F1’s digital strategy unfolds as conflict with TV model takes centre stage

ESPN are to broadcast Formula 1 in America from 2018, it has been confirmed today, ending NBC’s existing partnership.

The reasoning behind the split between Formula One Group and NBC is clear, based on a press release issued by NBC today. The broadcaster says, “Although we take great pride in having grown Formula One’s visibility and viewership since we became its exclusive U.S. media rights holder in 2013, this will be our last season with the series.”

“In this case, we chose not to enter into a new agreement in which the rights holder itself competes with us and our distribution partners. We wish the new owners of F1 well.” The key phrase “competes with us” is ominous. Not specific to NBC, but an example of this may be interpreted as Formula 1 uploading full classic races to YouTube.

Formula 1’s digital strategy, which encompasses social media and a new over-the-top platform, has consequences for the more traditional broadcast deals that Liberty Media wish to sign with the likes of NBC. Clearly, if a new over-the-top platform is to launch in territories such as America, new broadcast contracts must align with the new approach.

Clearly, higher-up decision makes in the NBC chain were unwilling to buy into a situation whereby F1’s own over-the-top network would be screening the same live broadcast as NBC’s product. I have referenced in the past WWE’s over-the-top Network. The wrestling franchise also airs on the USA Network in America. USA, is also part of the NBC stable of channels, so there is a parallel situation.

The key difference? WWE’s weekly flagship shows ‘Raw’ and ‘SmackDown’, which air live on USA, are not added to the WWE Network until a month after the traditional transmission date. A simulcast was not an option for NBC: it dilutes the value of their contract significantly. However, WWE also has special events every four weeks, such as ‘SummerSlam’ and ‘WrestleMania’ (outside of the NBC deal), which justifies the existence of the network.

A new F1 Network, without live racing action, is not a viable product. For the Formula One Group, live action on their over-the-top network is an absolute must. But, as outlined above with the WWE situation, it is not in NBC’s interests, hence why F1 is heading elsewhere as FOG were keen to retain the over-the-top rights.

ESPN’s coverage will air across ESPN, ESPN2 and ABC, marking the first time that Formula 1 has aired on their portfolio of channels since 1997. ABC will air the US and Mexican rounds of the championship live, with the Monaco Grand Prix on tape-delay. The remaining races will air on ESPN or ESPN2.

According to SportsBusiness Journal, ESPN are not paying Formula One Group a fee for the deal, and there will be no supplementary coverage on ESPN outside of the World Feed, even if the network are airing practice, qualifying and the race itself.

Whenever a split like this happens, I always ask the question about who needs who more. Does F1 need NBC more than NBC needs F1? Personally, I think so. Viewing figures for NBC’s programming were on the rise. If ESPN is only providing World Feed coverage without wrap-around, it is fundamentally a step backwards for Formula 1 state side, even if audience figures do increase as a result.

Elsewhere, last week it became official that Formula 1 was heading to pay-TV exclusively with immediate effect in Australia. Because of financial difficulties for Channel Ten, FOX Sports’ new rights kicked in from the Malaysian Grand Prix onwards.

The future for NBC’s F1 team
If we are to assume that ESPN’s American coverage does not have an on-air team, and instead takes commentary from elsewhere (such as Sky), it leaves several highly-rated figures in the motor racing broadcasting world currently without roles for the 2018 season.

Leigh Diffey is NBC’s lead Formula 1 commentator currently, with David Hobbs and Steve Matchett alongside him. The two figures relevant to UK readers because of their past are Jason Swales and Will Buxton.

Prior to joining NBC, Swales’ was BBC’s Radio 5 Live producer for their Formula 1 coverage, whilst Buxton was lead commentator for GP2 and GP3 before stepping down from the role at the end of 2014. Swales is NBC’s F1 producer, but also appears on-screen regularly as a double act alongside Buxton, who is NBC’s pit lane reporter.

Swales and Buxton are likely to be in high demand by other broadcasters covering motor racing given their experience and popularity with fans state side and in the UK. The problem that both have is that there are unlikely to be many vacancies for 2018.

A vacancy might appear if the BBC decide they are unhappy with Jack Nicholls only doing part-time duty as lead commentator for their 5 Live F1 coverage and look elsewhere, given his decision to commit to Formula E for their 2017-18 season.

A plausible opportunity for Swales might be to take up the role as Head of Sky Sports F1 following Martin Turner’s retirement. However, the latest on that from Charles Sale of the Daily Mail indicated that Matt Bishop, formerly of F1 Racing magazine and McLaren, may take up the post. Saying that, if Sky hired Bishop, he may decide to hire Swales and Buxton to the team.

The alternative is that the former NBC team ends up jumping to Formula One Group’s new over-the-top network, whichever format it ends up in. Whether we see a version of that for 2018, I do not know. But, clearly FOM are placing more emphasis on the overall World Feed product before and after the races, with Rosanna Tennant conducting the interviews.

If ESPN puts together a small team, they have personnel internally to hire from: the likes of Jennie Gow and Maurice Hamilton currently produce and record material for the ESPN website, so it will be intriguing to see where they fit into the wider picture.

There is a huge amount of talent around now, at the BBC, Channel 4, Sky Sports, NBC, and other broadcasters. I do worry slightly that, if Liberty’s strategy does alienate broadcasters, we might see a situation in some territories where the diverse opinions become replaced in favour of a standardised approach, at lower cost to those buying in.

Who knows what the future holds moving forward, but one thing is for certain: an over-the-top network is coming, and it might be sooner than we think…

Update on October 5th – ESPN have issued a statement exclusively to this site. “We will not air additional pre and post-race coverage on television. It’s been our experience that the overwhelming majority of motorsports viewers tune in for the race itself.”

“We want to attract new audiences for F1 by drawing ESPN fans from one program directly into race coverage. We will not have any ESPN announcers involved in the telecasts.”

Continuing their statement, ESPN note “The F1-produced world feed that we will use will have announcers (to be named). We feel that the television product produced by F1 is very good and will serve our viewers well.” ESPN’s statement certainly makes it a more realistic possibility that the over-the-top network for Formula 1 will launch next season.

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11 thoughts on “F1’s digital strategy unfolds as conflict with TV model takes centre stage

  1. An ESPN spokesperson told RACER the network would utilize Formula 1’s current broadcast feed.

    “We will be airing the world feed produced by F1. As of today, F1 hasn’t determined who the announcers for next year on the feed will be. We feel that the television product produced by F1 is very good and will serve our viewers well.”

    According to that, it looks like FOM will have their own commentary team next year.

  2. I am quietly optimistic an OTT service coming stateside. I’ve never enjoyed being stuck with the NBC coverage. There are far too many ad breaks that I never quite get into the rhythm of the race. Also although I have no doubt that the 3 presenters are very knowledgeable about F1 I feel like NBC makes them dumb it down to such an extent that it alienates more hardcore fans such as myself.

  3. Do we know where Will Buxton might end up? Sky could trim the fat in respect of all the crappy ex-drivers (Brundle and Hill excepted) and generic Partridge-esque sports hacks (eg Craig Slater) in one fell swoop by putting Buxton in a roving roll, doing colour alongside Croft for FP sessions and as an adjunct to Ted’s superb pit lane and other reporting.

    Buxton was wasted on NBC. Now it sounds like he’d have even less to do if he joins ESPN. He’s too good to end up in a less prominent TV role than he currently has!

  4. That must be what Bernie Ecclestone was referring to when he mentioned about “protecting you guys” in the context of the linear TV partners.

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