Channel 4 losing an average of 500,000 F1 viewers per race


After ten races, it seems that moving F1 behind a pay-wall in the UK has not been the success Formula One Management thought it would.

Silverstone marked the tenth round of the 2019 season, the perfect time - in terms of nice round numbers - to look at the statistics in terms of driver and team performance.

It is not so nice however, viewing the TV figures for the sport in its spiritual home, as F1 effectively disappears behind the pay-wall that is Sky.

This year, having broadcast around half the races for the last couple of years, Channel 4 is reduced to highlights only, with just the British Grand Prix shown entirely live.

At what is essentially the half-way point of the 2019 season, F1 global research director Matt Roberts' 2018 claim seems somewhat hollow.

"Channel 4 will have the highlights next year and we have worked with them to ensure they show the races in a favourable prime time slot," he said last December. "We estimate that we will actually have more viewers next year in the UK (thanks to this prime time slot) than we had this year."

Not so.

According to BARB, the respected Broadcasters' Audience Research Board, whose data is used by the networks to sell advertising spots, the cumulative number of TV viewers watching Channel 4's F1 coverage so far this year is down by 5.33 million on 2018, an average of 533,000 per race.

According to Forbes, year-on-year, the biggest drop was the Bahrain Grand Prix, which saw viewing figures down 44.6% on 2018, with Azerbaijan down 41.3% and China and Bahrain both down over 31%.

Irony of ironies however, the one race that witnessed an increase in viewers was the French Grand Prix, which, though widely described as the worst race in recent memory, saw an increase of 19.6%.

Even so, with an increase of just 280,000 on 2018, in total only 1.71 million tuned into the Le Castellet event.

Perhaps as a hangover following the tedium that was Paul Ricard, only 1.73 million watched Channel 4's Austrian GP highlights show, despite the fact that it was the best of the season to date, and the first race this year to be won by someone other than a Mercedes driver.

Unfortunately, the British Grand Prix, the one race this year to which Channel 4 had full live coverage, took place on a day when it was up against the men's final at Wimbledon and the final of the Cricket World Cup, which saw England take on New Zealand.

Our friends at BARB reveal that Channel 4's morning coverage of the cricket averaged 1.4 million before moving to More 4 to make way for the F1, before returning to the main channel once the Grand Prix was over.

While, according to BARB, the Grand Prix attracted 2.2 million viewers, a fall of 23.3% on 2018 when it wasn't up against the cricket or Wimbledon, the cricket, once back on Channel 4 after the race, was watched by 2.8 million viewers, while over on the BBC, 6 million were watching Novak Djokovic beat Roger Federer.

Of the three sporting highlights in the UK that July day, F1 just about made it on to the podium.

Meanwhile, over at Sky, despite decreases for the Chinese and Spanish Grands Prix, viewer numbers are up on 2018. However, after ten races, the net increase in viewer numbers is just over 2 million, which falls some way short of the 5.33 million that Channel 4 has lost.

"It concerns us in a pretty material way," F1's commercial boss Sean Bratches told the Daily Mail, "not just for Britain but around the world.

"Our ideal circumstance would be to have 75 per cent of our Grands Prix on free to air," he admitted.

Referring specifically to the Sky deal, he said that it "is an agreement that was done prior to our arrival. The pay element is very exciting revenue-wise but from a reach standpoint it is sub-optimal."

While the Sky deal was indeed signed before Liberty Media bought the sport in early 2017, the American company has never made any secret of its ambitions in terms of Pay TV.

Indeed, even before Liberty stockholders had given the all-clear for the $4.6bn purchase of the sport, chief executive Greg Maffei admitted 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."

In January 2018, F1 signed an exclusive contract with Sky Italia, Italian F1 fans having previously had free-to-air coverage courtesy of RAI.

Just ten months later, F1 boss, Chase Carey admitted that "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".

As Forbes reveals, over the last 11 years F1's global TV audience has fallen by 18.3% to 490 million viewers, as the sport has increasingly moved behind a paywall.

Whilst many blame the domination of Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes for the current decline in viewing numbers, the fact is that many are unwilling or unable to pay to watch a sport that is already involved in serious, in-depth research to ensure that there are less races like Paul Ricard, and more like Silverstone and the Red Bull Ring.

Furthermore, while in Britain F1 lost out to Wimbledon and cricket, it has an even harder fight on its hands in other parts of the world where it does not have such a long, rich history.

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Published: 24/07/2019
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