Sebastian Vettel, Red Bull, Melbourne, 2012

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

2013 F1 seasonPosted on | Author David Nelson

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:

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.

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.

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

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

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  1. Is that graph correct? There’s no data for the 2012 US GP, but apparently there was 3.5m viewers watching the non-existent 2011 US GP.

    1. @beejis60 The graph shows that 3.57m watched the 2012 US GP, so it’s fine.

      1. Then the colors must be backward on my computer or something as the graph shows in my browser there was a 2011 US GP and a 2012 Turkish GP.

        1. Yeah, the colours seem a little screwy.

  2. When was the last time I watched F1 on TV? One time, Budapest – I was switching my internet provider. I watch every other race of the season on internet . 2012.

    If I had an option to get Sky’s F1 HD on my laptop (Australia) with on demand replays of ongoing season, I would.

  3. I don’t think it’s fair to call the BBC “free to air” TV. It isn’t. There is a licence fee which is payable to view the channels. Comparing the total package costs of the licen fee channels and Sky would be a better comparison.

    Of course the Sky package cost looks like it’s very expensive, but who would only buy the licence fee to watch F1 races exclusively. No-one. Which is why it isn’t fair to assume that the same is true of Sky viewers. The basic Sky package costs £21.50 per month (in Standard definition) and includes 40 channels, over and above any that exist on Freeview, where this obviously some duplication. It’s the cost of the Sky package across those channels that needs to be compared, as it does with the licence fee for the terrestrial channels.

    If you only watched F1 on the BBC you would pay £145.50 for 9 races. That is £16.16 per race.

    If you watched F1 on Sky (with the HD pack) you would pay £348 for 19 races. That’s £18.32 per race. This excludes all the content around Practices, the F1 show, replays of Classic GP’s etc.

    Puts a different perspective on the “value” of the BBC vs. Sky.

    1. @voisey Your figures are wrong as you incorrectly assume Sky viewers do not have to pay the licence fee.

      Updated information on the minimum cost of buying a Sky F1 channel package can be found here.

    2. sorry, but your figures don’t stack up. I can’t think of one single Sky-commissioned programme that I would pay for. On the BBC on the other hand I have countless documentaries, at least a half-decent television news service, 9 live F1 races, etc., etc., for a fraction of the cost of the basic Sky package plus HD package/Sports package. It’s a no-brainer. Decent public-service TV is something that is done pretty well in the UK. I don’t see that Sky has offered anything in terms of original programming, on the other hand.

      1. Alex (@alex-the-god)
        13th March 2013, 16:44

        I agree, I had Foxtel (Australia’s Sky) and there was nothing worth watching so I cancelled it as I was not watching it

  4. Quicker analysis for you, ITV made a mess of F1 and viewers turned off, BBC improved things greatly and viewers returned (combined with Lewis being hyped into the sport), then viewers dropped off as BBC lost half the races and many not making the move to Sky that they predicted they would. It will continue to drop whilst it remains behind a paywall!

    1. I can’t really agree with that. What didn’t help ITV was Schumacher’s domination in the early 2000’s which sent figures to 3 million. It was only in 2007 with Lewis Hamilton’s emergence that figures rose again in the UK.

  5. The annual cost of TV subscription in India for ESPN-Star Sports watching F1 comes to 21 Euros a year..

  6. i’ve said this before, but i can watch f1 on swiss, german and austrian tv.. all of them are subscribtion-free!
    i mainly watch it on austrian tv, since it doesn’t habe any commercial-breaks and the commentators are great.

    i don’t see the licences in these three countries moving to pay-tv, except maybe germany, since the channel that broadcasts it there is a private one, while the swiss and austrian channels are run by the gouvernment, so i’ll happily continue watching f1 for at least the next few years

  7. I’d like to know if the threatened commercials during the races have surfaced this season?

    1. Same as last year – no adverts during Qualifying or Race.

    2. Sky know Ad’s would put people off, And likely get people switching over to the BBC when there live so there unlikely to ever include Ad’s during races.

      I also gather there was some agreement with Martin Brundle that they would not include Ad’s.

  8. You also have to remember that combining the BBC and Sky figures together, leads of a false increase in viewing figures, as many people will watch both broadcasts and therefore NOT be ‘unique’ viewers, something another F1 web site called Pit Pass got comically wrong.

    Unique viewers in the UK dropped by just over 22% from 2011 to 2012.

    1. Pitpass can be safely ignored because most of the editorial is what Bernie wants broadcast under the guise of free press. If you hear others mention ‘Bernie’s Parrot’, they’re almost always talking about Pitpass’s Christian Sylt

      Just like Planet F1 is basically Sky F1 (all the same writers), even though they deny any formal linkup.

  9. Daniel (@collettdumbletonhall)
    13th March 2013, 19:27

    It’ll continue to decrease in my opinion. I used to watch F1 religiously until last year but now I don’t even get up for the early morning BBC races.
    I know many people who went from being casual viewers to not caring at all and with SKY’s prices increasing I imagine this trend will only continue. Such a shame really.

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

    Shame on those who paid for sky last year, you let them in f1. Now look what they have done.

    We had f1 for free, and now you have to pay £510. I won’t be following f1 as closely as I used to, and I won’t be paying for it or supporting it in any way.

  11. “Will viewing figures recover”?


  12. Speaking of viewing figures, the Figures for Sky’s live testing coverage was higher than expected-

    As to the future, I would actually expect a moderate increase for this year & then figures remaining fairly stable over 2014/2015.

    Regarding the drop in 2012, The figures also went down in a majority of other country’s including those who’s TV deal’s had not changed after 2011. Sky/BBC deal didn’t help but it was a world-wide downward trend.

    1. The testing ratings were hardly conclusive because it was a) the first proper F1 on TV for 4 months and b) they were doing a pointless 3D filming test at Barcelona.

  13. Here in Macedonia we got it on the national tv but the commentators dont know anything about F1 and i can’t watch it there, better to go on stream

  14. F1 will go the way of cricket and football an slowly consume itself, like entropy, theres no gettin away from it.

  15. Apart form TV rights, the CVC should offer a tv and online service for every F1 action much to the similarity with NBA and NFLs “League pass”. for £150 a year all 82 games plus playoff for the nba at least.

    1. Can’t happen due to the TV contracts.

      Pretty much all the broadcasters have exclusivity clauses in there contracts preventing anyone else from showing coverage in that region.

      The Sky/BBC deal gives those broadcasters exclusive online rights for the UK so even if FOM were to offer an online streaming service it would be geo-blocked in the UK & the same would be true just about everywhere else that had similar exclusivity clauses.

      The NBA/NFL have online services because of the way the broadcast deals work in the US. The networks who broadcast the games also produce the TV broadcast (Same with pretty much everything else over there) & this gives them a lot more freedom as they don’t need to worry about world-wide broadcasters or contracts as FOM does.

  16. Ahh. My personal favourite subject :-)

    My final post to this thread (I promise) is a link to an article from Bloomberg and quotes Bob Bernley of Force India. A lot of my personal headaches with the sport are ones he shares entirely, and I think it is pertinent to the issues of monies and audience share being discussed here:

  17. Damn that posted when I hit return. Anyway, the interesting figures are thus:

    699 million dollars from a 1.5 billion pot are distributed to the teams from CVC. CVC have made an estimated 3 billion dollars from their initial 1 billion investment, and are hoping to make up to another 4 billion from either an IPO or private share sales.

    Let’s be brutally honest here. The commercial rights holders are only interested in short term profits, and are not interested in the sport long term.

    I just do not see any data to suggest that this might be the case. :-(

  18. Up to 2012 I watched most F1 races (except when they were on ITV as the ad breake ruined the coverage). Last year I watched 2 or 3. As I couldnt watch the whole season I found it easier just not to bother. I dont have any pay TV (licence excepted) and watch all my TV on Freeview, the clue is in the “Free” part of Freeview.

  19. I was going to tell the story of the greedy people behind Bernie and F1 but realised it wouldn’t get past the sensor so i wont.

  20. Interesting to note Sky’s coverage of the Australian GP lost over 18% of viewers compared to their 2012 broadcast, and their qualifying lost over 39% compared to 2012.

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