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“Thoughts about Formula One television viewing figures”.

February 3, 2014

There were some interesting notes released this morning regarding Formula One’s global television figures for the 2013.

According to reports released in Formula One’s latest Global Annual Report (GAR), the category lost around 50 million viewers over the course of the 2013 season, bringing Formula One’s approximate total annual viewership to 450 million.

While Formula One supremo Bernie Ecclestone commented that the drop is down to the overwhelming success enjoyed by Sebastian Vettel, it must also be countered that where the 26-year-old’s victory run has played a part, it is certainly not the sole reason.

Naturally the loss of 10% of the global audience represents a worrying deterioration, it would poor to take last season’s figures in isolation, for Formula One has been suffering declining global viewing figures for several years.

At its peak in 2008, Formula One enjoyed a global viewership of approximately 600 million, as Ferrari and McLaren did battle both on and off the track in what can only be described as a desperately turbulent period.
In the time since, the viewing figures dipped massively (losing approximately 80 million in 2009 alone), as Jenson Button took the title with Brawn Grand Prix. There was a slight rise the following year, with another dip coming (this time to 515 million in 2011 and then to – what is believed {note 1} – 500 million for 2012, despite the tense championship battle between Vettel and Ferrari rival Fernando Alonso.

So are these viewing figures measured per Grand Prix? Well, not quite and this is where it gets somewhat confusing. According to the opening of the 2012 GAR, the report is “based on the industry norm of a minimum non-consecutive, fifteen minute viewing experience.”
There is little in the overall analysis to differentiate between the viewer who watched fifteen minutes of a race or watched every moment of each Grand Prix throughout the year. The report goes on to cite that, “new viewers are identified for each new Grand Prix, allowing the GAR to calculate an audience of unique individual viewers.”

Now if we are to look at the 2013 viewership in isolation, it might be reasonable to conclude that Vettel’s victory parade probably turned off most of the casual viewers; however it has also been insinuated that double points may have rescued the bottom half of last year.

(There will have more on this later in the week.)

Realistically, that makes little sense when the championship effectively swung toward Red Bull and Vettel during the latter part of the summer, before eventually being decided in the German racer’s favour in October. By year-end, Vettel had won nine consecutive races.
Interestingly, it was during October that Ecclestone made references to how Vettel’s dominance was not hurting television figures at all and that viewers were switching on in the hope of catching his downfall, adding that, “It’s a bit like with Roger Federer or Muhammad Ali. Vettel is the best there is and people want to be there when he gets beat.”

Vettel’s ease of the title owed as much his skill and the prowess of Red Bull as a technological organisation, as it did the stability of the technical regulations, which has seen Red Bull design guru Adrian Newey consistently deliver title and race winning cars for the drinks company since 2009; however, as with any rules package, the longer the technical regulations stay the same, the easier it is for any one team / driver combination to dominate.
If anything, the new rules may actually be a greater incentive for people to tune in again, as it could do much to create a (temporary) upset of the order – a point that Ecclestone was determined to impress: “It is timely developments like these that keep Formula One at the forefront of sustainable and relevant technology. One thing I am sure of is that this coming season will not only offer a heightened level of unpredictability but renewed excitement and fierce competition.” Admittedly, Ecclestone’s comments are the polar opposite of his sentiment over the weekend, when he referred to the new regulations as a farce following a stuttered opening test at Jerez.

But that is how motorsport works much of the time.

Alas, that last season contained one less Grand Prix, aligned with the continuing fragmentation of television audiences across the globe (that’s another big topic that will be touched on eventually) and the migration to pay TV probably makes up a massive chunk of that 50 million, while Vettel winning championships ad infinitum probably does the rest.
Of course as time passes, Formula One’s television deals appear to be switching toward numerous pay TV packages, but where pay TV brings in huge swaths of money, there are still relatively few eyeballs in that arena; ensuring viewing figures may continue to fall as the transition away from free-to-air (or various national equivalents) gathers pace.

In the end, Formula One may be best served by copying the FA’s tactics in the UK with regards to Premiership football. Where the Premiership enjoys a very healthy pay-per-view package, the weekly highlights package on the BBC has done much to keep much to keep the sport high in the public arena.
Football also has the advantage of only needing a ball, a couple of jumpers for goalposts and some friends to create a match setting.

Formula One – and motorsport as a whole – does not have that advantage. Should Formula One eventually disappear completely into the land of pay-per-view, the sport could conceivably wither away to nothing.

Don’t mind me. I am normally an optimist.

(note 1)
An exact figured was not released for 2012; however according to http://www.theguardian.com/media/2013/feb/15/formula-one-tv the number is believed to be in and around the half-a-billion mark.

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