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. Bobdredds (@bobdredds) said on 14th April 2013, 22:15

    Ecclestone chasing free Sky Sports F1 boxe:
    “Ecclestone’s comments also suggest that he may be open to the entire season returning to a free-to-air channel in the near future”
    Looks like the Sky move was a disaster and now they have to admit defeat and redress it. I think formula E will be successful in the future and if F1 doesnt change back to freeview it will lose out significantly against it IMHO. I guess the fans who were against payview were right after alll.

    • Yes, if Formula E goes FTA it’ll impact greatly on F1 viewing, and as Sky (after 3 races) have lost 16% of last years viewers, F1 has to act very quickly to stop the slide into obscurity Sky is facilitating.

  2. Three reasons why viewing figures are falling. 1) pay tv 2) one team/driver domination 3) drivers are not really racing anymore. Drive at 90% for most of the race looking after tyres. I’ve been a fan since the early 80’s but i find myself becoming frustrated and bored with it now. I will be cancelling my Sky TV deal at the end of the season and will not watch next season unless it becomes more competitive.

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