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Late race starts see F1 TV viewing figures crash

NEWS STORY
14/02/2010

We've heard of shooting oneself in the foot but this is ridiculous. A report written by Pitpass' business editor Chris Sylt in the Mail on Sunday reveals that F1 lost 80 million viewers last year as a result of later race start times. The news comes directly from Formula One Management's annual F1 global broadcast report which reveals that F1's viewing figures slumped 13% to 520 million in 2009 and the decrease could put a big dent in the revenues of the rights-holder.

The BBC reportedly pays £30 million annually to broadcast F1 and its rate is believed to be one of the highest in the sport. In total F1 receives an estimated £290 million from broadcast rights every year and this comprises around a third of its turnover. However, a decline in viewer numbers could lead to broadcasters demanding lower fees when re-negotiating their deals. It is the 10-20% of the TV deals which are re-negotiated annually that are at most risk of being reduced in value as broadcasters may demand lower fees given the slump in figures.

It is truly remarkable that F1 got itself into this situation where its viewing figures crashed last year not due to the recession but largely due to decisions of its own making. The 2008 Grand Prix on the streets of Singapore was the first night race in the sport's history and the timing was deliberately chosen so that it could be broadcast in the morning in Europe instead of being shown during the middle of the night. This trend accelerated last year with the Australian GP starting later and the new race in Abu Dhabi beginning at twilight and ending under floodlights.

A consequence of the later local start times was that these races were broadcast in the evening in Asia which, according to the F1 global broadcast report, "meant that Formula One was broadcast in direct competition with domestic sports such as the Chinese Football Association Super League."

China was previously F1's biggest market but a massive 30.5 million fewer viewers watched the sport there in 2009 driven by the later broadcast time. Likewise, TV viewing figures collapsed in Japan from 38.5 million to 32.4 million.

Last year China was overtaken by Brazil where 93.6 million people watched F1 during the season. However, even this was a drop of 16.8 million viewers on the previous year as fewer people tuned in following the accident that put out local hero Felipe Massa mid-way through the season. The TV audience even fell in strong markets such as Spain and Poland as Alonso and Kubica struggled to perform.

One market which had no such trouble was the UK. Last year F1 was watched in the UK by 30.8 million viewers comprising over 50% of the population. This was good news for the BBC since 2009 was the first year of its current contract to broadcast the sport and it was a 6% increase on ITV's audience in 2008. The driving force behind the increase was, of course, Jenson Button's successful world championship challenge and the biggest audience of the year was for the Brazilian Grand Prix when 16.2 million people watched him win the world championship.

With more and more races going to Asia, and growing numbers of fans of the sport in that part of the world, F1 may soon have to re-think its start-time strategy.

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