By Alan Baldwin
LONDON, Feb 18 (Reuters) - A significant drop in Chinese viewers pushed down Formula One's global television audience last year, according to figures compiled by the sport's commercial rights holder.
"The majority of our established markets brought larger audiences throughout 2012 than they delivered in 2011," Formula One supremo Bernie Ecclestone said in a foreword to the 2012 global broadcast report.
"A small handful of territories didn't meet expectations in terms of reach, with the Chinese market suffering a decrease which could not be absorbed by a significant number of increases elsewhere," added the 82-year-old.
"Overall, the audience remains at well over half a billion viewers globally."
The Chinese audience is one of the youngest, with more than 10 percent of all viewers under the age of 16 and a quarter under 25.
However, the report said scheduling clashes with other events, particularly in the latter part of the year, made a "significant dent" in both audiences and the level of coverage offered.
A total of 229 hours was broadcast in 2012 in China, compared to 322 in 2011, which led to the overall reach dropping to 48.89 million viewers - about four percent of the Chinese population - from a previous 74.5 million.
The report said that while Formula One lagged sports such as NBA basketball, which have become 'ingrained' in Chinese sports culture, it remained comparable with the majority of European sports despite the decreased audience.
The 2012 report did not give a precise figure for the global audience, which was 515 million in 2011. Television coverage of the sport was aired in 185 territories with 110 broadcast partners.
Brazil was the sport's largest market by both reach and average audience with 85.55 million people in total tuning in to watch the record 20 races.
The 2012 figures represented an increase of almost 10 percent on 2011 in Brazil, which hosted the season-ending and title-deciding race.
Spain and Italy also showed improved figures, reflecting Fernando Alonso's title challenge with Ferrari, as did France but they fell in Britain where coverage was shared for the first time by free-to-air BBC and subscription only Sky.
Reach in Britain over the season fell from 32 to 28.58 million but the country had the most coverage with Sky broadcasting all sessions live.
Audiences fell slightly in Russia, which will have a race for the first time next year in Winter Olympic host city Sochi, and the United States which returned to the calendar in 2012 with a new race in Austin but still without a U.S. driver.
Russia's sole F1 driver Vitaly Petrov was in an uncompetitive Caterham last year and has now lost his seat altogether. Total reach was 13.78 million, down from more than 15 million the previous year.
"A reach of 10 million U.S. viewers is short of the target set for this season," said the report. "That said, it remains a solid foundation to build upon in the coming seasons."
Figures also dipped in Germany, reflecting Sebastian Vettel's slow start to the season before he picked up pace and seized a third successive title with Red Bull, and Japan.
The 2013 season starts in Australia on March 17. (Reporting by Alan Baldwin, editing by Mark Meadows)