Robin Miller: Lies, damned lies and TV audience figures
‘There are lies, damned lies and statistics.’ How often have we heard that quotation and, while nodding in approval, how many of us know from whom it came? The answer, actually, is none of us because while it has been attributed to the American author and philosopher Mark Twain and to the great British prime minister Benjamin Disraeli, there are half a dozen others of that century (the 1800s) who can lay claim to it.
If you are of a cynical disposition you may wonder if some of those race meeting attendance figures dished out to a somewhat gullible media are for real. They are. However, attendance is everyone who came through the gate, paying or not. That includes aforesaid media, burger van owners, circuit officials, litter pickers, all the teams, et al. Paid attendance is a whole different game. Attendance is for sponsors, paid attendance is for the VAT man, and never the twain…
The same cannot be said for TV audience figures. But as they are rarely made available to the public it can come as something of a surprise when revealed. And they illustrate the dilemma faced by promoters when deciding whether to award television rights to a terrestrial broadcaster, the BBC or ITV, or a satellite/ cable company like Sky or BT.
The former will give you millions and millions of eyeballs, the latter millions and millions of pounds. For many sports the latter has been irresistible which means that the traditional broadcasters are largely out of the game.
The following are figures for British audiences of MotoGP, WorldSBK and British Superbikes for the final events of their seasons (plus an F1 race for measure). They are obtained via set-top boxes installed in thousands of households by the Broadcasters Audience Research Board, a body whose job it is to provide audience numbers as accurately as you can get for the television companies:
MotoGP (BT) Valencia Nov 12, final round: 187,000
WorldSBK (Eurosport) Qatar Nov 5, final round: 33,000
BSB (Eurosport) Brands Hatch Oct 22, final round: 129,000
F1 (Sky) Mexico, Oct 29, third last round: 797,000
Lies, damned lies or statistics? Accurate so far as they go but they only reflect the British audience for the race on the day. Replays and edited highlights, some on terrestrial TV like ITV 4 or Channel 5 bump the audiences up considerably. And on the occasion when Eurosport simulcasts BSB with Quest, a free channel also owned by Discovery, the total audience may be nearer to a million. It also has to be remembered that Sky gets into six times as many homes as BT.
It also depends, so far as subscription TV goes, how many households are paying. For example BT Sport claims 1.8 million customers which, presumably means houses. Sky, on the other hand, claims to go into 12 million homes of which, say, two thirds pay for Sky Sports. As Eurosport is part of the Sky package it will go into a similar number of homes.
There is an obvious correlation between audiences and subscribers. This means that BT, a newcomer to the game, is fighting an uphill battle paying hugely for rights, eg £1.2bn for the Champions League, but delivering small audiences. It’s coverage of the first Ashes test in Australia had a peak audience of 106,000 for a reported cost of £16m for the five tests!
That is why taking on the giants like Sky or now Discovery, owners of Eurosport and other European terrestrial channels such as Quest, or Liberty, another media company from the US that owns F1, is an extremely brave move by BT. But it is surely ultimately doomed to failure.
Its audience is not growing now people are having to pay for it. BT is being forced by the regulator OFCOM to split off Openreach, the infrastructure division, and invest more in it even at the expense of sport. The broadband business is being challenged by Sky, which is why BT hit back with BTSport, and now by Vodafone. BT’s share price is the lowest for four years.
That is why it is highly unlikely BT will be covering MotoGP in 2019 and Discovery Eurosport will.