The deal was signed by F1’s former boss Bernie Ecclestone and saw Sky’s annual fee doubling to around £120m. It is a winning formula for F1 financially but has driven fans away from the sport just when the on-track action began revving up.
Although Lewis Hamilton won his third consecutive championship in 2019, he faced fierce competition from Max Verstappen and Charles Leclerc, who became the first Ferrari driver in nine years to win the Italian team’s home race at Monza. It was a commanding drive but the only way British viewers could watch it without paying was to tune in to delayed highlights on Channel 4. They began three hours after the chequered flag fell and by then the race result was common knowledge on social media.
Channel 4’s tally of live races reversed from ten last year to just one in 2019 – the British Grand Prix in July. The dent this has made in the audience of its F1 show has been revealed by the Broadcasters’ Audience Research Board (Barb) which is partly owned by six TV stations, including Sky and Channel 4.
Barb’s data is considered to be the industry’s gold standard and is the official estimate that channels use to sell advertising. The data shows that Channel 4’s highlights were watched by a cumulative total of 34.7 million viewers this year which is a staggering 10.8 million less than in 2018.
The decline was slightly offset by an increase in Sky’s audience which nudged up by 2.2 million viewers to 20.1 million. However, the total number of UK viewers was still down by 13.6 per cent to 54.8 million and the driving forces behind it are particularly concerning.
Channel 4’s most-watched highlights broadcast was the German Grand Prix, a rain-soaked thriller which was won by Verstappen after Hamilton crashed behind the safety car. A total of 2.1 million viewers tuned in which is 4 per cent more than the audience for the Monaco Grand Prix and double the number who watched the title-decider in the United States.
In fact, the German Grand Prix highlights attracted just 107,000 fewer viewers than the live broadcast of the British Grand Prix on Channel 4. Yet despite this turbocharged performance, Germany’s home race is being dropped in 2020 as it couldn’t afford the estimated $20m hosting fee.
Even more ironically, the US Grand Prix lost the most viewers on Channel 4 this year even though Hamilton won the championship there. It was down by 2 million on 2018 when the race was broadcast live. By the time the highlights were shown this year, the outcome of the championship was widely known so fans had less reason to watch the race.
This trend continued at the following race in Brazil which didn’t even make it into the top 15 most-watched programmes on Channel 4 that week. As a result, the audience total for the race was not publicly disclosed by Barb but was provided by Overnights.tv, which is one of its official data partners.
Just two races attracted more viewers this year on Channel 4 than in 2018 – the Japanese Grand Prix and the French Grand Prix. The latter was a low point for F1 as the race was widely considered to be one of the most boring of the season. The top four cars finished in exactly the same positions they started in causing Red Bull Racing team boss Christian Horner to describe the race as being “one of the most boring I can remember being involved in.”
It wasn’t the best advert for F1 so it may have done the sport more harm than good that 19 per cent more viewers tuned in to watch it on Channel 4 this year than in 2018.
In contrast, the Japanese Grand Prix was a rare example of a race which actually benefited from the move to pay TV. It was shown live in the early morning in 2018 whereas the highlights this year were broadcast in the afternoon leading to the TV audience on Channel 4 accelerating by 52 per cent to 1.5 million. F1 expected this outcome to be far more widespread.
Remarkably, in December last year, F1’s global research director Matt Roberts claimed that the audience in Britain would surge this year because the highlights are being shown in a prime time slot later in the day whereas the live races were on Channel 4 in the early afternoon last year.
“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. “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 only did Channel 4’s audience crash, but Sky failed to compensate for it. The number of viewers of some races on Sky’s dedicated F1 channel was actually down on 2018 despite it having exclusive rights to show all but one of them live. Sky also launched a number of initiatives to try and rev up the audience of its F1 channel including showing jet ski racing and rival US series IndyCar as well as reducing the monthly access price by 44 per cent to £10.
The German Grand Prix had the third-highest audience on Sky, just behind Canada, which was broadcast at prime time in the UK due to the time difference. The Bahrain Grand Prix was in pole position with a total of 1.4 million viewers thanks to being one of only a handful of races which was also broadcast on Sky One.
The data just shows TV viewers as BARB has only been measuring the online streaming audience since August 2018 so the full season can’t be compared year-on-year. The number of streaming viewers in 2019 was far from high-octane and combining it with those who watched on TV only boosts Channel 4’s total audience by around 2 per cent with Sky’s rising by 4 per cent.
Although the overall TV audience in Britain is down, the fortunes of F1’s ten teams have still accelerated. Sky’s blockbuster fee boosts F1’s profits which in turn benefits the teams as they receive 68 per cent of it as prize money.
However, it doesn’t affect the drivers’ pay and the dwindling TV audience has left them fuming, especially as Sky’s contract doesn’t expire until the end of 2024.
Earlier this year Hamilton said it is “definitely not cool. I remember growing up and turning on BBC and watching ‘Grand Prix’, it was awesome.” He added that “it’s the fans that make the sport what it is so the more you almost block them or deter them the worse the business is going to be.”