HDR also supports a wider colour palette, new transfer functions, greater bit depth, and static and/or dynamic metadata.

Source: Amazon Web Services (AWS)

“Now, we’ve got very active broadcast partners who work with Ultra HD as well, they’re very quick to adopt. I think it’s the same with HDR, we want to be cutting edge, Formula 1’s all about that and so we should be. Our broadcast partners are asking, we’re listening and seeing what we can do.”

“Anything we can do improve that picture quality, whether that’s just the type of cameras, high motion cameras, but also HDR. It’s of massive interest to us if we can make that imagery look even more spectacular than what it already does.”

F1’s move is in-line with the recent industry trend, with many broadcasters including NBC and Eurosport airing the Olympics in HDR for the first time this July.

Elsewhere, Locke addressed the challenges that the pandemic, and the UK’s exit from the European Union, has brought for F1.

“I think it’s more challenging this year than what it was last year, with different exemptions back here in the UK.”

“We have quarantining between the races which is really difficult for crews and personnel working on that coming back. Some countries are further behind than the UK on vaccinations, so they’ve still got pretty strict rulings in.”

“I think also freight, with Brexit and everything around that, is quite challenging this year compared to last, and the calendar. We have a calendar this year, but it’s become quite difficult to plan due to the fluid situation.”

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W Series to remain live on Channel 4 for 2021 season

The W Series will remain live to UK fans on Channel 4 for the upcoming 2021 season.

Series organisers officially confirmed the news on Saturday evening (May 22nd) in a vignette promoting the new season on their Twitter feed.

Their inaugural season in 2019 saw the championship supporting DTM, with Jamie Chadwick winning the series in a tense final race at Brands Hatch.

After the COVID-19 pandemic halted plans for 2020, this season the series will support Formula 1 at all eight rounds.

The tie up prompted suggestions that the series may air exclusively on Sky Sports F1 for UK fans, given their existing F1 commitments.

However, organisers have confirmed that W Series will remain free-to-air on Channel 4, with every qualifying session and race airing live via the broadcaster.

For fans overseas, details around F1’s over-the-top platform will be confirmed in due course.

Lee McKenzie, David Coulthard and Ted Kravitz remain part of their broadcast team for the 2021 season and, as originally announced before the pandemic hit, Alex Jacques will join them as lead commentator.

As is currently the case for Channel 4’s F1 offering, Billy Monger joins Coulthard and Jacques in the commentary box.

The W Series presentation team for the 2021 season. Copyright: W Series.

Anna Woolhouse, who is Sky’s lead boxing presenter and has previously presented the F1 Midweek Report for Sky, joins the team as presenter alongside McKenzie.

In addition, Amy Reynolds, who has been part of the MotoGP World Feed team for the past six years, joins as pit lane reporter, whilst W Series driver from 2019, Naomi Schiff completes the line-up.

In a separate announcement, production company Whisper have confirmed that they will continue to produce the W Series broadcast.

Catherine Bond Muir, W Series’ CEO, said “I am delighted that W Series’ founding broadcast partner, Channel 4, has reinforced its commitment to showcasing women’s sport and our talented racing drivers.”

“Live free-to-air motorsport coverage is rare, but our partnership with Channel 4 is a key part of W Series’ plan to create more visible role models to inspire girls and women to be a part of motorsport, whether that is on track, on screen or behind the scenes, and the expertise and insight provided by our brilliant commentary team will be instrumental to our efforts,” Bond Muir believes.

Louisa Compton, Channel 4’s Head of News, Current and Affairs and Sport, added “W Series aligns brilliantly with Channel 4 – it’s exciting, bold and breaking down barriers.”

“I’m sure viewers will relish the opportunity to watch this exciting season of top motorsport as it unfolds on Channel 4.”

Last updated on May 26th.

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Is Formula 1 really ‘taking off’ in the US? What the data says…

It is a perennial question that comes around every so often in Formula 1 circles, both within the paddock and within the fanbase.

‘When will F1 finally break America?’ F1 has tried multiple times in the past to cut through to the wider American population, but with limited success.

Now, the question is changing. ‘Is F1 finally breaking America?’ With TV audiences on the slide, the job for F1 is increasingly difficult, but we look at how well F1 is succeeding…

A history lesson…

Over the past 30 years, multiple different venues in America have hosted F1 races, whilst many cities, such as New Jersey, have tried, and failed, to enter the arena.

After stints in Las Vegas, Phoenix, Watkins Glen, amongst others, Formula 1 returned to America in 2000 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

F1’s stint at Indy lasted eight years, the circuit playing host to the infamous race in 2005 which saw only 6 cars start, a race which arguably led to F1’s Indy spell ending.

Austin has hosted the US Grand Prix since 2012, minus 2020 due to the pandemic, and next year sees the arrival of Miami to the Grand Prix calendar.

Despite F1’s flirtation with the US, only three drivers have competed in F1 since 1990 with limited success: Michael Andretti in 1993, Scott Speed in 2006 and 2007, and Alex Rossi in 2015. And, well, the less said about the attempted US F1 team, the better…

On the broadcasting front, the championship has moved around different broadcasters in recent years, moving from Speed to NBC, and now ESPN.

Will Buxton, Leigh Diffey, Steve Matchett and David Hobbs led the broadcasting team on NBC, but the move from NBC to ESPN for 2018 saw the line-up disbanded, ESPN instead opting to simulcast Sky’s UK coverage.

Although fans reacted negatively to the removal of the NBC line-up, the move to ESPN did lead to two benefits, but not without their hurdles.

Fans in the US were able to access F1’s over-the-top service from launch whilst ESPN, from race two onwards, aired commercial free coverage of F1. The commercial free move came only after the network faced a barrage of criticism following the opening round in Australia.

Around the same period at the start of 2017, US media giant Liberty Media acquired the sport from Bernie Ecclestone and private equity fund CVC.

Under Liberty, F1 has made tremendous strides on social media to reach new audiences, including commissioning Netflix to produce a documentary series. Entitled Drive to Survive, the series has been a hit with fans.

Drive to Survive’s popularity has led to some claiming that F1 is reaching new audiences in the US. But, is this really the case, and does the publicly available data back up the claim?

…what the data shows…

Motorsport Broadcasting has analysed four years’ worth of television audience data, available publicly via Showbuzz Daily to get an idea of the year-to-year trends.

The industry website publishes audience data for key sporting events each weekend, both total people and those aged within the 18 to 49 demographic, pertinent given F1’s desire to attract younger audiences.

Total audience

In 2017, the last year of F1’s contract with NBC, four races aired on NBC’s main broadcast outlet, with the other races airing on NBC Sports Network (NBCSN) or NBC’s business news channel CNBC.

An average of 645,000 viewers watched 16 of the 20 races in 2017. The figure is slightly lower than suggested, as it excludes Australia, China, Malaysia, and Japan, which aired in the early hours for US fans.

In addition, the average drops further when removing the four races that aired on NBC. Excluding those four races drags the figure down to 483,000 viewers, giving us a better baseline to work with.

Three of the four races that aired on NBC in 2017 averaged over 1 million viewers, hence the discrepancy between the two averages. The four NBC races did little to boost F1’s regular NBCSN and CNBC programming over the course of the 2017 season.

The averages include NBC’s wrap-around content, consisting of around 30 minutes of build-up and some post-race reaction, as well as commercial breaks during the races.

Fast forward to 2020, and none of the 17 races aired on broadcast television in the US, owing to the pandemic affected schedule. Instead, every race aired live via ESPN or ESPN2.

An average of 603,000 viewers watched the 2020 action, this figure for the race segment only, from F1’s 5-minute introduction through to the initial post-race analysis.

Viewing figures for the 30-minute segment immediately before the race are unavailable, but including that segment is likely to push the average closer to 550,000 viewers, which is still an increase on the NBCSN/CNBC only figure from 2017.

F1’s growth in the States pre-dates 2017, starting as early as 2013, as reported by Motorsport Broadcasting at the time. Early data from 2021 suggests that the upward trajectory is likely to continue.

ESPN says that an average of 906,000 viewers watched the Emilia Romagna Grand Prix, the 6th largest cable audience on record and the biggest F1 audience since the 2019 Canadian Grand Prix, which aired on broadcast network ABC.

18 to 49 audience

From a demographic stand-point, an average of 196,000 viewers aged between 18 and 49 watched each F1 race in 2017, but this figure drops to 142,000 viewers when removing the four races that aired on NBC.

In 2020, an average of 218,000 viewers watched the action, this metric likely dropping to around 190,000 viewers when accounting for 30-minutes of build-up to bring it equal with NBC’s 2017 offering.

Since 2017, F1 has attracted a younger audience in the US. Around 30% of F1’s audience in 2017 were within the coveted 18 to 49 demographic. The skew has since increased over time to around 36%, although analysis shows that the 2020 skew was slightly lower than 2019.

Nevertheless, 2021 has started brightly in this area: 46% of the Emilia Romagna audience were aged between 18 and 49, equating to 416,000 viewers, a massive number for the sport in the US.

From a wider motor racing perspective, NASCAR remains comfortably on top of both F1 and IndyCar, but F1 skews considerably younger than both commodities, making it a more attractive proposition to advertisers.

During the same weekend as Emilia Romagna, a NASCAR race averaged 3.31 million viewers on Fox, but only 650,000 of those were within the crucial 18 to 49 demo, a skew of just 20%.

In contrast, IndyCar brought in 6,000 more viewers than F1, but 159,000 fewer viewers in the 18 to 49 demographic.

…still small pickings in the grand scheme of things

In the wider context, an average audience of just under 1 million viewers for F1 in a country with over 320 million people feels like very slim pickings.

However, Formula 1 is fighting an uphill battle in the US from the outset, with unfriendly time slots throughout the season, especially compared to IndyCar and NASCAR.

Most races start at 06:00 PST / 09:00 ET, meaning that F1 is relying on fans either watching live during their breakfast or catch-up later to engage fully in the sport.

The alternative for F1 would be to move European races to later in the afternoon, and ensure that the likes of Australia, Japan and China start early in the morning.

Both moves would likely result in higher audiences in the Americas and Europe, but lower audiences in Asia and Oceania, making it impossible for F1 to please everyone in this scenario.

In addition, television audiences in America are rapidly declining, and F1’s increases (slim or otherwise) on the traditional platforms should be considered even better in that context.

While TV audiences initially rose as COVID hit in March 2020, figures soon went back into reverse and, as Hollywood Reporter put it, the gains “couldn’t reverse larger, systemic declines on ad-supported networks.”

For F1, and many other sports, traditional TV is only part of the picture, with fans able to easily access F1’s over-the-top platform and watch the live action, cutting the cord.

Or, alternatively, fans can watch bite sized highlights on F1’s YouTube channel, something that has only been available during the past few years.

Only F1 knows the true scale of how many fans in America are accessing this content, as F1 does not release these figures publicly.

But, given that F1 has seen slight increases via the traditional, yet declining, linear platforms, it therefore is an accurate statement to say that F1’s popularity in the US has increased, and more so with younger audiences.

With two more series of Drive to Survive on the horizon in the pipeline1, and a new race in Miami, things will only improve further for F1 stateside, as F1 begins to take off in the US.

Can F1 break through the glass ceiling and cut into the mainstream conversation in America? Only time will tell…

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1. See Episode 29 of the Australian Grand Prix podcast ‘In the Fast Lane‘, featuring Drive to Survive’s executive producer James Gay-Rees.