Battle to get British teens’ pulse racing

Figures hot from the Ofcom press reveal an alarming picture for television companies and advertisers alike. It’s not just that viewers are down/ they’re significantly declining in the vital 16 to 24 and 25 to 34 categories.

In the two years to December 2005, total television reach (defined as 15 minutes’ TV viewing in a week) fell nearly 3% among 16 to 24 year olds; 2.2% were lost in the past year alone. And the loss over two years for 25 to 34-year-olds was little less, at 2.5 percentage points over the two-year period. Add to this the fact that ITV1 suffered the biggest single loss of viewers in multichannel homes (now the majority), at 3.6 % last year, and the perspective for advertisers still wedded to TV is serious indeed.

But ITV executives will not be alone in tearing their hair out over the exasperating disappearance of Britain’s youth. A similar crisis has been welling at Formula One and sponsors (often as not some of the self-same advertisers frothing about ITV viewing figures) are getting increasingly incensed about it.

The immediate reasons for their concern may seem to have little to do with a waning audience. There is a baffling complexity to the administration of F1 motor sport which is itself off-putting to any sponsor, potential or actual. In particular, chronic discord over the arcane issue of commercial rights income and its distribution is threatening to pull the sport apart. A renegotiation later this year of the so-called Concorde agreement between the sport’s main movers – its governing body, the teams and Bernie Ecclestone – may do something to alleviate tensions in the short-term by introducing greater transparency and a more equitable distribution of income. But it will do little to tackle a fundamental disquiet that sponsors must have with the direction of F1.

In a word it is becoming far too esoteric, lack of transparent financing being a small part of the greater issue. The problem is technology and the wall of money needed to propel it. The increasing sophistication of F1 cars is making the sport robotic, with the unintended consequence that it is draining away the natural human glamour of its racing drivers. As Nick Fry, chief executive of F1 Honda Racing, puts it: “F1 is seen as too exclusive, expensive, hi-tech and perhaps not accessible to as many people as it might be.” What particularly worries him is that being a world-class racing driver is no longer on the aspiration list of 14-year-old boys – the sort who won’t be watching TV in a few years’ time.

Fry has tackled this problem with some imagination by calling upon the services of Simon Fuller, founder of 19 Entertainment and impresario of countless celebrities from the Spice Girls to Annie Lennox and the Beckhams. Just how Fuller intends to connect Jenson Button and Rubens Barrichello with the world of Pop Idol is as yet unclear (although he has explicitly ruled out an F1 reality TV show). But the idea of using someone of Fuller’s stature to reinject human glamour into the sport is surely a step in the right direction. As no less a force than Bernie Ecclestone concedes: “We needed to take a new approach and that’s exactly what Honda has done.”

Let’s hope those 14-year-old anoraks out there get to notice it.


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