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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News round-up: Harris to hang up his microphone; F1 heading back to FTA in France

In the news round-up, fans of MotoGP will hear a slightly different tone to broadcasting from 2018 onwards, whilst Formula 1 is making a return to free-to-air television in a key territory.

Formula 1 returning to free-to-air television in France
The return of the French Grand Prix in 2018 is not the only good news for Formula 1 fans in France. Earlier this month, it emerged that the sport would also be returning to free-to-air television, in the first major deal signed by the F1 Group under Liberty Media’s ownership.

For the past few years, Formula 1 has stagnated in France with the sport hidden behind a pay-wall, exclusively on Canal+. Now, Liberty have signed a deal with free-to-air broadcaster TF1 for three years from 2018. TF1 will air four Grand Prix live, including Monaco and the home race at Paul Ricard, with all other rounds covered in highlights form.

Some outlets interpreted the deal as a new direction for Formula 1. Not quite. Article L333-9 of the French Sporting Code states that “sporting events of major importance shall be retransmitted under the conditions laid down in Articles 20-2 and 20-3 of Law No 86-1067 of 30 September 1986 on freedom of communication.”

And Article 20-2, referenced above, explicitly says “Events of major importance can not be retransmitted exclusively in a way that deprives a significant portion of the public of the possibility of following them live or delayed on a free-to-air television service.” In other words, there was an obligation for the F1 Group under French law to offer the French Grand Prix to a free-to-air broadcaster, it was not by choice.

The other three races and the remaining highlights were by choice, although Liberty might have been in a weaker position here if TF1, or any other broadcaster, were unwilling to play the French Grand Prix without any other races alongside it. Either way, the narrative painted by the mainstream media has missed a significant fact.

However, the deal signed by the F1 Group and TF1 does align with quotes from F1’s Managing Director for Commercial Operations, Sean Bratches earlier this year, who suggested a 30-70 relationship where free-to-air and pay-TV were concerned.

Harris to retire from MotoGP duties at end of the season
The big broadcasting news from the Aragon MotoGP weekend is that their World Feed commentator Nick Harris will retire at the end of the year. Harris has been in and out of paddocks, pit lanes and various other fora for 36 years. The paddock came together on the Thursday prior to Aragon to celebrate Harris’ career at the Alpinestars motor home.

I have not spoken to Harris during my stints in the MotoGP paddock, however Harris seems respected and liked by just about anyone you speak to within the paddock. 36 years is an astounding career, I imagine he has many stories to tell post retirement, whatever the future may hold for him!

Harris currently commentates on MotoGP alongside Matt Birt and Dylan Gray in pit lane, with Steve Day leading on Moto2 and Moto3. I imagine Day will lead on MotoGP commentary as well from 2018, unless Dorna bring in someone from the outside to take on Harris’ duties.

Carrasco’s win generates headlines
Elsewhere on the motor cycling front, Ana Carrasco helped generate significant headlines for the Supersport 300 Championship, a feeder series to the Superbikes World Championship. Last weekend’s Supersport 300 race at Portimao saw Carrasco’s maiden victory at world motorcycle level, the first woman to achieve that feat.

Outlets in the United Kingdom and abroad reported on Carrasco’s victory. In the UK, The Guardian and the BBC reported Carrasco’s achievement, whilst aboard, outlets such as the New York Times and Rolling Stone covered her achievement.

How the Indy 500 and Monaco Grand Prix performed around the world

Whilst this site traditionally focusses on the United Kingdom viewing figures picture, yesterday’s Indianapolis 500 unsurprisingly made a significant splash in Spain.

According to FormulaTV, live coverage of the Indianapolis 500 in Spain averaged 443k (3.6%) from 17:59 to 22:06 on #0 and Movistar Sports. #0 is Movistar+’s main subscription channel in Spain, hence why the Indianapolis 500 was featured on there.

As a result, the IndyCar action beat the Monaco Grand Prix, which averaged 212k (2.0%) on Movistar’s dedicated Formula 1 channel from 14:03 to 15:48. Last year’s action from Monaco averaged 302k (2.8%), so F1 lost just under a third of the viewers year-on-year. In Spain, Formula 1 used to air on the free-to-air station Antena 3, a deal which ended in 2015, with viewing figures in their millions.

Whilst IndyCar ratings are unknown in Germany and Italy, the Monaco Grand Prix performed well in both markets, thanks to Sebastian Vettel and Ferrari in strong form. In Germany, the race aired live on free-to-air station RTL, to an audience of 5.23m (34.5%) according to Quotenmeter.

In Italy, an audience of 5.80m (35.5%) watched Vettel’s victory on free-to-air channel Rai 1, figures compiled by TVBlog show. Both Germany and Italy’s figures appear to exclude Sky Deutschland and Sky Italia respectively, which will increase their respective audiences slightly.

Meanwhile in America, live coverage of the Indianapolis 500 averaged 5.46 million viewers on ABC, a drop on last year’s audience of 6.01 million viewers. This shouldn’t be considered surprising though as last year’s race had the local ABC blackout lifted to commemorate with the 100th running.

The Monaco Grand Prix aired over on NBC and averaged a strong 1.44 million viewers, up slightly on last year’s number of 1.32 million viewers. It’s a good number and, according to NBC themselves, the most watched live F1 race on record.

News round-up: Verstappen shines on Pauw, 3D graphics from FOM make appearance

Alongside the pieces I posted a few weeks ago, there are a fair few smaller things that I want to mention, which I will do over the course of the next two round-up’s. First up, analysis looking at Sky’s “35 million” digital reach and ESPN’s movement in the Formula 1 online world.

Verstappen continues to shine in his homeland
The rise of Max Verstappen continued in the Netherlands following his win at the Spanish Grand Prix. Verstappen appeared on late-night chat show Pauw on Friday night on NPO1. To put the appearance into context for UK readers, it is the equivalent to Lewis Hamilton appearing on The Graham Norton Show on BBC One.

Verstappen’s appearance on Pauw averaged a strong 1.18m (27.1%) from 23:02 to 23:57 according to ratings bureau Kijkonderzoek. Pauw has typically averaged around 750,000 viewers over the past few weeks, so Verstappen’s appearance boosted numbers by over 50 percent. I’m surprised no one has started a rumour about the Dutch Grand Prix yet…

ESPN increases Formula 1 coverage
One website that has increased its Formula 1 presence this year is ESPN. The website now features video round-ups fronted by Jennie Gow and Maurice Hamilton alongside written content from a variety of writers. Given that ESPN have no Formula 1 rights, it is a strong website and worth a visit if you have not done so already.

On the subject of website reporting, the BBC F1 website has adapted. Despite not being able to publish content with Formula One Management (FOM) video material, the team has still uploaded content featuring Jack Nicholls, Allan McNish and Tom Clarkson. Eagle eyed viewers will have noticed that the recent videos from Russia and Spain were filmed with the relevant back drops in sight, but outside of the FOM perimeter zone. The BBC cannot film inside a circuit during a Formula 1 race weekend, but there is nothing stopping them from filming 50 meters outside of the circuit, as they are doing so at the moment.

Producing a good supplementary magazine show
Now that we are five races into the 2016 Formula One season, it is a good chance to talk about Sky’s revamped programming line-up. Axed is the studio editions of The F1 Show, with all other episodes reduced to 30 minutes in length. As a result, the F1 Report airs every week instead of bi-weekly. The changes to The F1 Show during race weekends have been a welcome change, making it easier to catch up on practice coverage with a shorter, snappier show.

The F1 Report has not changed from a content perspective meaning that the viewer is short-changed year-on-year. The show is clearly produced on a shoe-string budget and that is one of the issues I have with the show. It is odd that Sky have for years produced brilliant supplementary shows to their football coverage such as Sunday Supplement and Goals on Sunday yet have failed to produce one good, stable supplementary magazine show for their Formula 1 coverage that hasn’t required multiple changes. We’re in season five and the supplementary magazine show is now in iteration three or four.

Yes, their football coverage covers multiple layers across multiple leagues on a much larger scale than F1. But F1 has: on and off track across multiple series (GP2 and GP3) which Sky should be driving people towards. The opinions and voices on The F1 Report so far in 2016 have not been strong enough to persuade me to watch every week. Besides, if I want to get general opinions, I can read AUTOSPORT or Motorsport.com. You do get the occasional good guests who are worth listening to, such as Will Buxton, but these are far and few between. Sky’s failure though came far, far earlier in the chain by repeatedly failing to exploit the studio episodes of The F1 Show.

FOM share 3D graphics with Sky
Viewers who watched the horrifying accident between Fernando Alonso and Esteban Gutierrez at the Australian Grand Prix via any of Sky’s outlets would have probably also watched 3D graphics of the incident. The footage, provided by FOM and based on GPS data, was used by Sky in Italy, Germany and the United Kingdom to analyse the accident. The traces showed that Gutierrez crucially braked earlier than Alonso, contributing to the accident. Channel 4 did not air the 3D footage during their highlights show, either because of time constraints or because they did not have access to the footage.

To date, I believe this is the first and last time we have seen 3D footage from FOM based on GPS. I was expecting FOM to produce something in Spain as a result of the Mercedes crash on lap one, but alas, nothing was aired. With or without 3D footage, it should be noted that the Sky Pad analysis we saw from Anthony Davidson was fantastic on both occasions. Davidson is comfortably one of Sky F1’s best assets, and is someone who Sky should try to keep for as long as possible going forward.

Counting viewers and readers
Every time I see a statistic, my first thought is to wonder how it is calculated, especially when it comes to audience figures. Sky Sports recently celebrated their 25th anniversary and mentioned this statistic: “35 million+ unique users of SkySports.com and Sky Sports apps.” How accurate is that figure?  Being a data junkie, a few questions come to mind.

Is that a worldwide figure or UK only figure? If it is the former, then the UK figure will be lower by a fair amount. Although the statement says ‘unique’, is that strictly true in that one person may use Sky Sports services in various different ways (iPad, Android, desktop, laptop, work phone to name just a few). So can a figure across multiple devices truly be classified as unique? Just because 20 million people use iPad and 15 million use Android, that does not mean 35 million people use iPad or Android, as there will be overlap in people who use iPad and Android.

I’m intrigued to know what unique means in this instance, I suspect the reality is that there is a significant amount of double counting involved to arrive at that figure. Beware if you see that figure used in public in future to defend the Sky UK’s exclusive Formula 1 deal from 2019…

No further discussion about Sky’s 2019 deal
Surprisingly since the announcement about the aforementioned deal, we have had little comment from those in the business (I exclude journalists here). No one, to my knowledge, has publicly commented on it from the teams’ perspective. We have had a brief comment from FIA president Jean Todt who, speaking at a presser during the Bahrain Grand Prix weekend said that he is “not happy that F1 is disappearing from free-to-air TV in key markets.” Apart from that, no public comment.

On the back drop of Sky’s 2019 deal, but not linked, the digital team at Sky pulled an article offline about the GPDA statement concerning the governance of Formula 1. I requested comment from Sky, unfortunately an official line from them was not forthcoming, despite the best efforts of this writer to press on the issue.

Over one million viewers watch Verstappen’s debut win in the Netherlands

An audience of over one million viewers in the Netherlands watched their countryman Max Verstappen claim his first Formula 1 win, viewing figures show.

According to the ratings bureau Kijkonderzoek the Spanish Grand Prix, which aired live on Ziggo Sport, averaged a massive 1.01m (35.5%) from 13:55 to 15:48 local time. The post-race section rated even higher than the race itself as word of mouth spread, averaging 1.13m (34.3%) from 15:48 to 16:37. The race and post race segments were the 6th and 9th most watched programmes of the day respectively and comfortably Ziggo Sport’s most watched programmes as well.

It is worth noting that Ziggo Sport is a pay-TV station, which makes the figures even more impressive. Given that the Netherlands has historically not been a big market, I have not kept tabs on their figures throughout the years, but have found something worth mentioning. The 2012 Brazilian Grand Prix averaged 674k (15.1%) on RTL7 whilst the Canadian Grand Prix in the same year averaged 537k (7.7%), albeit against football opposition. And both of those were on free-to-air television!

I’ll try and track the Netherlands figures in more depth as the year progresses. If the signs are anything to go by, the viewing figures are only going to increase if Verstappen continues his rise in Formula 1…