What next for Formula E on British TV?

Current E Formula E Beijing 2015 Marta Rovatti Studihrad Shelter for TV crew

Reports and rumours that ITV will not renew its coverage of Formula E for a third season come as a disappointment to British fans of the series. The Hong Kong spectacular which forms the season three opener is just two months away and it’s presently unclear just where we’ll be able to watch Formula E live on TV in the UK.

The decision comes as little surprise. Though the broadcaster was quick off the mark for the first season, ITV then dragged its heels through the summer of 2015 before eventually striking a deal for season two. With average viewing figures dropping from 216,000 per race in 2014-15 to just 138,000 in 2015-16, the argument for retaining Formula E coverage has seemingly grown weaker. But do the figures tell the whole story?

ITV has carved out a niche for being the home for motorsport on terrestrial television in the UK. While it hasn’t carried Formula 1 since 2008, its coverage of the British Touring Car Championship has received widespread acclaim, blocking out more than six hours of ITV4’s Sunday broadcasting. By way of comparison, a 2014 report from F1 Broadcasting noted the average for the series finale at Brands Hatch to be 186k which, across a six-hour presentation that included smaller series such as Ginetta Juniors and the Renault Clip Cup, is impressive. Besides the BTCC, ITV also carries extensive coverage of the Isle of Man TT, as well as showing highlights for MotoGP, British Superbikes and even the BRDC Formula 3 series. The channel seems like a good home for Formula E, then.

So why doesn’t channel want Formula E? The sport has a strong UK appeal, after all, with British teams and drivers, a British presenting team (Jack Nicholls, Dario Franchitti, Nicki Shields) and a British race (in London, no less…well, it did in the first two seasons, anyway). The sport’s technical centre and organiser’s base are both also located in Blighty.

As always, there are many contributing factors. It could be argued that ITV4 is not the best place for a brand new sport, one without an existing fanbase. It could be argued that more could have been done in promoting the programme via ITV’s main channels. It could be argued that ITV could have done much more with its magazine programme features, been much more creative, been far more innovative. And it has been said that Formula E, as a start-up with a need for serious cash, is asking for too much (read: some) cash.

The presenting team certainly did not want for a lack of experience, with a panel hosted by long-serving motorsport reporter Jennie Gow and including various well-known drivers and technical experts over the two seasons of shows. They have been backed up by action-packed races and two thrilling title fights which have been decided in the closing laps of the final race of each season. If content is king, then Formula E races have the royal stamp of approval.

Does ITV’s reticence at continuing the partnership matter, in an era of YouTube and live streaming via social media platforms (all of which Formula E has embraced and excelled at)? In a word, yes. Accessibility to racing series is key, not only for keeping fans happy but also for attracting new ones while netting maximum coverage for sponsors. Those who may traditionally not watch Formula E (or any motorsport for that matter) won’t go looking for it on YouTube and will probably not be pushed in that direction by Big Brother aka Google. These sorts of people need to be able to stumble across it if they are to add to a growing audience. TV coverage remains a critical communication tool with which to connect Formula E and global audiences.

Japan offers a very good example of the benefits of terrestrial broadcasting. Formula E is shown on TV Asahi in Japan, a free-to-air channel, and enjoyed a combined audience of over 15 million over the first four races of the season – a huge, huge figure.

Could Formula E TV coverage go elsewhere in the UK? Again, yes, without stretching the bounds of imagination too far. The availability of a fresh, exciting series to add to their growing motorsport programming would surely be of interest to both Channel 4 and Channel 5. Channel 4 has recently made inroads in motorsport, most notably by picking up the free-to-air F1 rights after the BBC ended its deal early (and the channel must surely be bitter at F1’s decision to give the rights exclusively to Sky from 2019). C4 also has just launched a show for the FIA World Endurance Championship, while Channel 5 now has World Rally Championship highlights. These would both make good homes for Formula E on free-to-view TV platforms in the UK. That these options exist is, for fans, sponsors and the sport, very good news.

If these two TV channels do not pick up Formula E, the series is going to face a tough challenge to remain free-to-view in the UK. BT Sport showed the 2016 Mexico round when ITV opted to bump Formula E for snooker, and also has a strong motorsport programming schedule, with WRC, MotoGP and IndyCar all enjoying live coverage. 

It’s not just BT Sport that may be interested. Eurosport and Virgin Media may put themselves forward, given that their parent companies (Discovery Communications and Liberty Global, respectively) together own the largest slice of Formula E.

Putting Formula E on a subscription service may bag the sport a higher fee to boost earnings but, with the series still in its infancy, the number of eyeballs is the priority. Putting the new sport behind a paywall is generally accepted to be a great way to fund additional content (see Sky’s F1 channel) but a poor way to grow an audience.

One of the biggest issues for Formula E here is the calendar. With races being months apart, it is difficult to keep any momentum gained. The schedule for season three was described by series CEO Alejandro Agag as being a “transition” calendar, so that season four could have more races in the winter and on a more consistent basis. Nevertheless, there is still a period in season three where there is just one race between November 12 and April 1 (Buenos Aires on February 18) – it will be tough to keep fans interested through that winter spell, a time when Formula E could (and will eventually, it seems) capitalise on the lack of other series being in action.

With the growth of broadcasting on YouTube and Facebook, Formula E can make good use of its digital nous and embracing of social media to keep fans engaged and able to watch the series from anywhere in the world and on an array on devices. However, the series needs a presence on terrestrial British TV if the audience is to grow fast enough to keep pace with the sport’s ambitions. The clean-cut nature of the series offers broadcasters a wealth of benefits: Formula E is environmentally and socially responsible, exciting, entertaining and still has that shiny new look to capitalise on curiosity. The strength of the racing has drawn acclaim from across the established racing world and manufacturers are rushing to get involved. 

In the final reckoning however, it is the viewing figures that do the talking and, for whatever reason, however fair or short-sighted, it seems ITV thinks that Formula E content simply doesn’t fit right now. Perhaps it’s just ahead of its time.

For our part, here at Current E we want to see Formula E remain free-to-air on a major TV channel in the UK, backed up by having all sessions streamed live online (whether via YouTube or the official series website). We’d like to see more innovative programming and “on-the-ground” coverage, such as F1 TV teams commit to. And we’d like to see whichever TV home Formula E finds go all out in promotion of the deal and the sport. 

This is a story that still has some way to run.

Luke Smith

2 Comments

  • Alun says:

    There’s a complication with Channel 4 having F1 races and highlights for two years. I don’t know if the Sky contract for 2019 in F1 would make them wary of committing to Formula E.

    But if they did run FE races, at the back end of the season – when the FE events are the same weekends as the summer F1 races – they’d have a great opportunity for cross-promotion. The full-race cars in Season 5 would be starting just as their F1 contract hit its final few months.

    It’d be a great fit for Channel 4 with it being close enough to traditional racing to have a crossover audience with what they already run, but that electric element marking it out as distinctly alternative too.

  • Chris says:

    Now that it seems fairly certain that Channel 5 will show the series from this year, I want to mention that it is unbelievable that there isn’t a race in Tokyo or some other big Japanese city. Clearly the audience is there, despite there not being a Japanese driver or race in the series, and also Team Aguri selling up to Techeetah.

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