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Liberty Media reveals 5% crash in F1 TV audience

NEWS STORY
11/11/2018

As in 2017, Lewis Hamilton won the title at the Mexican Grand Prix but, according to a report in Forbes, it made much less of an impact this time around.

Since Liberty bought F1 last year it has launched one marketing initiative after another, all supposed to increase interest in the sport. It has spent millions on everything from a new logo to a theme tune and e-Sports series. We were told that fans were lapping it up so why is the TV audience down?

Despite saying that it puts fans first, Liberty hasn't done the one thing that fans have spent years clamouring for – putting a stop to further Pay TV deals. It is a subject which is particularly close to the hearts of UK F1 fans as the sport will be broadcast exclusively on Sky from next year with Channel 4 only showing the British Grand Prix live and highlights only of the remaining races.

The Sky deal was signed by F1's former regime, led by Bernie Ecclestone, but instead of heading in a different direction, odd when one considers how Liberty has continuously criticised the Briton's short-sighted running of the sport, it has continued down the same path. Indeed, as Forbes also reported, before Liberty's acquisition of F1 had even been given the green light, its boss Greg Maffei said that he had already identified "an opportunity to grow that broadcast stream. Much of it comes from moving potentially free-to-air to competitive pay services." This is a promise that Liberty has lived up to.

In January this year it signed an exclusive contract in Italy with Pay TV broadcaster Sky Italia which previously shared coverage with its free-to-air rival RAI. Sky broadcasts 4 of the 21 races on one of its free-to-air channels but this hasn't stopped the total audience in Italy being badly dented.

"Television viewing on race day year-on-year is down 5%, however that is largely due to our move from free to Pay TV in Italy," says F1's chief executive Chase Carey.

Unsurprisingly, things look better if you take this out of the equation and Carey said that "excluding Italy our television viewership is up 1% year-on-year and our Saturday viewership for qualifying is up even more.

"We are especially pleased with our performance in our two key growth markets, the US and China where viewing figures are showing uplifts of 50% and 265% respectively." As Forbes points out, this growth is understood to have been driven by the fact that both markets started from a small base.

According to F1's 2016 Global Media Report, there were just 9.1m viewers in China and 13.1m in the United States where audiences surged by 13% last year. At the other end of the spectrum, the report shows that there were 77.5m viewers in Brazil making it F1's single biggest market. It was followed by Italy with an audience of 32m which accelerated by 16.7% last year before the crash when it switched to Sky.

Over the past decade the total number of F1 viewers worldwide has crashed by 41.3% to 352.3m and the driving force behind it has been a gradual switch to Pay TV broadcasters. They often outbid their free-to-air rivals by paying a premium for exclusive content which attracts subscribers.

Testimony to this, a report from investment bank Morgan Stanley states that Sky Italia is paying 98m annually which is 53% more than last year.

Pay TV broadcasters tend to have smaller audiences than those which don't charge to watch and this can put pressure on the teams' income from sponsors. Sponsorship rates tend to reflect the number of TV viewers but the teams shouldn't lose out from blockbuster Pay TV deals as they share 68% of F1's profits as prize money. However that's not the end of the story.

The new Sky contract in the UK is estimated to be worth 110m annually and it will give the teams a welcome boost as their prize money has reversed since Liberty took over. Its marketing initiatives contributed to F1's costs accelerating by 12.4% to $427m last year. This left F1 with a $37m operating loss compared to a $47m profit in 2016. In turn, the teams' prize money plummeted 5% to $919m so they actually lost twice. This is because the teams' prize money and TV exposure were both down.

Time will tell how long they are prepared to put up with that.

And all this before the UK audience takes a dramatic tumble.

Check out our Sunday gallery from Interlagos, here.

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READERS COMMENTS

 

1. Posted by Racer76, 11/11/2018 21:26

"Sooner or later they will even switch off Spa. If it was for me, I'd say let them race on the Nordshleife Nurburgring. OK, TV coverage will be an issue. But I spent half a night in the 24 hour race on tv for the sports car race. Much better than anything I've seen recently in "the crown of motorsports". Plus - did I mention? - it was free on tv in the hotel...."

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2. Posted by Racer76, 11/11/2018 21:18

"I may be wrong. But what the fans want is more racing. Less street circuits. I've been to a number of interesting circuits (even though some are Tilke circuits) like Anting (Shanghai) or Sepang (Malaysia) or Budd (India). All offered great races, including the 2000 (or 2001?) rain and dry classic. But today you talk about Azerbajian and stuff. Total BS. And unfortunately they aren't allowed to race anymore. Crusing to victory to preserve fuel and engines is just pathetic...I'm still able to watch for free (Thanks to a German TV channel that I can receive through the net)but I switched off even before the Verstappen/Oco incident."

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3. Posted by Uffen, 11/11/2018 16:21

"Pay or not, I am one who has stopped watching completely. I read some magazine articles, but even that pursuit has dropped off. "

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4. Posted by Joop deBruin, 11/11/2018 14:47

"The huge problem in the USA is that ESPN places F1 equal to children's soap box derby. It's impossible to track where practices, qualy and races are across the six different channels, most of which aren't available to pay TV viewers unless you pay for an additional package on top of old fashioned cable. F1 doesn't have a chance of growing in the USA under ESPN."

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5. Posted by Anthony, 11/11/2018 13:40

"More pay tv+ more street circuits = lower number of viewers. The big question is whether the impact of the reduced number of viewers on the teams’ sponsorship (i.e. less attractive so less money) concerns Liberty. Sadly I suspect that the answer is no. "

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6. Posted by Ro, 11/11/2018 12:26

"Im afraid to say that since Media Liberty took over, Ive stopped watching live shows. I now listen to Radio 5 live and if the race seems to be interesting I will watch the delayed highlights. What has happened is that I watch what I want to watch and when. I will never pay for it, ever. Its a shame its got this way but Media Liberty has proved beyond any doubt that their interest is in making Money, any way possible. The US venues are more about the "celebs" doing a gig afterwards, not the racing, not the fans. To have so many races is just another put-off. Its now a case of there being more venues, they pay less but Media Liberty makes the same amount of money. Its not a race any more its a "show". Rant over."

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7. Posted by jackois, 11/11/2018 11:00

"I think that there's been a steady reduction in viewing F1 live since it went to pay per view. This follows a similar trend in my circle with most sports.
Football, for us consists of highlights packages shown on free to air and these are dwindling fast, meaning a trip to the pub for a live game, as costs of going to a match are largely affordable, even for lower league games. Golf, ditto.
I record the highlights to watch later, but usually the race reporting gives you an idea of whether it's an interesting race, so most of them lie unwatched...
It's a trend that started way back with Bernie and I, for one can't see it changing."

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