A Web of Confusion

A hot topic at the moment is the issue of web streaming of motor racing series, specifically concerning IndyCar and the American Le Mans Series as they diverge in their approach to online coverage.

ALMS

The ALMS announced that it was ditching live TV coverage for this season with their races being streamed live via various ESPN websites worldwide and at www.americanlemans.com for areas with no ESPN service, like here in the UK. That’ll be followed up by highlights packages on ABC or ESPN2 usually the following day. I think most ALMS races will again air tape delayed on MotorsTV in Europe.

This received a mixed reaction from the fans. A section of fans though this was a great idea because a large number of people have access to the web with a fairly decent connection nowadays, and growing numbers of the population both in the US and elsewhere are turning to watching TV – live or via timeshifting – via the internet perfectly legally online. Offering official web streaming is a fantastic idea and is essential today, I think everyone is agreed a service like this is a good idea.

The problem here, which angered a great many fans, is that this expanded web coverage comes at the expense of live TV. Removing coverage from TV is suicide because whilst online coverage may be growing fast, it isn’t fully mature and doesn’t attract the numbers of TV. Furthermore, not everybody does have reliable fast internet connections yet. Live TV coverage is essential for retaining eyeballs on the series. The other issue here is that their chosen partner within the US, ESPN3.com, is not available on all ISPs. It seems they want partnership agreements with ISPs to allow content to be streamed through them. Crazy. This does not help the sponsors in any way at all. Read here of the trouble one of the competing teams at Sebring is having trying to get race coverage in their hospitality trailer and their pit area (with thanks to Dex of RLM for the retweet earlier bringing it to my attention).

The best solution is for coverage live on TV and live online, people can watch using whichever method suits them. I suspect even with TV highlights the ALMS will be negatively affected. Just look at Indy Lights when it fell to a tape delay in 2010 – a mass loss of sponsors, and consequently a significant drop in the entry list. Okay so Lights is a junior series and ALMS is the top sportscar series in North America, but the point I think still stands.

A separate issue is the dropping of Radio Le Mans which to me is unthinkable. Thankfully Hindy and Shaw will be doing the commentary for ESPN3.com and AmericanLeMans.com, but it won’t be the full service we’re used to. Admittedly I can’t watch many ALMS races live due to the timing of the races but Sebring and Petit I always try to follow, for those I like to turn down the stream volume (yes I had to watch an illicit stream for pictures) and listen to RLM because their information and commentary are almost always superior.

In many respects the new deal is exactly what I asked for in the past and I am very happy with the web side of it. Official web video coverage with commentary from Hindy and Shaw? Yes, please! No more illicit feed, no more trying to get it and RLM synced up. Frankly it suits me very well indeed, as someone outside the US I’m not complaining about the web coverage at all. The problems here are the removal of the TV coverage and the restricting of the web feed to certain users.

IndyCar

The dust was settling on all of this when IndyCar casually mentioned as an aside at the bottom of a press release about something completely different, that they’d be dropping their existing free web stream for 2011. This time there wasn’t a single fan in favour – everybody was against the loss. The TV deal for IndyCar within the US involves a channel you have to pay extra to receive, apart from five races on ABC which are available to all. This means more people had been reliant on the web stream than with ALMS up until now.

Now, anyone who tried to watch IndyCar online over the past few years knows just how unreliable their service actually was and how bad the product was. I’ve complained about it a lot. It buffered, stuttered, froze and sometimes just gave up working at all. It did get better in 2010, a more reliable useable service. The focus then shifted to the actual coverage, which took the IMS Radio Network and overlaid the audio over some apparently random camera shots unconnected to what IMSRN were discussing. They weren’t even TV pictures – they seemed to be set-up shots as the camera got into position ready for the director to go to them. So many times we looked at an empty track or a pointless helicopter shot where the cars were too small to see anything.

All this and yet… it was still better than nothing. I and others always said it was better than nothing. Now we have nothing. The chances of watching any live IndyCar this year seem remote. I will try to catch a Justin.tv stream or others elsewhere, but if they get shut down, that’s it. In the UK, coverage is provided by Sky Sports 3 which is an expensive channel to obtain if like me you don’t already have Sky installed. You can only use Sky’s web streaming service if you are already a subscriber to their TV service. That option is out of the window for many of us.

This was a decision from Comcast/NBC who own the Versus network which hosts IndyCar in the US. What’s particularly sad is that IndyCar had already mentioned last season (via Twitter?) that for 2011 their service would be improved. There is evidence that’s actually the case because members of their free fan club ‘IndyCar Nation’ – which you had to join to watch streaming last year – received an email the other day announcing a new live timing and scoring system, a new live track map showing car positions, new pre and post-event videos and an integrated Twitter feed. It looks for all the world like the rug was pulled from under them.

GT1 WC and Superleague Formula

The FIA GT1 World Championship and Superleague Formula are two series which do web coverage very well. Both offer the exact same product as appears on the TV screen, as a free web feed. You get the same pictures, the same commentary, the same pit reports. A1GP used to do the same thing. I highly recommend trying out their services. What’s even better is something I’ve not seen since Champ Car did it a few years ago. The races are archived! I’ve not yet watched much of the 2010 FIA GT1 World Championship but I plan to go back through that archive and watch every race.

You might say these series are watched by far fewer people than either ALMS or IndyCar. You’d be right. That doesn’t mean the latter series can’t learn from them. If I had my way every series would have live TV, live web streaming, and past races available on their websites. That includes Formula 1 as well, which is currently hiding behind the excuse of ‘licensing agreements’ despite FOM holding copyright on every broadcast (check the post-race credits). For some series I’d pay a nominal, non-bank-breaking fee, too.

That way none of us would have to resort to illicit streams or torrent downloads – and I think even the streaming and torrenting communities would rejoice at that.

Further reading:

- Two posts from Allen at Grab Bag Sports, the first following the initial announcements and the second citing sports offering web coverage.

- Pressdog on the process behind the Comcast/NBC management decisions.

- Meesh captures the immediate reaction of most IndyCar fans who rely on streaming to watch the races live.

- Leigh has some interesting thoughts too.

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7 Comments

Filed under broadcasting, fans, TV

7 responses to “A Web of Confusion

  1. Nice write up. You really do have to wonder sometimes who is at the helm of these series and just what prompts their decision making.

    Thanks for the shout out too! (of course it should come with a language warning hehehe)

  2. Thanks. :) They are all a bit weird, I’m convinced these people don’t actually watch TV (that includes network execs too).

    Yes I suppose I should’ve put a warning up!

  3. Hi Pat,
    I might be wrong, but I think F2 are doing live streaming this year too. Also a note not to forget about F1′s live streaming via the BBC – not sure how many other territories have that option though.

  4. Yeah true. And sorry I meant to link to your site too, will fix when I’m not on iPad

  5. GT1 is well worth catching up on. The supporting GT3 series also broadcasts online.

    I just don’t get why the promoters don’t realise that the more eyes on their product the better things get for everybody. If I was looking at paying big money for a little sticker on a racing car I’d be hesitant if online coverage wasn’t offered.

  6. Too right, you’ve got to assume both IndyCar and ALMS are going to lose sponsors over this.

  7. Mike Rice

    IndyCar’s new online offerings are just as bad as before but now without the (potential) option of watching a live video stream. It still buffers and locks up like it did. Still get the audio feed of Mike King and Davey Hamilton with it, which is really the only satisfactory aspect…well, at least with Hamilton’s inputs. I asked Meesh to tell Randy Bernard…her response was that he was pretty buried with people telling him how bad the online product is. Here’s hoping that something positive may result.

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