F1 defends Pay TV move as figures reveal drop in unique viewers in 2019

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Formula 1 has defended its move to Pay TV deals such as Sky Sports after new figures actually revealed a drop in viewers last year.

Earlier this week, F1 management released a memo declaring the total global audience in 2019 rose to 1.922bn across the entire season from 1.781bn a year earlier.

However, upon closer inspection, and first reported by SportBusiness, that figure is distorted due to Liberty Media including every viewer for every session across a weekend.

For example, if you watch all three practices, qualifying and the race, that counts as five viewers even though its only one unique person.

The reality was actually revealed later in the document where it read: "In terms of unique viewers, during 2019 the sport remained stable in the top 20 markets at 405.5m (+0.3%), while there was a slight decrease globally (-3.9%), with the overall number of viewers standing at 471m."

That figure is 19.2m less than the 490m registered in 2018.

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There was still some highlights in the figures, including a huge rise in TV audiences in Poland, thanks to Robert Kubica's comeback, and in the Middle East, where a free-to-air TV deal with MBC Group made F1 available on one of the more popular channels.

In Poland, cumulative viewership, where the 1.922bn figure comes from, was up 256% far ahead of the Middle East at just under 228%, major markets like Holland (56%), Germany (29%) and Italy (23%) all saw strong rises and the US and China saw growth in the single digits.

This all contrasts to the situation in the UK, where a new Sky deal saw figures tumble despite primetime highlights shown free-to-air on Channel 4.

To combat this, extended highlights will now be offered for 2020, but it has led to concerns that by accepting higher revenue which comes with such Pay TV deals, F1 is also risking losing a large part of the fanbase.

"It goes without saying that an FTA (free-to-air) broadcaster is going to generate a larger audience than a Pay TV channel," F1's director of media rights Ian Holmes said.

"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."