At the start of the Tour de France, ITV4's Tour de France highlights show, aired nightly at 7pm, secured a peak audience of 502,000. By the end of an action-packed, character-led three weeks the station had attracted almost another 400,000 viewers.
Yesterday’s live coverage (fronted by Gary Imlach with commentary by Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen) peaked at 878,000 viewers. At 4.25pm it was slightly ahead of BBC Two’s Rugby League coverage.
James Macleod, head of press for ITV broadcasting, said: "Viewing to ITV4's Tour de France highlights was up a huge 33 per cent year-on-year."
This year, like last year, the show sponsor was Halfords. Halfords again controversially promoted the Boardman brand of bikes. Controversial because Chris Boardman is ITV4's main expert pundit and he also did the voiceovers to the Halfords sponsorship segments.
Securing 878,000 viewers for the Tour de France was a coup for ITV4. On Sky Sports, cricket at 7pm on Saturday secured 248,000 viewers; rugby on Friday at 7.30pm secured 154,000 viewers and darts at 7.05pm on Saturday night managed just 131,000 viewers.
Over on Eurosport, the British viewership peaked for each stage saw an average of 95,000 fans tune in (40,000 of which watched the event in the UK in HD). [Figure updated with HD audience]
In the 1990s, when Channel 4 aired the Tour de France - when there were less competing TV channels - it achieved viewerships of around 1 million for its nightly highlights shows (shows fronted by Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen).
This level of audience was achieved by ITV1 when it aired the Tour de France start in London in 2007 but this dropped to 329,000 when the Tour departed for France and coverage switched to ITV4. Since 2004 ITV4 has been steadily growing the UK audience for the Tour.
Channel 4's groundbreaking coverage of the Tour de France stopped in 2001 after the channel secured the rights to England Test cricket. In 2000, Channel 4 had signed a five year contract with the European Broadcast Union, which is assigned the TV rights to the Tour by organiser Amaury Sport Organisations.
Channel 4 sold on the final three years of its broadcast contract to ITV in a £2.5m deal.
In 2002, the first year of ITV2's coverage of the event, just 25 000 Brits tuned in on their digital tellies, or via their ITV set-top boxes, for the afternoon, live coverage of the Tour de France.
ITV2 was said not be worried about this because "the Tour brings in the valuable ABC1 male audience important to advertisers."
Halfords' sponsorship of ITV4's Tour de France coverage has helped raise the profile of the Boardman range of bikes. Sale of Halfords premium bike brands, including Boardman, rose by 25 percent in the 13 weeks to 1st July and the blanket coverage on ITV4 will likely lead to further sales gains in the next three months. Halfords sold about 30,000 Boardman bikes last year, out of a total of 1 million bikes Halfords sold across the UK.
While Boardman/Halfords sponsors the ITV4 Tour coverage, there are no Boardman bikes in the peloton. Bike brands with international visibility thanks to doing well at this year's Tour include Swiss brand BMC, which was the bike ridden to overall victory; and Cervelo, used by the Garmin-Cervelo team, which won the team category at the world's biggest annual sporting event. Trek - used to be being a winner with Lance Armstrong - had to settle for second and third on the podium steps that Chris Boardman's ad voiceover suggested don't exist.
Going by rave reviews on Twitter and Facebook and Google+, the favourite ad aired during the Tour de France coverage - on both ITV4 and Eurosport - was the Skoda ad:
Many pro cycling fans said they weren't so keen on the Boardman bikes idents (especially the podium ident).
'John the Monkey ' led a debate on Google+, discussing why most people seemed to love the Skoda ad and were irritated by the Boardman ad:
"1) Repetition - even though there are different soundbites, the Boardman idents come in before and after every ad break - that's what, six in the highlights show, lord knows how many in the live coverage.
"The Skoda ad cropped up maybe once in highlights (and not in every highlights show). I can't remember how often it was on in live coverage.
"2) Tone - I wasn't really a fan of the solmenly intoned Rapha-esque voiceovers on the Boardman idents. It clashes with the way Chris himself comes across on the shows, in podcasts, and when I've heard him talk before. He's quite self deprecating, and it's too easy to imagine him chortling at someone else saying them.
"Chris aside, BikeSnob NYC has commented before that the "church of cycling" copy you sometimes see in Rouleur et al makes him laugh, and then feel like he's farted in church because of it.
"The Skoda ad says the same things about this being a tough sport, but in a far less po-faced way - the riders fall, they get mechanicals, they win (the FdJ celebration in the long version) it just IS - it's shown, not told. It's for you to take the church of cycling view of it if you want, or not.
"I think one of the canniest parts of this campaign is the car's role in it all - thumped about, dirtied, part of the celebrations - it's not spelt out, but it's there all along.
"And the tune's better on the Skoda ad.
"I find it hard to be too critical of the Boardman/Halfords sponsorship, because on the whole, I think it's a good thing. I can't help thinking that a simpler 'Brought to you by Boardman Bikes at Halfords' might have been the way to go, and use the different spots to show different bikes from the range, especially as they have some pro bikes in the range now."