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banner Tuesday, 26 February, 2002, 14:40 GMT
F1 viewing figures drop
Michael Schumacher leads the Grand Prix field at the 2001 European Grand Prix
F1 remains hugely popular despite the slight drop
Formula One's television audience has dropped by three billion viewers since 1999, according to the latest figures.

F1 commercial boss Bernie Ecclestone's Formula One Management company (FOM) has released figures showing a total audience of 54bn for the 2001 season.

The figure is a cumulative total that takes into account the number of people who switch on to F1 on any television programme through the course of a year.

The number is three billion down on 1999, when Ecclestone held a majority stake in the sport's commercial rights.

F1 commercial boss Bernie Ecclestone
Ecclestone: Sold the TV rights to debt-ridden Kirch

Ecclestone has since sold 75% of the rights to two German media companies - EM.TV and Kirch, with Kirch the senior partner.

The figures are a blow to Kirch, which is looking to sell its majority stake in F1 to solve its cash crisis.

Kirch paid Ecclestone 1.4bn last year for its stake in Slec.

The latest statistics show that the popularity of F1 has risen significantly since 1996, when viewing figures were just over 40 billion.

But despite year-on-year rises between 1996 and 1999, Kirch would like to introduce a greater element of pay-per-view coverage into the sport to increase revenue.

But Kirch has faced strong opposition from F1's car manufacturers, who believe that free-to-air coverage on terrestrial television increases the profile of the series.

Huge debt pile

They want to increase their control of the sport and take a shareholding in Slec.

F1 is broadcast to 200 countries and more than 1.5 million minutes of coverage was aired in 2001.

Kirch is attempting to restructure a debt pile of about six billion euros (3.7bn) as it faces huge cash payments to creditors and media partners this year.

The manufacturers have said this week that they would be interested in buying Kirch's stake if the price was right.

See also:

26 Feb 02 |  Formula One
Car manufacturers eye F1 rights
21 Feb 02 |  Business
Kirch 'open' to offers for F1
12 Feb 02 |  Formula One
Media giant could sell F1 rights
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