UK F1 television audience falls after BBC/Sky deal


Lee McKenzie, Daniel Ricciardo, Melbourne, 2012The loss of live coverage of half of the F1 calendar from free-to-air television in the UK prompted furious debate 12 months ago.

A key concern was the potential damage it would do to television audiences in the UK with many people unable or unwilling to pay a minimum of ??381 to see the ten races not shown live on free-to-air television.

With one of the first season under the new arrangement behind us, how has the move away from live, free-to-air broadcasts affected F1 audiences in the UK? Here’s a look at the viewing figures for the BBC and Sky’s coverage.

2011 live vs 2012 live

With half of the races no longer live on free-to-air television, the total number of people watching the races has inevitably fallen.

Adding together the average live viewership for the first 11 races of 2011 shows they were watched by 45.7m people, an average of 4.15m per race.

Over the same races* in 2012 to date the corresponding totals are 24.15m viewers, averaging 2.2m per race. For the five races which were shown live on both the BBC and Sky, the average is 3.8m – much closer to 2011, but still a fall of 9.5%.

Here’s how many million live viewers each race received (the same unit is used for each graph):

Australia Malaysia China Bahrain / Turkey* Spain Monaco Canada Europe Britain Germany Hungary
2011 BBC Live 2.1 3.5 3.3 3.2 4.7 5 6.2 3.9 4.9 4.3 4.6
2012 Sky live + BBC live 0.714 0.906 3.404 0.819 4.023 3.665 0.924 4.331 3.655 0.989 0.718

The obvious drawback with these figures is they do not reflect viewers who do not have Sky’s F1 channel and instead watched the delayed highlights of the first six races which were not shown live on the BBC.

Attempting to account for these viewers is where the picture gets complicated, as we have no way of knowing how many repeat viewers there may have been.

2011 live vs 2012 live plus BBC highlights

Here are the viewing figures for the first highlights programme for each of the six races which were not shown live on the BBC have been included.

These figures will inevitably over-state the extent of F1 viewership this year as some people will have watched both the live broadcast and the repeat of some races – particularly those who wanted to compare Sky and BBC’s coverage.

Given that, it is significant that these figures for 2012 still fall short of what was achieved in 2011: the total number of viewers reaches 41.15m (down by 4.55m), an average of 3.74m per race (down by 0.41m).

Here’s the race-by-race figures:

Australia Malaysia China Bahrain / Turkey* Spain Monaco Canada Europe Britain Germany Hungary
2011 BBC Live 2.1 3.5 3.3 3.2 4.7 5 6.2 3.9 4.9 4.3 4.6
2012 Sky live + BBC live + BBC highlights 3.414 3.606 3.404 4.419 4.023 3.665 3.224 4.331 3.655 3.089 4.318

Qualifying the data

Inevitably it is impossible to do a like-for-like comparison with these kinds of figures. The best we can do it to make the most of the numbers that are available to us and be wary of their limitations.

Coinciding programmes or exceptional events may have inflated or depressed viewing figures on occasions. The 2011 Canadian Grand Prix viewing figures were very high because a lengthy rain stoppage meant the race ended up being shown in prime-time.

Had that happened this year it would have made little differences as the race was not live on the BBC anyway. This year’s Malaysian Grand Prix did run late due to rain but, again, it was not live on free-to-air television.

This year’s races have faced competition from the likes of the Wimbledon men’s finals (British Grand Prix) and the Olympics (Hungarian Grand Prix). The BBC moved the British and German Grands Prix to BBC2 instead of BBC1, which usually delivers higher viewing figures.

Sky recorded their highest viewing figure for the German Grand Prix on a weekend when their F1 channel was provided at no extra cost to Sky subscribers who did not have the channel in their package, as part of a promotion.

Finally we should note this analysis covers 11 of the first 20 races, of which six were not live on free-to-air television, but five of the remaining nine will be.

Here are all the race viewing figures for the first 11 races of 2011 and 2012, separated by broadcaster. For the BBC in 2012 the figures for their first highlights programme has been used where they did not show the race live:

Australia Malaysia China Bahrain / Turkey* Spain Monaco Canada Europe Britain Germany Hungary
2011 BBC Live 2.1 3.5 3.3 3.2 4.7 5 6.2 3.9 4.9 4.3 4.6
2012 BBC Live or first highlights 2.7 2.7 2.9 3.6 3.5 3.1 2.3 3.8 3.2 2.1 3.6
2012 Sky Live 0.714 0.906 0.504 0.819 0.523 0.565 0.924 0.531 0.455 0.989 0.718

Average viewing figures for each programme have been used throughout. These were obtained from the BARB and the BBC.

Sky said they prefer to use peak rather than average figures, as their F1 programmes tend to be slightly longer and therefore the average viewerships are lower. When asked, the BBC provided peak viewing figures for their 2011 and 2012 race broadcasts but Sky declined to.

Here is how the BBC’s average and peak figures compared for the first 11 races of this year. Their peak figures are around 25% higher on average:

Australia Malaysia China Bahrain / Turkey* Spain Monaco Canada Europe Britain Germany Hungary
2012 BBC average 2.7 2.7 2.9 3.6 3.5 3.1 2.3 3.8 3.2 2.1 3.6
2012 BBC peak 3.2 3.2 4.1 4.1 4.5 4.2 3.1 5 4.8 2.4 4

What the broadcasters say


Simon Lazenby, Martin Brundle, Christian Horner, Damon Hill, Melbourne, 2012A Sky spokesperson highlighted the extended time they have been able to give to F1 programming through having their own channel: “We?ve given longer lead ups, analysis and stayed on air for longer post-race ?ǣ meaning we?ve brought viewers coverage of incidents like the Williams fire at the Spanish Grand Prix.”

Sky stated that the rise in the use of mobile devices and time-shifting digital video recorders means that television audience figures have become less useful as a means of measuring popularity.

“Given the extra hours and programming we dedicate to each race and the days and weeks in between, we don?t measure our success by viewing figures,” they added.

“We?re also giving more coverage than even before to the feeder series and the F1 stars of the future, with live GP2 and GP3 and live qualifying too where possible. We?re giving these drivers and teams the opportunity to offer extra value and ways to be seen to their sponsors and we?ve invited personalities from these series to appear on The F1 Show.”


A BBC spokesperson told F1 Fanatic: “There is no evidence to suggest that F1 fans are no longer watching. There are excellent peaks of up to 5m for live and around 4m for highlights.

“It is probably more of a case that in such a huge year of sport with Euro 2012, the Olympics and Paralympics on top of the usual sport offering that there is so much choice out there for sports fans – a large audience contingent engage with whatever is the main sport event on at the time.

“It is important to acknowledge that F1 fans can still access the entire season free-to-air on the BBC, through a mix of live and extended highlights which bring all the action from the race.”

The BBC said they were “very pleased with the figures” adding “overall F1 is doing well”.


Fernando Alonso, Ferrari, Monaco, 2012Even by the most optimistic assessment, F1 viewing figures in the UK have clearly fallen over the first 11 races of 2012 compared to last year. At three of the first five races which were shown live on both channels, combined audiences figures failed to match those of 2011.

The Monaco Grand Prix is considered one of the prized races for F1 broadcasters. When the BBC/Sky race share deal was first announced it was one of the three races BBC immediately confirmed it would screen live in 2012.

The race did not clash with any other major sporting events on free-to-air television. Yet between them, Sky and the BBC attracted less than three-quarters of the 2011 audience.

Even when the BBC’s delayed highlights are factored in – which creates the potential for double-counting viewers – the totals still fall short of last year.

Analysing this kind of data is never straightforward and there are mitigating factors to take into account, many of them noted above. But we should be sceptical of the view expressed by the likes of Martin Whitmarsh recently that the rise of new media means falling television viewing figures are not a concern.

F1 audiences in the UK were on a clear upward trajectory until this year, and it seems wishful thinking to blame new media for the sudden reversal of that trend. If anything, the growth of real-time media such as Twitter and the wealth of information available to fans during races makes following races live even more appealing than before.

Following the announcement of the Sky/BBC deal last year, Bernie Ecclestone indicated viewing figures on subscription television could be sufficient to justify moving F1 off free-to air television entirely:

“We will never move all countries to pay?per?view only though it wouldn’t make any difference here in the UK,” said Ecclestone. “Sky reaches over 10m [households]. We don’t get 10m on the BBC, normally about 6m or 7m.” Clearly the figures at present do not come close to that. It remains to be seen how they will change over the rest of the season.

In the second half of last year the championship was a foregone conclusion and Red Bull were seldom threatened in the races – a potential turn-off for casual viewers.

This year’s championship and races are far closer. It will be a very poor sign if the UK’s viewing figures for the second half of the season are not better than last year’s.

Meanwhile Formula One Management has already used the UK set-up as a model for similar deals elsewhere, including Italy, where only nine F1 races will be broadcast live on free-to-air television next year.

Over to you

What’s your view on how the F1 television audience in the UK has been affected by the BBC/Sky deal? Has the new arrangement changed how you watch F1?

Have your say in the comments.

*The Bahrain Grand Prix appeared in place of the Turkish Grand Prix on the 2012 calendar.

F1 on television

Images ?? Red Bull/Getty images, Red Bull/Getty images, Ferrari/Ercole Colombo

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128 comments on UK F1 television audience falls after BBC/Sky deal

  1. Hey :) my views of this, is that i was like many F1 fans, last year, was disgusted by the Sky F1 deal. but after watching the races, live on sky & have watched a live race on the BBC too. Id rather watch Sky’s coverage. i am eating my words from last year, saying that Sky would ruin F1, but they havent. Sky have taken it to a whole new level :) and the amount of access there is to us F1 fans, its liike a childrens playground. BBC have gone downhill this year, i’m glad that Sky had Ted from the BBC, like his tech stuff and Martins grid walk too. I do feel sorry, for the fans, who arent willing to pay to watch F1.

    • Our family has been watching F1 for years. Grandad is a sky subscriber, me and hubby won’t pay extra so our kids only watch the highlights…how mean are we ! We did watch some of the sky coverage online but didn’t think it was as engaging as the BBC…Sky seemed to lack a bit of enthusiasm to me, but it’s personal preference I guess. We watch the highlights and the online coverage. Hubby has the timings off the F1 site on another monitor which is good to have. I know Eddie is entertaining in his way, I guess… but I can only cope with him in small doses. This season is way more interesting than last and it’s a shame some people are missing out imho.

  2. xjr15jaaag (@xjr15jaaag) said on 6th September 2012, 19:44

    With one less sporting programme for the BBC to show, does that mean that the Beeb will be able to afford the full season, etc next year?
    Or is this deal with Sky a multi-year deal?

    • JimmyTheIllustratedBlindSolidSilverBeachStackapopolis III said on 6th September 2012, 19:49

      if you are referring to the olympics those numptys have spent x hundred million to broadcast it for another 8 years or in real terms 4 weeks… 4 weeks of olympics for 3 years of f1 thanks bbc director general you ****

  3. AndrewTanner (@andrewtanner) said on 6th September 2012, 19:50

    I wonder how much of an impact Sky Go has had on things? I see many people on Twitter enjoying F1 through shared Sky Go accounts using their Xbox, laptop, iPad or whatever else. I fully don’t expect that this figure will be in the millions but I expect it will be a figure that grows in importance as the years roll on.

    Back in my early teens I would have F1 on TV in the background, a comfort for a Sunday afternoon and that’s about it. I expect that most people tuning into Sky will be watching the race quite intently and certainly more so than I did 10-12 years ago. Anyone can switch the TV on and leave it running, particularly with the BBC. Higher viewing figures look good on paper but I would argue it’s the ‘quality’ of those viewers which also counts, at least when it comes to gauging success if not exposure. It’s a difficult one.

    There’s no way that Sky could ever attract the figures the BBC did, but playing it purely as a numbers game does seem to make things sound more dramatic and grim for the future of F1.

    I expect people are still annoyed about missing many races this year but over time the viewership on Sky may increase when people actually start to miss their sport.

  4. matt90 (@matt90) said on 6th September 2012, 19:58

    “It is probably more of a case that in such a huge year of sport with Euro 2012, the Olympics and Paralympics on top of the usual sport offering that there is so much choice out there for sports fans – a large audience contingent engage with whatever is the main sport event on at the time.”

    A pretty weak sounding excuse I think. Particularly as the figures looked at here only show 1 race affected by either Olympics or Paralympics.

  5. F1Yankee (@f1yankee) said on 6th September 2012, 20:01

    to have the numbers waning while the racing is so strong…not good.

  6. “There is no evidence to suggest that F1 fans are no longer watching.”
    Jesus, the old saying goes ‘you can try and fool yourself but deep down you know the truth, its only yourself you are cheating’.
    I don’t think there is anyone that buys that tripe. This year is the first year in 26 years that I have missed more than two live races in a season and it is only just over half way through the season; that is very sad and sums it up. I was made redundant in March so even if principals didn’t come into it I was priced out of the market for live F1 in 2012, and to be fair I feel so cheated I didn’t even watch the highlights of one race, such a shame, you can run but you can’t hide from the truth despite the PR statements.

  7. Eddie (@wackyracer) said on 6th September 2012, 20:28

    Im watching it on free stream, SKY F1 Channel, but just because im from Macedonia and here we don’t have pay tv and stuff like that is just cable tv and it has ****** channels and our nacional tv is airing F1 but the commentators are ****** and don’t know anything. If i could i would buy to watch the Sky f1 channel, they offer a great experience to follow the drivers onboard and those stuff, radio msgs and so on

  8. snowman (@snowman) said on 6th September 2012, 20:48

    On the comparison with 2011 about 2 million for Australia and 1 million for Malaysia watched the BBC highlights, so add them substantial figures unto the live race in 2011 which would leave only 3 races scoring higher this year which is appalling.

  9. snowman (@snowman) said on 6th September 2012, 20:53

    Sky hit an all time low with 330,000 average viewers for Belgium.

  10. Racer (@racer) said on 6th September 2012, 20:55

    As someone without the Sky F1 channel I have had to wait until the BBC highlights show to see the race, in the meantime trying to avoid hearing the result and sometimes failing. The exception was the Hungarian GP which I ‘watched’ on a terrible stream that spent more time frozen than actually playing, luckily I didn’t really miss anything as it was such an uneventful race, but I don’t think I could bear that for an exciting race. Maybe I’m watching the wrong stream or maybe it’s my computer that is the problem.

    There’s no point trying to put into words how I feel about the deal, but one thing that really does annoy me is the way Bernie and other people are allowed to make these nonsensical statements without being pulled up on it. The F1 media just aren’t tough enough, just nodding as Bernie sprouts his drivel before asking a new, unrelated question. If only Jeremy Paxman could do an interview with Bernie and the other politicians masquerading as F1 personnel..

  11. pwright78 (@pwright78) said on 6th September 2012, 21:16

    I already had Sky Sports so we’ve been able to see all of the live races this year. We tried going back to the BBC coverage for a comparison but quickly gave up as the Sky coverage really is in a different league. Jake Humphrey is a far superior anchor to Simon Lazenby, and I could easily believe today’s Twitter rumours that Jake could be on Sky’s shopping list. However I can’t see him leaving the BBC when he gets the wider presenting opportunities afforded by the BBC like covering the Olympics. Having said that, now London 2012 is over he may be tempted, hence why the rumours are so believeable.

    Johnny Herbert has been a great success as an analyst, bringing a lighter touch to proceedings. I followed Damon avidly 20 years ago, but he has struggled when he has been the analyst on his own. Ted is reliable and has the connections in the pitlane to get access and useful bits of information – his walking interview with Christian Horner when the legality of the Red Bull was under the spotlight was pure theatre, particularly when Horner tried to suggest Ted wasn’t allowed to follow him into the pitlane when Ted knew full well he could carry on with a line of questioning that Horner was being rather unsettled by.

    The “Skypad” was a bit gimmicky at the start of the season, but Antony Davidson clearly relishes what the technology allows him to show the viewer. Being able to freeze – frame and move the camera angle around the virtual cars at the start from Spa to show Maldonado’s jump start and the build up to the shunt demonstrated its value.

    However my Wife in particular is not impressed with Georgie Thompson, and feels her body language in front of the camera can appear awkward , frequently talking with her back to the camera. I’m told her outfits are often a little inappropriate, and always contrast heavily with Natalie Pinkham who will be in her usual Sky pitlane gear while Georgie is in a cocktail dress. Natalie has the journalistic background and will produce good films and interviews over the weekend, whereas despite her Sky Sports News background, Georgie often seems ill at ease still, even with half the season now gone. She may be better on the F1 Show, but we tend to miss this as Friday evenings are for more than watching F1!

    Those are just our views, but we have certainly found the Sky coverage an improvement, and having tried to watch F1 when we’ve been abroad the coverage does seem of higher quality than many other national broadcasters – particularly in the US where if you are staying in the wrong hotel without Speed you can forget about catching a race. Whether the Sky deal ultimately takes away the mass audiences that F1 has been built on and subsequently leads to a decline in sponsors is another question, but the Premier League has survived since 1992. Whether it has survived for the better is another matter entirely.

  12. Aimal (@aimalkhan) said on 6th September 2012, 21:20

    awww.. look at lee mckenzie smiling. isnt she just lovely ? :D

  13. xjr15jaaag (@xjr15jaaag) said on 6th September 2012, 21:34

    I suppose what’s most infuriating is the BBC saying that everything is fine with the services being provided; they keep banging on about how we can still watch the whole season for free, and it is quite frustrating, as with highlights you can never get the full picture of what’s going on.
    What I’d do is get a free, foreign stream and play the radio 5 Live over the top of it.

  14. StefMeister (@stefmeister) said on 6th September 2012, 21:36

    I’ve watched both Sky & BBC coverage though the year, Sky live every race & some of the BBC highlight shows, I also watch the BBC live Pre/post race coverage alongside the Sky coverage when there both live.

    Early in the year I thought the BBC Pre/post race was better, However I think since about Monaco the Sky Pre/post race coverage has been better more often than not, They have made great use of there analysis tools & having guys like Herbert & McNish to give some extra drivers analysis of race incidents has been great.

    Jake is a better lead presenter than Simon Lazenby & I think Damon Hill was a weak point for Sky early on but has improved more recently.

    One area I love about sky is there interactive coverage, I love the extra options they have avaliable for every session, In the past BBC had the OnBoard & Driver tracker avaliable for races only but Sky have those + more for every session.
    Yes sky have Commercials during practice sessions, However those Ad’s don’t appear on the extra red button feeds so during Ad’s I just switch to an OnBoard feed or the brilliant Pit Lane channel (which also has the fom world feed in a pip window) & so miss no track action.
    Been able to go to an OnBoard or listen to team radio on the pits channel during the more dull parts of a practice session or race is simply brilliant & really add’s a great deal to the coverage overall.

    Sky’s Red Button race control:

    I’ve had some frustrations with what feeds Sky have made avaliable at times (Often dropping the FOM directed OnBoard-Mix for there own Highlights feed), But overall Im loving the quality & depth of Sky’s coverage & especially all the extra feeds they are providing.

    I especially like the pit lane feed, Loads of great team radio clips on there:
    BBC do have this for there live qualifying & races but not for practice where its often just as intresting to watch/listen to.

    Personally I would be dissapointed if the coverage went away from sky & we lost having these extra feeds avaliable for every session, I really love having them avaliable at all times :)

    • bosyber (@bosyber) said on 6th September 2012, 21:57

      I agree with a lot of what you and @pwright78 say. I do often find the BBC enjoyable still, Sky is a bit more forced at times (but then again, I have BBC on my TV so bigger better image, Sky I’d have to get a stream, which works, but is worse quality).

      Though I don’t think I’d be able to take the Sky package now if it was offered, seeing your RedButton shot makes me wish very very much that the “new media” thin Sky talks off would allow someone to offer that to anyone around the world, not just the UK. But Bernie right now doesn’t want that (until Sky pay a very much larger pile of cash I suppose …)

    • Kimi4WDC said on 7th September 2012, 0:43

      Jealous. I understand don’t if they are “the main” broadcaster why have country restriction. If they drop the price of their subscription by 10 and have open borders they will make hundreds times more in profit.

  15. Kind of obvious findings.

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