A brief look at BBC F1 scheduling in the mid 1990s

This past week, the BBC have made their Radio Time archive project public. Entitled ‘Genome‘, the facility allows users to search BBC schedules from between 1923 and 2009. Any date, any BBC channel, any time. Obviously the archive is full of goldmine material, the majority of which (including this piece!) is before my time, but definitely worth writing about as it is absolutely fascinating.

I also want to do some myth busting as it were, and with the help of the archive paint some facts. The first subject I want to tackle is the demise of BBC’s Formula 1 coverage in the 1990s. In December 1995, it was announced that ITV would be broadcasting Formula 1 from 1997 onwards, at a cost six times higher than what the BBC were paying. Of course, we all know Bernie Ecclestone’s tactics, and in this instance it is unsurprising that he decided to take the money instead of familiarity. Now, I was not an F1 fan in 1995 (I was three) so I can’t put my feet in someone else’s shoes as to their feelings at hearing that deal. Was the idea of advert breaks interrupting Formula 1 outrageous in 1995? Or did the audience just take it for granted, as they did with BBC’s lacklustre coverage in the years previously?

Ah, lacklustre. Of course, I can look back in hindsight and say that, but in reality Formula 1 during the mid 1990s had similar coverage to any other sport during Grandstand as it was back then. But what did BBC screen? Genome for the first time gives us the complete picture. Firstly, two amusing anecdotes. In the Radio Times listings, qualifying was regularly billed as the final practice session. This is the case in particular for 1994 and 1995. Take this from the 1994 Japanese Grand Prix: “A report by Murray Walker from the final practice session for tomorrow’s Japanese Grand Prix from Suzuka, which can be seen at 3.45am on Sunday on BBC2.” The next tidbit is that not every race back then started at 14:00 local time. The 1995 Italian Grand Prix began at 15:00 local time, whilst the 1995 Monaco Grand Prix began at 15:30 local time. It was not until several years later that a standard start-time of 13:00 UK time / 14:00 for the rest of Western Europe came into effect.

Broadly, BBC’s coverage did increase from 1994 to 1996. These are the statistics:

- 1994: 14 of 16 races live + last half of Britain, Germany qualifying live
– 1995: 17 of 17 races live + Britain, Europe qualifying live
– 1996: 16 of 16 races live + every qualifying live (except Japan)

Weirdly, in 1996, BBC showed every qualifying session live, with the exception of Japan. This might be a Geonome oversight, but seems odd how they chose not to broadcast their final ever qualifying session, as it was at the time, live. It is fascinating to see how much their output increased for 1996, however it should be remembered that the qualifying format changed for 1996 which perhaps gave greater impetus for the likes of BBC to screen it live. It is also a reason why a two-day qualifying format will never happen again, as many broadcasters would simply opt-out of screening the Friday session. Stating a total amount of hours per year is perhaps misleading given that BBC did screen highlights on Sunday night and then again in a Monday or Tuesday afternoon. Excluding those, however, and the 1994 average is around 2.5 hours per weekend, this increasing to 3.5 hours per weekend for 1996.

Your typical European race between 1994 and 1996 had roughly 15 to 25 minutes of build-up on BBC Two (this at a time when sport was on BBC One on Saturdays and Two on Sundays), with Steve Rider on location the majority of the time. Post-race, the BBC showed the post-race press conference but beyond, that, not very much. An interesting point was that the broadcaster gave the British Grand Prix race weekend significantly more coverage than any other race. In 1994, the British round had a whopping 90 minutes of build-up, according to FORIX, the Porsche Supercup was at Silverstone during that weekend so presumably that was included in the build-up. In 1995, the race programme was a similar length, whilst BBC Two covered both qualifying sessions live, the Friday session billed as a ‘Grand Prix Special

If you were hoping for extensive coverage of any non-European race, you would probably be better of venturing towards another broadcaster. Live coverage of the 1995 Pacific Grand Prix had a 15 minute build-up with little analysis afterwards, this being Michael Schumacher’s championship winning race. Because of BBC’s varied output, did people care at the time? Or was this during an era where people appreciated every little bit of coverage that they were given? I don’t know the answer to that, but we can be certain that the amount of coverage Formula 1 has increased massively in the past twenty years. The picture is similar for other sports, albeit some have moved to pay-TV as a result (no doubt I’ll look at those motor sport series which have defected to pay-TV since 1995).

So when ITV went to Ecclestone at the end of 1995 saying that they would give Formula 1 all this ‘new’ exposure, with new programming at the centrepiece of the schedule, it is no surprise that Ecclestone said yes, irrespective of how much more ITV were willing to pay.

BTCC is best of the rest on Sunday

Away from the Formula 1 last Sunday, which peaked with 5.55m (46.3%), there was a lot of motor sport action on Sunday, albeit most of it occurred in the early hours. Nevertheless, as expected, the figures are once again a reminder that, in the UK at least, the F1 stands head and shoulders above anything else. And sadly, where BTCC and MotoGP are concerned, viewers appear to be tuning out…

The factors associated with both though are different. The British Touring Car Championship finale aired on ITV4 across a whopping eight hours, from 10:15 to 18:30. The entire programme averaged 186k (1.6%) according to overnight viewing figures, peaking with 360k (3.6%) at 15:00 at the conclusion of race two. The first of three races peaked with 99k (1.1%) at 11:40, whilst the final race peaked with 357k (2.0%) at 17:45, the huge difference in number can be put down to the fact that race one clashed with the build-up and early laps of the Russian Grand Prix, clearly taking a bite out of the audience.

I haven’t looked at all the numbers in detail, but there does appear to have been a fairly big fall in comparison to 2012 and 2013. Last year’s season finale averaged 328k (2.6%), peaking with 697k (3.8%) for the final race of the day, although that was with no F1 clash. Even so, that doesn’t account for the peak figure, outside of the F1 timeslot, dropping by almost half. I’m not sure why the figures have dropped year-on-year, but something has changed to make people turn off.

Meanwhile, over in Motegi, BT Sport’s MotoGP coverage peaked with 108k (10.1%) at 06:05. Their live programme from 02:45 to 07:15 averaged 42k (3.8%), with the MotoGP portion from 05:30 averaging 74k (6.4%). As always at this point, it is worth me pointing out that the figures include anyone who timeshifted that programme before 02:00 on Monday morning, it does not mean that 108k were up watching MotoGP at 06:05 in the morning, it just means that an average of 108k watched that five-minute ‘segment’ before 02:00 on Monday, which is the cut off for overnight ratings. BT’s repeat averaged 34k (0.3%) from 12:00 to 13:30, peaking with 79k (0.7%). ITV4’s highlights programme on Monday evening brought 283k (1.3%), which I believe is their lowest MotoGP rating of the year so far.

What that means is that the MotoGP year-on-year comparisons with the BBC are worse than usual. 204k (18.4%) watched BBC Two’s live airing last year, with 900k (8.1%) catching the repeat. A combined audience of 1.10m last year compares with about 391k for this year, which is a 64 percent drop. BBC’s peak was 1.33m, with 281k (24.1%) for the live airing and 1.05m (9.2%) for the re-run. The ITV4 rating surprises me the most, given that Motegi was the title winning race for Marc Marquez, I would have expected that to pick up one or two casual viewers, but clearly that wasn’t the case.

The weekend also seen both the Bathurst 1000 and the latest round of the World Touring Car Championship take place, again in the early morning. The latter peaked with 29k (0.4%), whilst the Bathurst 1000 peaked with under 20,000 viewers.

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3.9m watch inaugural Russian Grand Prix

The Russian Grand Prix performed solidly in the UK viewing figures yesterday, unofficial overnight figures show.

Race
BBC One’s coverage of the race from 11:00 to 14:15 averaged 3.22m (31.3%), peaking with 4.56m (38.1%) at 13:30. Sky Sports F1 added an average of 665k (6.5%) from 11:00 to 14:30, peaking with 985k (8.2%). Obviously there are no historical comparisons, however the combined average of 3.89m is directly in-line with the season average so far, so its not a great rating, but it is not a poor rating either.

The combined peak figure of 5.55m (46.3%) at 13:30 is split 82% vs 18% in BBC’s favour, which is similar to the peak splits in the past, suggesting that there has been no real movement between the two channels in the past two years. As an aside, that peak figure is pretty impressive, which might indicate that some of the more casual audience was caught out by the earlier start time. Considering the race quality was pretty bad, it did well to hold a stable audience throughout, I suspect Lewis Hamilton leading had a lot to play in that. As there was a lot of motor sport yesterday, there will be another post soon summarising the remaining motor sport numbers from BTCC to MotoGP.

Qualifying
Live coverage of qualifying on BBC One averaged 2.10m (25.5%) from 11:15 to 13:30, whilst Sky Sports F1’s coverage from 11:20 to 13:35 averaged 442k (5.3%). The combined average of 2.54m is just above average, so a solid rating there. The most interesting story from Saturday though was not the qualifying rating itself, but rather how well the GP3 Series did sandwiched between practice and qualifying.

On Saturday, Sky Sports F1 stayed above 100k from 08:45 to 13:35, this including F1’s practice three and qualifying. I thought Sky did a clever move here, wrapping the qualifying build-up around GP3. The GP3 race from 10:35 to 11:20 averaged 161k (2.4%), which is an excellent number and Sky’s highest ever for a GP2 or GP3 race. GP2 after qualifying averaged 53k (0.6%), showing how much either GP2 or GP3 would benefit from a permanent slot in between F1 practice and qualifying on Saturday’s. Yes, Sky may ‘lose’ twenty minutes of F1 build-up, but how else are the likes of Jolyon Palmer going to introduce themselves to an F1 audience? If ‘the powers that be’ are reading, maybe Russia’s Saturday scheduling could become permanent for 2015…

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ITV not showing Formula E qualifying live for foreseeable future

ITV will not be showing qualifying for the new Formula E Championship live for the foreseeable future, the broadcaster has confirmed to this blog.

A spokesman for the broadcaster said “We won’t be showing Formula E qualifying live for scheduling reasons. However, we will include more comprehensive highlights of qualifying in the live broadcast from race two onwards.”

The opening race of the season from Beijing was watched by a peak audience of 713k across both live and highlights.

Motors TV expands free-to-air reach from today

Good news for Motors TV fans here in the UK, from today, the channel will be expanding its free-to-air reach! The channel joined Freeview earlier this year, however that was via connected TV.

From 11:00 today, Motors TV will be available via Freeview HD and YouView channel 71, beginning with coverage of the FIA World Endurance Championship and the Bathurst 1000 this weekend. It should be noted that whilst the channel will remain on air 24/7 during the weekends, hours will be restricted during the week, the press release notes that this change will happen “at a later date”.

Frederic Viger, Motors TV’s Head of Programming and Acquisitions, said: “The Arqiva Connect TV trial proved there are far more motorsport viewers out there than were originally watching on our other platforms. From the start we saw it as a stepping stone and the fantastic response has given us the confidence to continue expanding. Plus, many more potential viewers have also been very vocal on social media about wanting to receive the channel via Freeview HD and YouView. Well, this is the result!

“For the first time ever terrestrial TV viewers can watch the widest range of live motorsport coverage in the UK, as well as world championships, international and national series, and the sort of grassroots categories that are already enjoyed by thousands of fans across the country. I should also add that we couldn’t have picked a better weekend to expand our potential audience as we’ll be showing V8 Supercars’ showpiece event – the Bathurst 1000 – live in its entirety. I know that will go down very well indeed!”, Viger added.

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