Will F1’s UK audience recover from its 2012 slump?

2013 F1 season

Sebastian Vettel, Red Bull, Melbourne, 2012F1 viewing figures in the UK grew for five consecutive seasons until last year, when they slumped back to their pre-2009 level. @DavidNelson, who writes the F1 Broadcasting blog, takes a look at what the data says about the success of F1’s move towards pay TV.

Last year’s abrupt reversal of F1’s recent growth in popularity in the UK came as half the live races vanished from free-to-air television. For the first time, the whole season was only available to watch live on Sky’s subscription service.

This is part of a Europe-wide trend which has seen Formula One move from primarily a free-to-air model to one which has half of the races exclusively live on a pay TV station.

Evidence from the first year of the plan in the UK shows that the move has turned viewers off. UK television audiences dropped to their lowest level since 2008. Furthermore, audience levels decreased an average of 12.7 percent compared with 2011, the last season broadcast live only on BBC:

http://www.f1fanatic.co.uk/charts/2012drivercolours.csv

1997 1998 1999 2000 2001 2002 2003 2004 2005 2006 2007 2008 2009 2010 2011 2012
Millions of viewers 4.51 4.87 4.55 4.07 3.93 3.59 3.5 3.07 3.08 2.75 3.61 4.01 4.38 4.41 4.62 4.1

As the graph shows, audiences for Formula 1 hit a low in the mid-2000s in the UK before recovering. Audience levels continued to rise as BBC became the Formula One broadcaster.

The 2012 season marked the first fall in viewership since 2006. Even so, average audiences remained above 4 million viewers for every race, showing that the appetite for Formula One is still healthy.

But a repeat of this drop in 2013 – and a similar trend in figures in other markets where the pay TV model is appearing – would set alarm bells ringing.

2012 versus 2011

Here’s how the UK’s viewership figures (in millions) for 2011 and 2012 compare race by race.

http://www.f1fanatic.co.uk/charts/2012drivercolours.csv

Australia Malaysia Bahrain China Spain Monaco Canada Turkey Europe Great Britain Germany Hungary Belgium Italy Singapore Japan South Korea India United States Abu Dhabi Brazil
2011 4.093 4.4738 4.8337 4.7496 5.1473 6.2063 3.8534 3.9289 4.9398 4.4119 4.7599 3.9025 4.2322 4.46 4.3763 4.1619 5.6084 4.6898 4.9435
2012 3.2492 3.9997 4.81925 5.1841 4.27595 3.96765 3.7863 4.63275 3.75451 3.5277 4.6741 3.2935 4.64145 4.09445 2.88145 3.25341 3.6714 3.5737 4.68095 6.0319

An interesting pattern emerges from the figures. When BBC have the race live, the average audience for both channels is 4.38 million, only 240,000 lower than in 2011, or a 5.5 percent drop. That number in isolation is a very good number, when you consider other factors, such as last year’s Olympic Games and Euro 2012 football torunament.

However, when you look at the races that Sky broadcast exclusively live and BBC show in highlights form, the average television audience is 3.88 million, nearly one million down on the 2011 average figure, or a mammoth 19.1 percent drop.

To put it simply – nearly one in five people are not tuning in when the race is covered exclusively live on Sky Sports. In addition, only one of the ten exclusive live races that Sky covered increased compared with on 2011 (Italy), the rest dropped significantly.

Unsurprisingly, the race that fell the most was Canada. In 2011, it recorded an average of 6.21 million viewers across BBC One and then BBC Two, compared with 3.79 million on Sky Sports F1 live and BBC One for their highlights show.

The figures for Canada and USA show that Formula One needs a terrestrial television presence, and more importantly, for those races need to be live on both BBC and Sky, as they bring in the casual audiences. It is the casual audience that they need to exploit, as they will be the ones that could turn to dedicated fans in the future, bringing in the big numbers to Formula One.

Elsewhere, Japan, India and Australia recorded significant drops, as the graph above shows. The 3.25 million viewers recorded for Australia was the lowest for a season opener since 2006.

Other circumstances

Felipe Massa, Ferrari, Melbourne, 2012Whilst the new broadcasting model goes some way to explain the drop, it must be noted that the decrease in viewing figures was also affected by external events. In 2012 competition for sports’ fans eyeballs in the UK came from the Olympics, Euro 2012 and Andy Murray making it to the Wimbledon final.

All of those events peaked at some point over 15 million, the Olympics bringing together nearly half of the country. Even if Formula One remained on BBC for every live race in 2012, in my opinion, figures would have still dropped.

How much they would have dropped by is impossible to say for certain. Looking at the evidence presented, the average would have been nearer 4.4 million than the 4.1 million it was in reality.

The first seven races of 2012 began arguably one of the most exciting seasons in recent times. Despite this, the average for those seven races was 4.18 million, compared with 4.77 million when Sebastian Vettel was dominating in 2011. Those races took place before the ‘Summer of Sport’, and their poor ratings cannot be attributed to competition from other big events.

Moving away from the traditional model

While the facility for viewers in the UK to time-shift F1 broadcasts and watch them on computers, phones and other devices has been around for several years, those in F1 claim last year’s television ratings drop was due to an increase in these other forms of viewing:

“I think we’re recognising that the world has changed,” said McLaren team principal Martin Whitmarsh. “The viewership of all conventional, live television is declining because people select it, record it, view it through different media. And we’ve got to be alive and alert to that.”

“The traditional sport was based on terrestrial TV but I think if you just focus on that then I think you’re missing lots and lots of opportunities,” he added. “We’ve still got a sport that on a fortnightly basis, March to November, has more than 100 million people watching it on TV in 140 countries around the world.”

“So those numbers are still large, we’d like them to be larger, but I think nowadays people watch television, they watch their computers, they watch their phones, in all sorts of different applications.”

Whitmarsh admitted that the move to pay television was “a threat to our conventional viewing audience” but believes F1 needs “to reach out through all different media outlets and make sure that it continues to make a very substantial impact as the third-largest sporting spectacle in the world.”

2013: Fewer free-to-air races, higher price

More downward pressure will be applied on UK audience figures for Formula One races this year as the number of free-to-air races shown on the BBC falls from ten to nine.

The BBC will broadcast the Chinese, Spanish, Canadian, British, Belgian, Italian, Japanese, Indian and Brazilian Grands Prix live.

Meanwhile the cost of a subscription to Sky’s F1 channel is set to rise by over ??160 to ??510 per year.

Over to you

Why do you think F1 television audiences fell in the UK last year, and what do you expect to happen this year?

And how will you be watching F1 in 2013? Have your say in the comments.

Share your thoughts on the BBC and Sky’s coverage throughout the season in these threads:

If you can’t watch all the races live and would like to find somewhere you can, join the F1 in Pubs group:

Notes on the data

All figures are official from BARB. Figures have been adjusted to take into account the longer airtime of Sky Sports’ F1 programmes in 2012 versus BBC F1’s coverage in 2011.

A look at the viewing figures show that Sky’s average programme figures from 11:30 to 16:15 for a typical race were 35% lower than their 12:10 to 15:15 average, which was the normal slot duration for BBC’s programmes. The non-adjusted average is 3.89 million viewers, lower than 2008 but higher than 2007.

This has been done to give a fair and representative comparison between the 2012 figures and those of previous seasons.

2013 F1 season


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

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150 comments on Will F1’s UK audience recover from its 2012 slump?

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  1. Hope so for those who pay it, hope not for those unable to see it because of the price.

  2. melkurion (@melkurion) said on 13th March 2013, 9:43

    I hope the viewing numbers will increase. Fans are the lifeblood of the sport!

    Kinda curious if this trend will duplicate here in the Netherlands, where 2013 is the frst year that there are no free-to-air broadcasts …

    Me and my F1 minded friends will not cause a dip, 4 out of 5 have taken out subsciptions to Sport 1, so we’ll still watch all the races together.

    • gwenouille (@gwenouille) said on 13th March 2013, 15:00

      Same here in France: no F1 on TF1 anymore, only on Canal+.
      That’s the end of live F12 for me…

      • Frieda (@frieda2) said on 9th July 2013, 11:52

        Well, in South Africa it’s been on pay-tv for a number of years and a number of people i know personally don’t watch anymore since it went off free-to-air. I, myself cannot afford the pay-tv subscription but have a very generous family who allow me to visit and watch at their house every race (although I am beginning to think I’m wearing out my welcome).

  3. robfff said on 13th March 2013, 9:43

    So 1 in 5 people stream it online when its not on BBC.

  4. vuelve kowalsky said on 13th March 2013, 9:43

    I think the sensible thing for cvc to do in the future should be, pay channels giving races live, and free channels giving full races delayed. Everybody wins. Cvc gets money from two networks at diferent prices, and all fans can watch the races. The hardcore fans live, and the regular fans same day taped.

    • Prisoner Monkeys (@prisoner-monkeys) said on 13th March 2013, 9:52

      Except that CVC doesn’t get so much as a cent from broadcasting deals. All of the money that networks spend acquiring the rights to broadcast Formula 1 is paid out to the teams at the end of the year as prize money.

      • This is not factually acurate. Although highly secret, the concensus of informed observers have suggested around the 53% mark of TV monies going to the teams in one form or another. (I particularly relate this to the fact that, as needed, Bernie Ecclestone plays teams false against one another in their individual “bonuses”) Although prize money is set, different weightings apply to different teams, and they have different initial down payments (for viewing rights, etc. such as Marrussia are still!! arguaing about for the 2013 season). I found this equally amusing and annoying during the last round of negotiations, for the reasons of it’s unfairness, and it’s unfailing repition…Teams say they want more money, Bernie says no. Teams say yes. Ferrari go with bernie and sign up for increased monies. Other teams say you can’t race without us. Bernie goes “meh!”. A couple of teams cave in: (I’m looking at you Williams!!!.) and get some extra benefits, before you know it everyone has signed. I’m laughing thinking about it again.

        Anyway, I’ve drifted off topic again. The upshot of this, of course, is that there is a large pot left over for things other than team money.

      • HoHum (@hohum) said on 13th March 2013, 13:12

        @prisoner-monkeys, it’s about time you stopped making these blatantly untrue propaganda statements for CVC/Bernie. Anyone wanting to know the real facts as @damleda writes only have to research CVC and B.Ecclestone using Google and Wikipedia.

      • Kelsier (@kelsier) said on 13th March 2013, 14:47

        Is it only me that think @prisoner-monkeys works as Bernies assistant?

      • vuelve kowalsky said on 13th March 2013, 19:47

        you are the man that knew too much. Like in the movie. Can you email us a copy of the concorde agreement. You must have it somewhere around your apartment.

    • Lin1876 (@lin1876) said on 13th March 2013, 9:56

      I think that’s a sensible suggestion. Much of the problem people has with Sky is paying for just 10 races. If all 20 were exclusively live, it would still be unpopular, but the price would be easier to justify.

      To be honest, I think will happen sooner or later, with the BBC maybe keeping the Monaco and British GPs. Let’s see what the viewing figures are after that.

    • Estesark (@estesark) said on 13th March 2013, 10:10

      You equate hardcore fans with fans who can afford an expensive Sky subscription, vuelve. They are definitely not the same thing. It irks me when people claim that hardcore fans will automatically pay whatever it takes to follow the sport.

    • David Nelson (@davidnelson) said on 13th March 2013, 13:45

      Not sure I agree. From an audience perspective, are you likely to watch a full race re-run if you already know the winner, and it isn’t a Brit? If anything, doing that would lead to viewing figures dropping further, in my opinion.

      I know it is not quite the same kettle of fish, but you only need to look at the Ashes’ drop in audience to see what happens when a sport moves fully to pay-TV live. In 2005, it was broadcast on Channel 4, with 7 million viewers at its peak. 4 years later, and only 1.5 million watched the victory on Sky.

  5. Roald (@roald) said on 13th March 2013, 9:59

    In the Netherlands, Formula 1 has moved to a channel that we have to pay for as well, much like the situation in England. It’s a lot cheaper though, partially because we can cancel our subscription any month we’d like to. That means we only have to pay from march until november, which is 9 months. It’s 15 euros a month, except for the first 3, they’re 5 euros a month. So that makes 105 euros for the entire season. I made a thread about it in the forums so Dutch fans can discuss the issue. It’s right here.

    It’s still a lot of money, but I was really blown away when I saw the amount of money British fans have to pay for Sky from now on! If it was that much over here, I wouldn’t have been able to afford it, it’s that simple. According to Sport1, a lot of Dutch fans have signed up because of their temporary deal which gets you the first 3 months for 5 euros each though, they do not have definitive numbers yet but according to them a lot of people understand that higher quality of Formula 1 coverage is worth spending money on. I kind of agree, of course I’d wish it was for free, but hobbies cost money and from now on so does ours. RTL aired the races for free but the races were constantly interrupted by commercials and the podium ceremonies were cut off by default because there wasn’t enough time left. They didn’t even send their commentators to the race, they were commenting on live streams in front of a tv. So all in all, I hope it’s worth the money!

    And like I said, Dutch fans are free to come and join the thread in the forums!

  6. In answer to the question, eh no. It’s going to get worse.
    My Nana (Grandmother) and Granda (Grandfather), three uncles and two aunt’s used to watch F1 religiously, and in fact it was the family time that brought me into the sport. The whole family used to watch. Up until last year, aside from the old folks, who have passed on, ‘god love ‘em’, I am now the only remaining family member who watches F1 consistently. My uncles and aunt who used to watch it, now only occasionally watch it on BBC, as I suspect for them, it was the drama of the season that made for a return on the comittment to watch every race. One uncle is a big motorsport fan, and he has switched to BTCC which he can watch free to air. Not a single one of my friends who enjoy motorsports either has, or intends to get a Sky subscription, and they also missed free to air races last year.
    This is all a crying shame, as I am very impressed with Sky’s ability to bring innovation to the broadcast.
    In respect to the original question though, who give’s a monkeys in the sport really. Ferrari? No. Maybe if they were branded FIAT. McLaren? No. Red Bull? No. In fact, outside of a few core manufacturers who would use F1 as a mechanism to sell/promote cars, then I think every single team is after one thing only: Money. If pay tv increases revenue at the expense of viewer numbers, then who really cares? Sky are only interested in subs count against cost. If they can make the figures work on a limited audience of a million subs who are there just for F1, then at £501 per year per person, theres 501 million pounds thank you very much. I undertand that Sky paid 45 million pounds for exclusivity and deeper access than anyone else in the world. That’s chicken feed if it guarantee’s that subs money. (Or pay per view money, if that model sticks this/next year).
    The teams don’t really need a massive audience if they are getting paid well, and advertisers actually respect a paying audience more than a free to air one, so the reduced figures might not be as much of a turn off to advertisers as they initially appear to be. Imagine you wanted to sponsor a team in return for increased sales of say, your new smart phones? Who would you want to target? four million unknown quantities, or 1 million paying Sky subscribers, who you immediately know are going to pay for luxury goods if they want/need them?

    On a related note, it is almost impossible to believe that this country (UK) is not headed toward big, big changes in the TV market toward increased commercialisation and I don’t think anyone sees the BBC existing as they do in twenty years time, although I hope I am wrong, as I love the beeb.

    • Matt Wiggins said on 13th March 2013, 12:19

      A very thoughtful and well written piece. I agree with virtually everything you said. I have also had a similar experience with friends and family. In previous F1 seasons I have encountered heathly conversation and debate around how a season develops and how people absorb the sport. Unfortunately I found last season that many of these conversations ended very quickly due to this group largely “floating viewers” who have been so vital in previous years (maybe not so now as you mentioned) had large gaps in their 2012 season. To the point of having very little interest by the end of the season. I’m not wholely sold on “f1 on the go” particularly as the technology and infrastructure is not at a level where viewers can sit down and watch a 2 hour race. I am intrigued to see how this F1 broadcasting blog is taken and what happens in the near future.

  7. Bullfrog (@bullfrog) said on 13th March 2013, 10:00

    That summer slump has a huge effect – didn’t realise how big. This year’s calendar makes more sense looking at that. Frustrating though for race fans, with some long waits in July & August.

    This year the US Grand Prix live on BBC should produce a nice spike in viewing figures late in the season. I remember how many people commented there that they didn’t want to watch highlights that late in the evening, they had work or school in the morning… same applied to the Canadian GP, so I hope BBC bags as many live races in the USA, Mexico etc as it can in the coming years.

    Keep us posted how pay-TV gets on in the Netherlands, Germany and Italy too (I hope it’s a disaster…)

    • Keith Collantine (@keithcollantine) said on 13th March 2013, 10:13

      @bullfrog

      This year the US Grand Prix live on BBC should produce a nice spike in viewing figures late in the season.

      But that race isn’t live on the BBC this year (as noted in the article).

      • Bullfrog (@bullfrog) said on 13th March 2013, 10:22

        Wishful thinking! Sorry for not reading it properly…I knew BBC had one of the US/Canada races live again but got the wrong one.

        Should still boost the ratings for Montreal.

      • HoHum (@hohum) said on 13th March 2013, 13:24

        Further to that, Bernies delay of the Australia GP to provide a European evening viewing time results in a 2am viewing time in E.Coast USA. I’ll stay up for a 2am FINISH but not a 2am start. Great way to get interest going in the USA, not.

        • David not Coulthard (@) said on 13th March 2013, 13:53

          Try having an alarm clock wake you up at 2 AM. The US and Canadian GPs here starts past midnight, but I still got to watch that Monaco 1970esque lap at Montreal, and go to school 2 or 3 hours later.

          • HoHum (@hohum) said on 13th March 2013, 15:23

            Thank you but I will do what I do for the other early am races, record it and watch at 8am with my morning coffee.

          • Steve W (@stevedub) said on 14th March 2013, 7:00

            Midnight races are a regular occurrence for us viewers in New Zealand. Most races start at midnight on Sunday night, with work on Monday morning, so we don’t get much sleep. And most of the races are in our Winter, too.

  8. David Banks said on 13th March 2013, 10:01

    I will be watching all the races live, as I have done for over 10 years. But I don’t have Sky Sports and I can’t afford it. So I will be watching those Sky races thru the internet I’m afraid to say!

    • Nick.UK (@) said on 13th March 2013, 10:54

      Don’t be affraid to admit it, I will too! It would be interesting to know the traffic those kind of sites experience for a Sky race.

    • Mark (@marlarkey) said on 13th March 2013, 21:44

      Its quite difficult to draw conclusions about overall interest and trends – other than the raw total figures went down when it was on pay TV – given that the entire viewing model changed so much from one year to the next.

      What will be of great interest is how 2013 compares with 2012. I’m expecting that viewing figures will pick up in 2013:
      – more F1 fans will “give in” and get Sky so they can watch
      – more people will be getting Sky HD anyway because people are gradually switching to HD and they’ll watch F1 on Sky as a side effect of having Sky HD
      – there is less sport competing for people’s attention this year.

      The bigger unknown is what will happen to viewing amongst those who already have Sky F1 available (Sky Sports and Sky HD subsribers) will they know be more intersted in F1 and start watching – or will people who watched F1 last year switch off this year.

      Viewing figures for football on Sky Sports steadily increased after the initial launch…. I expect the same to happen with F1.

      BTW the £510 cost of F1 only applies to those who have NO sky subscription already – the cost can be anything from as little as ZERO for people who already have a Sky subscription already. F1 on Sky adds value to an existing Sky Sports or Sky HD subscription without additional cost. [Note: I have no connection with Sky - just speaking as someone who enjoyed F1 on Sky last year without it costing me anything more than I was already paying for Sky HD].

  9. Funkyf1 (@funkyf1) said on 13th March 2013, 10:09

    Come to Australia and watch it then, we stay up to all hours of the night to watch some totally stripped broadcast of what could be a good event. We don’t even get a choice! Shame on FIA/CVC, whoever is responsible for not moving forward and allowing streaming whether by subscription or free to air. The issue is not who broadcasts it, it’s who wants to watch it??
    Be part of it or don’t, your choice. I know I’ll be having another few sleepless night this year to follow my passion

    • onemanstand said on 13th March 2013, 10:35

      Good point – streaming or pay-per-view is the way forward; there’s no way in hell I am subscribing to Sky just for F1.

  10. coefficient (@coefficient) said on 13th March 2013, 10:11

    I think a better picture will be seen after this season because we will see how many of the incensed BBC users that refused on principal to switch to Sky have melted in the 12 months since simply because they can’t go without their F1.

    I am one such person having endured last season with only 10 full races and 10 highlighted via the BBC and having called the Murdoch’s every name under the sun on this website and in every pub in my home town I will take delivery of my Sky HD this friday just in time for the first race weekend.

    Call me weak, I just can’t do another season like last year. I wonder how many people have gone the same way.

    • Nick.UK (@) said on 13th March 2013, 10:56

      You would pay all that money when internet streams are everywhere for free?

      • VoiseyS (@voisey) said on 13th March 2013, 11:40

        If you sign up before the 9th April then you don’t have to have Sky Sports package to view F1 HD, and there is currently a half price HD offer on, which means you can get F1 in HD for £26 per month.

    • Chris H (@wolfie9985) said on 13th March 2013, 14:33

      Certainly not. I will put that £510 towards going to Silverstone (again) this year and other useful applications.
      I could easily afford Sky with the full works, but I have no need for it other than a single channel, and at both last years price and especially this years’, is completely extortionate.

      The BBC package, given the situation they got themselves into, was extremely well done. Yes, some of the highlights packages were lacking. Yes, the American races were on far too late (which I believe is why Canada and US had lower viewing figures). Yes, I avoid news and the internet until the delayed highlights are on (really, waiting a few hours doesnt hurt).
      But would I trade what are, frankly, some minor inconveniences….for half a grand? Not a chance.

    • sonia luff (@sonia54) said on 13th March 2013, 18:33

      I watched all the races live last season and i Haven’t subscribed to Sky. There are plenty of good free streams out there

  11. inferno (@inferno) said on 13th March 2013, 10:16

    The whole free to air/pay to view debate and live/highlights debate doesn’t bother me either way. As we have a toddler and a busy life we always Sky+ the live race when it was/is on the Beeb and watched it later, usually when the kid is in bed. This allows us to skip some of the inane segments and long cautions and replay the good bits. The current highlights show the BBC airs does this for us anyway so we don’t see any difference in our personal viewing experience now that only half the races are live.

    We ARE a Sky customer, but there is no way I’ll pay the extra for sports as I’m not a fan. Maybe if they offered the F1 channel by it’s self I’d be interested, but probably not. They get enough of my money!

  12. pozidriva (@pozidriva) said on 13th March 2013, 10:25

    I subscribed to Sky last year, just the basic HD package, soley for the purpose of getting my F1 fix, Sky raised the price once already about 6 months ago, only a small increase, but still an increase, If u had not already subscribed then the latest hike would have priced it out of my reach, most people are having to tighten their belts and when all is said and done F1 is a hobby, its not an essential, If the price rises again it will be out of my reach and like others i will seek alternative ways to view.
    Being a Brit i paid my licence fee to assist in having F1 without commercial breaks, now we pay Sky and still have commercial breaks, though not yet throughout the race itself, Its hardly surprising the viewing figures have dipped, and i believe they’ll dip even further as more people make sacrifices between lifes luxuries and lifes essentials.

  13. petechad (@petechad) said on 13th March 2013, 10:26

    Surely one of things that affects highlight packages for the casual viewer is that there is a high chance they will have found out who the winner was before watching it, this massively kills the excitement and buzz of it.

  14. onemanstand said on 13th March 2013, 10:33

    It’s a shame this is motivated by money and not the fans – of course everyone needs to make money but my view is that this trend will do nothing but damage viewing figures and alienate fans even more.

    I would not mind, but there is a ton of money being made in advertising, sponsorship, collaborations and endorsements. I feel greed is the motivator and an exclusive, not inclusive, atmosphere pervades the entire F1 operation.

    Put simply, the powers that be actually do not give a toss about the fans.

  15. Alex (@alex-the-god) said on 13th March 2013, 10:33

    I would never pay to watch F1 and if it’s not live why would I bother?

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