Actually, F1 lost 19.2 million viewers in 2019

“For the third year in a row, Formula 1 has seen its audience figures grow across both TV and digital platforms compared to the previous season,” proclaimed yesterday’s triumphant press release from Formula One Management, Chase Carey and the crew fully entitled to ‘trebles all round’ at the good news… especially when it comes to impressing potential sponsors, broadcasters and race hosts.

“In terms of unique viewers, during 2019 the sport remained stable in the top 20 markets at 405.5m (+0.3%),” read the third paragraph of the release, “while there was a slight decrease globally (-3.9%), with the overall number of viewers standing at 471m.”

But wait…

Rewind 12 months and didn’t the opening paragraph of the 2019 release – relating to the 2018 figures – read: “In terms of unique viewers, during 2018 the sport once again had an improvement globally (+10%), reaching 490.2m.”

Indeed it did.

Which, would suggest that at “471 million”, 2019 figures were down almost 4% on the “490.2 million” of 2018.

To be clear there’s nothing untoward about the claims, merely the fact that F1 has been somewhat disingenuous in the way the figures were actually arrived at.

Yesterday’s figures are based on cumulative measurement which counts every viewer of every F1 session separately, meaning that someone who watches several races over the course of the season will be counted several times. Consequently, using this method the audience rose by 9% to 1.9 billion in 2019.

Long-time fans of the sport will be aware that over the years, F1 claimed some outrageous viewer numbers, basically the planet’s entire population… and then some.

Indeed, under the cumulative system, in F1 claimed to have had 57.8 billion viewers in 1999… almost ten times greater than earth’s population.

In 2004 however, Michael Payne, who had previously run the overall marketing strategy and full commercial operation for the Olympic Games over his 20-year tenure at the International Olympic Committee (IOC), was hand-picked by Bernie Ecclestone to be F1’s chief marketing consultant.

As part of his remit, which included responsibility for advising on brand development, building the value of nation hosting and developing its partner programme, Payne overhauled the sport’s TV audience measurement system.

Payne’s system, which has been in use since 2004, was based on unique viewers, which means counting someone once they have watched a certain number of minutes and not counting them again even if they watch more.

Consequently, under Payne, F1’s unique viewers were defined as anyone who had watched at least 15 non-consecutive minutes of F1 over the course of the year.

“What marketers want and need to know is how many people actually watched the whole event,” said Payne. “To my mind this method is by far the best.”

Following the introduction of the system, F1 peaked at 600 million viewers in 2008, making the sport the world’s most-watched sports series.

It was the increasing move to Pay TV at this time that meant the figures began to fall short of that magic 600m of 2008, and though the numbers continued to fall the sport continued to use unique viewers as it main measurement metric.

However, in 2018, the year after Liberty Media bought F1, along with the various other changes it has introduced… new HQ, logo, theme tune… it lowered the number of consecutive minutes needed to be watched to count as a unique viewer from 15 to 3.

In other words, to be counted as a viewer, someone now needed to watch a mere three consecutive minutes of F1 at any time during the season.

The change was the work of F1’s global research director Matt Roberts, who admitted in late 2018 that he had done it “in order to compete on a level playing ground and align with other sports in the market place”.

Of course, the change had nothing to do with the fact that under the revised system in 2018 F1’s audience was up 10% on the previous year to 490.2 million.

Asked at the time if the figure would have been as impressive under the old 15 minute system, a spokesperson for F1 told Chris Sylt: “There is no point in applying the old methodology to the 2018 audience figures.”

Understandably, that figure of 490.2 million featured in the opening paragraph in last year’s press release, as the sport continued to focus on unique viewers.

However, this year’s press release sees the number of unique viewers (471 million) demoted to the third paragraph, while it is the cumulative total of 1.922bn that gets pride of place in the opening paragraph.

In 2018, Roberts described the measurement of unique viewers as the “industry standard”, admitting that “it’s really important to use the industry standard to compare views and also to give the sponsors, promoters and partners a clearer and more concise number to use.”

Which begs the question, why didn’t F1 use unique viewers this year?

Referring to unique viewers, yesterday’s release admits that “there was a slight decrease globally (-3.9%), with the overall number of viewers standing at 471m”, but there is no explanation why the sport – using the “industry standard” of measurement – has lost 19.2 million viewers.

Of course, regular readers will be aware that in Britain alone, the deal which sees Sky enjoy exclusive live coverage of all but one race resulted in a cumulative fall of 8.6 million viewers last year.

As Forbes points out, “although there is no direct relationship between cumulative and unique viewers, if a reduction of the former in Britain was accompanied by the latter going down it would have helped to fuel the overall decline worldwide”.

The mega deal with Sky was one of Bernie Ecclestone’s last before being moved on to pastures new, while in 2018 F1 signed a similar exclusive deal with Sky Italia which had previously shared coverage with free to air station RAI.

Indeed, the sport makes no secret of its desire to move more and more coverage to Pay TV.

“We will continue to move towards pay platforms because that is where the world is going,” said Chase Carey, in August last year.

Indeed, in the press release that accompanied yesterday’s viewing figures, Ian Holmes, F1’s Director of Media Rights, when asked if the move to Pay TV is costing the sport fans, said: “It goes without saying that an FTA broadcaster is going to generate a larger audience than a pay TV channel. That said, it is a bit of an oversimplification.

“Firstly, there are always commercial elements to be considered but equally as important, is to look at who the viewers are, what the demographics are, and therefore who you’re addressing.

“Furthermore, pay TV often provides far more in depth coverage and I think it would be fair to say that in the likes of Sky and Canal+ they have and continue to strive to improve the overall standard of F1 coverage, bringing to the fan far more than ever existed in the past – and they do a fantastic job. Then there are those people who are consuming F1 content on the different digital and social channels of our broadcast partners and our own F1 owned and operated platforms and channels.”

With few regulation changes this season many fear yet another Mercedes title double, their concern unlikely to be eased by reports from reliable sources that this year’s engine is Mercedes best yet. This combined with the fact that in many ways the sport will be in limbo as teams switch their focus to 2021, could give the bean-counters at ‘F1 Towers’ a headache when producing the 2020 figures next year. Then again, perhaps Dianne Abbot will be available.