News round-up: New F1 TV agreements finalised; OTT moves closer

The twist and turns of Formula 1’s television rights have continued since the start of the year, with the trend heading towards pay television.

In the first few moves after Liberty Media gained control of Formula 1 in 2017, free-to-air agreements were signed in France and Germany, suggesting that Liberty were re-evaluating the direction taken previously by Formula One Management (FOM). Since Christmas however, Formula 1 has signed two pay-TV deals, and a third is on the horizon.

Two new TV agreements, and a third looming
In Spain, Movistar+ have extended their contract to cover Formula 1 until 2020. The pay-TV operator will continue to cover every session. As part of the rights extension, FOM will “help Movistar+ to produce exclusive content for its distribution across their digital and social media platforms.” It is unclear whether fans in Spain will be able to watch any F1 action for free this season.

Over in Latin America, Fox Sports will broadcast the sport, after Canal F1, operated by Mediapro, closed at the end of 2017. The deal, which does not apply to Brazil, runs through until 2022. As part of the deal, the Mexican Grand Prix will remain live and free in Mexico and highlights of every race will be free-to-air. In both territories, FOM have retained “certain digital rights”, a pre-cursor to F1’s over-the-top service launching.

Worryingly, Formula 1 appears to be heading away from free-to-air in Italy. According to reports from Italy, free-to-air channel Rai made a financial offer to FOM that was “significantly weaker” than pay-TV counterpart Sky, which may see F1 leaving Rai with immediate effect. In Italy, Sky own a free-to-air station called TV8, so some races may air there, but this is unconfirmed.

Formula 1’s Managing Director for Commercial Operations, Sean Bratches has talked in the past about a 70/30 model for the sport moving forward, with around 30 percent of races on free-to-air television. Italy’s new deal may fit into that mould, Spain’s however does not.

As I have mentioned previously, shared contracts allow Formula 1 to continue to reach the masses. In countries such as Spain, over-the-top viewing should not become a replacement for free-to-air. A casual fan, who flicks over the channel to watch Formula 1 on free-to-air television, is unlikely to purchase F1’s over-the-top offering, even if it is cheaper than the pay-TV alternative.

There needs to be mechanisms in place to turn the casual fan into a dedicated fan. A free-to-air viewer can turn into an over-the-top subscriber, but the former must exist for the latter transaction to occur.

Meanwhile in over-the-top developments
Despite no official announcement, yet, Formula 1’s over-the-top service continues to move forward in the background. Former GP2 commentator and NBC pit lane reporter Will Buxton is all but confirmed, alongside a line-up that may feature James Allen, Johnny Herbert, and Rosanna Tennant.

One early left-field rumour was that Allen and Herbert would form the commentary team, but recent suggestions indicate that FOM will take the Sky Sports F1 commentary, made up of David Croft and Martin Brundle.

A survey distributed by Hall & Partners on behalf of Formula 1 last weekend suggested that only five countries will have access to the live over-the-top service at launch. They are USA, Mexico, Germany, France, and the Netherlands. You can add Spain and the rest of Latin America to that list based on more recent rights announcements.

The survey touted a wide range of features, such as on-board footage from every car, something first mooted towards the back-end of 2016, live coverage of feeder series’ Formula Two and GP3, and full access to the Formula 1 video archive.

With a limited user base at launch, I foresee a situation where the service starts off with a minimum viable product (in terms of present day and archive footage), but increases in size and depth as time goes on. Of course, you need to produce good content to draw subscribers in, but keeping costs under control is vital as well in the early years.

UK F1 schedule delays
There are a few reasons likely as to why Channel 4 and Sky Sports have yet to announce their 2018 coverage plans.

The first concerns the scheduling of the French Grand Prix, which clashes with one of England’s World Cup game. Whether there are discussions in the background to move the race to earlier or later that day I do not know, but F1 will have a low audience worldwide for the French round as it stands.

Another potential reason for the delay surrounds testing coverage. If Sky are indeed showing testing live, as mooted during their Abu Dhabi Grand Prix coverage last year, I would expect FOM to announce this first, followed on by Sky. And Sky will want to make such as announcement centrepiece in their 2018 press release. Movement should be imminent on this front.

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Channel 4 “open” to showing F1 highlights from 2019 – Chandhok

Channel 4 would be “open” to broadcasting Formula 1 highlights in the UK from 2019 onwards, if such a package became available to them. That is the view of their analyst Karun Chandhok, who has worked with Channel 4 since their coverage began in 2016.

The free-to-air broadcaster currently airs half of the championship live, with the remaining portion of the season aired in highlights form, a deal that will end following the 2018 season. From 2019, Sky Sports will air Formula 1 exclusively live, however live coverage of the British Grand Prix and highlights of all qualifying and race sessions will be available on a “free-to-air” basis, in a deal believed to be worth just shy of £1 billion across the six seasons.

As noted at the time of the announcement, it is unclear what free-to-air means in this context, whether Sky intend to air content on Pick TV (available to all Freeview viewers) or sub-let that element to another broadcaster, such as the BBC, ITV, Channel 4 or Channel 5.

Speaking to The F1 Broadcasting Blog, Chandhok said “If Channel 4 can do a highlights package, with a bit of pre and post-race analysis, then I think they would be open to at least a conversation. They’ve been very happy with the eyeballs they’ve had for F1. They really enjoy having F1 on their channel, from what the executives have been saying.”

Sky’s lead commentator David Croft believes that the new television deal is not “doom and gloom” for UK F1 fans. “You’re not going to get as many live races free-to-air, there will be one race live and free-to-air. But you’ll still be able to watch Formula 1 free-to-air without subscription in a highlights package.”

“It’s not doom and gloom. I find that if you pay for something, you tend to watch it more closely. For sponsors and teams, you may get fewer people watching, but more intently,” Croft continued.

Participation issue worrying for motor sport
One concern around the new UK TV contract that starts in 2019 is that it may result in less viewers watching Formula 1, and Chandhok is concerned that the true effects of the deal for motor racing may not appear until a generation into the future.

“The motor sport industry in the UK employs thousands of people, many of whom are fans of the sport, whether you’re a mechanic, engineer, designer, PR person, journalist, whatever you are, you started off watching F1 on TV as a fan,” Chandhok said. “And unless you’ve got the people being inspired to get involved in the sport, you could end up with a dangerous participation issue, ten to fifteen years down the line.”

Chandhok made the comparisons to test cricket, which has suffered since live coverage moved to pay-TV. The most recent Ashes series between Australia and England, which aired on BT Sport, did not bring in as many viewers as expected.

“Test cricket moved to satellite a few years ago, but now they’re starting to have a problem with participation of school kids, because the kids are not watching cricket on free-to-air, and nobody is inspired to be the next Joe Root or Nasser Hussain,” Chandhok added.

“The kid isn’t going to be the decision maker [to pay to watch live sport], their parents will be. If the parents decide they are not interested enough, or can’t afford to pay for it, then those kids are automatically excluded.”

Scott Young appointed Sky’s new Head of F1

Sky have appointed Scott Young as their new Head of Formula 1, succeeding Martin Turner in the role. Market intelligence site Sportcal revealed the news before Christmas, and I have independently confirmed the story with various sources during the past week.

The name will be unfamiliar to most readers as Young’s career, until this point, has largely been associated with Australian motor sports. Young’s broadcasting career spans well over three decades, concentrating on motor sport television production from the late 1990’s onwards with Network Ten.

In 2011, he became Head of Television with V8 Supercars, bringing in what is known as the “hamburger cam” and high-definition coverage to the sport. He left the role at the end of 2015, with V8 Supercars undergoing a behind the scenes overhaul affecting more than just Young.

A little over two years later, and Young is now heading to the UK, to work on Sky’s Formula 1 coverage. Speaking about Young to this site, Sky’s F1 lead commentator David Croft said “I’m really excited by Scott coming in. He’s got a wealth of experience in motor sport coverage, working over in Australia with the V8s and Formula 1 quite a long time ago. He’s very well connected, knows people in the paddock, and has some great ideas for 2018.”

“Martin [Turner] was a brilliant boss, and I think Scott will be a brilliant boss as well. Sky have taken their time to choose the right man to come into what is a very important job, as the Head of F1. He’ll get everyone’s support and backing and I think he’ll do a bloody good job,” Croft continued.

Young arrives at Sky during an interesting period, as Sky look to produce their F1 output from their Osterley base instead of on-site at the race track, a technique known in the industry as ‘remote production‘.

Croft praises outgoing Head of F1
Sky’s outgoing Formula 1 chief Martin Turner held the reins from inception at the end of 2011, through to the middle of last season. And speaking to me during the Autosport Show, Croft believes that Turner’s initial moves to bring the squad together helped immensely in the long-term.

“Martin put together the team in a genius way, of very different people, all of whom I think are very good at what they’re doing, none of whom actually want to do what anyone else is doing. All of whom get along with each other like friends, almost like a family. I hope that comes out on-air, if we’re mucking about on-air, or cracking gags at each other, that’s what we do off-air as well.”

“There’s no pretence, we’re just a happy bunch of people travelling the world doing something we really love. Martin and the producers brought together creative people, hard-working people, talented people,” Croft added.

“It’s the best team I’ve ever worked with. Things have changed a bit since the first race, some staff have left, some have come in. There’s no conflict or friction behind the scenes, and I think that’s really important for the show.”

Croft: Mini sectors risked “ruining the jeopardy” of F1 qualifying

At the start of the 2017 Formula One season, Formula One Management (FOM) added mini timing ‘loops’ to their graphics for the Australian Grand Prix qualifying session. However, mini sectors disappeared from television screens without trace for the remainder of the season. Speaking exclusively to this site at the Autosport Show, Sky Sports F1 lead commentator David Croft said that the graphic risked “ruining the jeopardy” of qualifying.

Each Formula 1 race track consists of three sectors, which are in turn split into mini sectors, FOM choosing to present mini loop information on-screen for the first time at the start of 2017. The new graphic enabled viewers watching around the world to see detailed splits for the driver in focus, such as Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel’s battle for pole in the Melbourne qualifying session. However, Croft amongst others did not see the appeal.

FOM graphic comparison - mini split with and without.png
With and without the mini sectors: on the left, FOM’s qualifying graphics, from the Australian Grand Prix, and later in the season from the United States Grand Prix.

“In the commentary box, you have Martin [Brundle] and I interpreting the timing screens for you, picking up where the stories are, building up the tension, using our vocabulary, helping you to become more involved and engaged in what is happening on the track,” Croft said. “Why do you need to see on a screen half way between the end of the second sector and the finish line whether someone’s going to get on pole or not? There is no tension involved in that.”

“It’s like going to see The Mouse Trap and half way through Act II someone telling you who did it, or someone spoiling Star Wars. Sometimes you’ve just got to keep the excitement, and have to keep the anticipation. You don’t open your Christmas presents on December 19th.”

Croft noted that he was not alone in his opposition to the new graphic. “I said to the guys at FOM when they brought this in, and Martin [Brundle] was of the same view, that you risked ruining the jeopardy of this. People can sit there and go ‘I need to know all of this information.’ It might be nice for a handful of people, but actually you’re spoiling the crescendo.”

“FOM took everyone’s feedback on-board, and made their own decision, which was to get rid of it. Have we missed them? I haven’t. If someone has missed them, tell me why.”

 

World Rally Championship to broadcast every stage live this season

The World Rally Championship will broadcast every stage live this season online, organisers of the series have confirmed, in the biggest revolution of coverage the series has seen in years.

Speaking at the Autosport Show, WRC’s commercial rights holder, led by Oliver Ciesla, said “From 2018 onwards, starting with the Rallye Monte Carlo, we will offer to the fans all the stages, of all the rallies live. This means approximately 25 hours of live content from every rally starting with the opening ceremony, covering the stages, in between the stages, going into the studio for analysis and interviews. As a fan, you can go in and out whenever your time allows.”

“The service will be available on WRC+. It is a revolution in how this sport is broadcast, you can imagine that covering rally on television is a tremendous effort, as we have to cover more than 300 stage kilometers, so we have helicopters, drones, a lot of exciting onboard footage,” Ciesla continued.

“The positive thing is the flexibility that the fan has. You can still watch the transmissions with the broadcast partners, and whenever time allows on this digital service. You take your mobile phone, you use the app, you take your computer, you come in, maybe you’re on the train or bus and want to watch. You can follow the rally whenever you want, wherever you are, live.”

“This is an absolute game changer in how rallying is covered.” Pricing for the new WRC All Live package is €8.99 a month, or €89.99 across the whole year. For UK fans, based on the current exchange rate, this works out at £7.97 a month, or £79.81 across the year, a very reasonable price considering the amount of content on offer.

Channel 5 and BT Sport retain UK TV rights
Speaking exclusively to The F1 Broadcasting Blog, Ciesla also confirmed that Channel 5 and BT Sport would remain holders of WRC’s UK rights.

“For 2018, the TV situation will be unchanged, and Channel 5 and BT are the broadcast partners in the UK,” Ciesla said. Ciesla noted BT Sport have the “option” to show every stage live as part of their contract, as do all pay-TV providers worldwide.

Channel 5’s highlights programming in 2017 averaged 283k (1.54%) according to overnight figures supplied by Overnights.tv, down on their 2016 audience of 343k (1.78%).