Further Thoughts on BBC and Sky in 2012

The changes to the UK’s F1 TV coverage in 2012 were announced back in August. This week both the BBC and Sky firmed up their plans by announcing which races they have chosen as well as the level of coverage they will make available.

I wrote my initial reaction shortly afterwards – a good deal if you already have Sky, a poor deal for the rest of us. Following these announcements that’s pretty much my position now, the only difference being that now you can watch without the expensive Sports option.

Summary

There are due to be 20 races in 2012. This may change at December’s FIA World Motorsport Council meeting which could rule on Bahrain, Texas and Korea, but for the moment there are 20 races.

BBC

The current sole provider will drop from live coverage of all rounds to live coverage of 10 rounds. Those weekends will feature their usual service as in 2011:

  • live practice on the interactive ‘red button’ channel and website;
  • live qualifying on BBC1/online;
  • live race on BBC1/online;
  • post-race “Forum” on interactive/online;

The other 10 rounds will not be live but will have “extended highlights”. This, I think, is basically a tape-delay with a few edits for time constraints.

– “extended highlights” on BBC1: races in the Far East get a 2-hour show at 2pm and European races get a 90-minute show at 5.30pm;
– no ‘Forum’, no practice or qualifying*;
– the speculation of the race being live on interactive/red button was wrong, that will not be happening;

* I speculate there will be qualifying highlightsat the beginning of these shows, much like Ted Kravitz does before the races now but maybe longer.

I’d feared these highlights could be as little as 30 minutes, so 90 minutes isn’t the end of the world. If they wanted to they could almost fit the whole race in or only chop out short bits to make room for a bit of pre- and post-race. The key here are the words, “if they wanted to”.

I cross fingers they only cut a handful of laps, no more than we lost in the ITV days or if you watch any American racing today – that’s my hope. If they had not been landed with Valencia and Abu Dhabi as live races, this kind of treatment would’ve been ideal for those tedious events.
HOWEVER I mistrust any TV producer/editor and can already picture chunks cut out so they can have another long interview with Christian Horner or Martin Whitmarsh! Those are infuriating enough without having to watch at the expense of cars on track. I can also picture having to rush to YouTube after the coverage to catch a crucial moment an editor had to chop due to time constraints.

The other problem is that if you don’t want to be spoiled you have to avoid Twitter, Facebook, G+, live commenting sites, news websites, news channels, perhaps TV and radio entirely – and all the while you must not speak to anybody you know just in case they tell you.
With a European race finishing at 3pm you can just about manage 2.5 hours I’m sure. With an Eastern race finishing at about 8 or 9am, waiting until 2pm is going to become very tedious and is actually unfeasible I think.
We already face this problem if we sleep through the races in Japan or China or Australia and watch them later so we all know how much of a pain in the arse it is, having to do that for 10 races is not appealing, I don’t like that the choice of whether or not to get up early has been taken from me.

It isn’t ideal for us petrolheads without Sky, not by a long shot, but perhaps okay for those people who just want to plonk on the sofa and see who wins the race. Will that be enough and will the favourable timeslots be good enough to keep the ratings good, or will the lack of live seriously drop the numbers?

(NB: BBC Radio 5 Live / 5 Live Sports Extra will continue with all 20 rounds as per 2011 – radio falls under a separate contract.)

Sky

For those of you with a Sky subscription or who can afford to get one, you’re actually getting a pretty sweet deal out of this. Sky will have all 20 races completely live and uninterrupted.

  • a dedicated “Sky Sports F1 HD” channel for all sessions;
  • live practice;
  • live qualifying;
  • live race;
  • if you subscribe to Sports 1 and 2 or Sky HD this channel is free;
  • SSF1 available online and compatible with Sky Go, the mobile service;
  • they say there will be magazine/analysis shows;

There is also talk of different on-board angles and a data channel, which sounds like the F1 Digital+ of several years ago. In effect if you are a petrolhead this is the channel you are looking for – they are able to do things the BBC can’t do either because they can’t justify it for license fee, or because they have to cross to other progamming. It really does sound great.

The problem? The cost! Here are the options:

  • If you are a Sky Sports subscriber this is not a problem – you pay it already, great for you and I’m very jealous!
  • If you have Sky with HD but not Sports, great you get this channel at no charge, no need to add Sports.
  • If you have Sky in SD it’ll cost you an extra £10.25 per month (£123 per year) for the HD pack. Potentially add a new TV if you don’t have one capable of taking HD signal.
  • If you do not have Sky at all, this is going to sting you. The absolute cheapest way to get this channel is to pay the basic subscription (“Entertainment pack”) of £20pm and add the £10.25pm HD pack. £30.25 per month is £363 per year – and perhaps you’ll need a new TV.
  • Optional extras for other motorsport:  if you add Sky Sports to the above because you want to watch IndyCar on Sky Sports 4, that’ll cost you another £20pm to take you to £50.25pm (they have a lot of sport which pushes up the price). Add another £5pm to take “Entertainment extra pack” which includes Eurosport to see Le Mans, WEC, WTCC, IRC. Add another £10pm for ESPN to see DTM, FIA GT and WRC. And then you’ve got Premier Sports at £7.99 for the NASCAR Sprint Cup. You could spend over £70pm if you wanted.

(Technical note – this is not Pay Per View. Sky Box Office with the rented movies and boxing and wrestling, that’s PPV. This here is a pay-monthly subscription.)

Now I don’t know about you but I don’t have the £30pm to spend right now on the basic Sky subscription. Thus I will not be watching every F1 race live in 2012. F1 feels like one of the UK’s national sports alongside football and cricket and rugby. With the recent successes of Hamilton and Button it isn’t as marginal as it used to be so this is very disappointing. Of course those other sports took the money as well, for the most part, and now F1 has done the same.

I tell you if I had the money to subscribe to everything I guarantee I would do it. I could fill up the Sky+ PVR in no time and spend every free hour watching it. As it is I manage to find other ways to watch things. I would prefer to do it properly on a huge shiny TV in HD, I really would.

The only way I could afford this is if I were to give up actually attending races. In 2011 I went to Goodwood (twice), Donington Historic, and Silverstone for the 6 Hours and the FRenault 3.5. I had too much fun at those events to give them up, so I won’t do it. Or I would have to give up golf which would drive me insane, I’m no good at golf but I enjoy the quiet walk, the challenge of the game, and the time away from real life.

Then there’s the problem of being allowed to put up a satellite dish if you live in rented accomodation. I might be able to.. will you?

The other problem many have is an ethical one. Sky is a Murdoch property and with the News of the World scandal, among many other things over the last decade or two, people have perfectly legitimate reasons to not take Sky. It isn’t a position I take, as I make a distinction between the news organisations and the TV platform.

Incidentally, there is not yet any word on whether Virgin Media will include SSF1 within their cable line-up. However I think it safe to say it won’t be on Freeview or Freesat.

Races

Date Race Sky BBC
18-Mar Australia Live Highlights
25-Mar Malaysia Live Highlights
15-Apr China Live Live
22-Apr Bahrain Live Highlights
13-May Spain Live Live
27-May Monaco Live Live
10-Jun Canada Live Highlights
24-Jun Valencia Live Live
08-Jul Britain Live Live
22-Jul Germany Live Highlights
29-Jul Hungary Live Highlights
02-Sep Belgium Live Live
09-Sep Italy Live Highlights
23-Sep Singapore Live Live
07-Oct Japan Live Highlights
14-Oct Korea Live Live
28-Oct India Live Highlights
04-Nov Abu Dhabi Live Live
18-Nov United States Live Highlights
25-Nov Brazil Live Live

Some odd choices. BBC could choose 10 they wanted live and Sky could choose 10 they wanted exclusively, starting with 3 from the BBC and 3 from Sky before alternating picks. Apparently they couldn’t choose 3 consecutive races. Even with those considerations if I were the BBC I’d have tried to get Canada and the US for the evening ratings bonanza!

Conclusion

My position remains mostly unchanged. This is a bad deal for most F1 fans who won’t be able to see all the races. It could seriously harm ratings and popularity in this country. On the other side, great if you can get this stuff because purely in technical terms it could move F1 coverage to another level.

Oh, and I still don’t really understand the sense of entitlement many people think they have. It is just a sport. It doesn’t have a divine right to be on the BBC all the time. It sucks that it won’t be, but sadly that’s commercial life I’m afraid.

UK F1 TV Coverage in 2012

There had been murmurs in recent weeks and months of potential changes to F1’s UK TV rights, as everyone knows the BBC is trying to save money and it paid a heck of a lot for the Formula 1 rights, but with the need to cut back across the board nobody really knew if they’d stick to the contract. The names of Channel 4 and Five were mooted as taking over, and I think many fans expected a wholesale switch to one of those channels.

Last weekend it was revealed to be Sky Sports and that it would be a partnership agreement, not a complete switch. Sky will air all 20 races on their dedicated sports channels with additional pre- and post-race coverage on Sky Sports News. The BBC will continue to cover 10 races live and in full, including the British GP, Monaco GP and the final race of the season which next year is scheduled to be the Brazilian GP. Highlights of the other 10 races will be aired later that day.

For the benefit of those outside the UK, you pay a monthly fee for the Sky package and then a premium for Sky Sports. Sky Sports News comes as part of the main package not the premium package. Sky Sports is also available as an add-on with a variety of other competing services such as cable. BBC channels are free to all*.

* the term ‘free-to-air’ does not include the TV License because that is non-optional, everybody has to pay it so it is usually ignored in any comparison.

Reaction

Whilst this sort of sharing arrangement is common over in the US, although maybe without airing on two channels at once, this is a Big Deal for UK rights. Formula 1 TV coverage in this country has always been free-to-air for as long as races have been available on TV –  since the 1970s in highlights form with sporadic live races, and every race of the season covered live since the early/mid 1990s.

Quite a lot of discussion has occurred online in the last week or so, with a great many opinion pieces from insiders and fans alike putting forth their arguments for and against the deal.

For me it isn’t the death knell of the sport in the UK, but that is very much contingent on the BBC honouring their promise to produce an ‘extended’ highlights show or even air the entire race on a tape delay. If it is a heavily edited version the interest will wane and audience figures will drop off. The reason for that is I think only the die hard fans will take the option to watch live on Sky, and there aren’t as many of those fans as some like to suggest.

There are an awful lot more of what most of us more diehard fans call ‘casual fans’, especially so in Britain over the last 3 or 4 years as a result of the championship wins from Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button, hence the record viewing figures seen this year. They might not all be buying Sky especially to watch F1, and unlike football I don’t think they’ll all pile down the pub to watch it. If they have Sky Sports already they may well continue to tune in, I really hope so.

With a lot of sponsorship dependent on viewing figures and the UK representing a major market for F1 sponsors, the real question is whether a casual fan without Sky will be happy to wait for the BBC highlights show. The argument goes that they are happy to wait until 10:35pm for Match Of The Day, a highlights show covering all the Premier League action that day. Indeed many make it a weekly ritual. I don’t doubt that a similar F1 show would attract decent viewers. They might not be the nuts who want to have every F1 session live on TV with an hour of pre- and post- analysis, those who are surprisingly vocal about it on the internet, but they are interested enough in F1 to watch an hour or so about the day’s race.

Some have argued we may actually see an uplift in viewing figures as the diehard fans will stump up to watch the race live, then the less diehard fans are able to come to the race coverage at a potentially more favourable time which doesn’t take up a whole afternoon and give the highlights some decent ratings.

I don’t know if that is how it will play out but it definitely just as plausible as live ratings falling off a cliff and highlights being ignored as some others have suggested. We won’t know the answers to that until we see the broadcast time of the show, and how much is included and how much is edited out.

Winners And Losers

The teams themselves and FOM/FOWC (‘Bernie’s lot’) will making extra money so the pressure to nail the BBC at the next renewal will be off, hopefully meaning the BBC will be able to keep their rights for a few years longer than they would’ve done.

There are three sets of fans :-

– For the dedicated fan with spending money, who either already has Sky Sports or is willing to get it, they’ve got a win-win situation because for the first time in years they’ll be able to choose between two live broadcast teams for half of the races. How many countries can say that? Luxury!

– For the casual fan I am sure they can wait for the highlights show and wouldn’t complain a lot because of it, many might even prefer it.

– For me the only true losers are those dedicated fans who can’t afford to take Sky Sports. Sadly I am one of those fans. I’m sure we’ll be climbing the walls staying off the internet and away from news reports, waiting for the highlights show. Web feeds are usually awful and they can suddenly get shut down midrace, I struggle enough with IndyCar, imagine the demand there will be for F1. Luckily I do know people who have Sky Sports so rather than struggle away with a 4 inch buffering web feed I’ll go there and watch 50 inch HD. But I can’t do that forever. I think one day I’m just going to have to make savings elsewhere and stump up for Sky. That may come at the expense of attending races, including Grands Prix.

Sky

I have nothing against Sky in all of this, despite their poor quality news channel and the poor reputation of some of their owners, they do produce very good coverage of other sports. I watched the cricket coverage of England vs India last weekend and it was of a very high quality. Everybody on the panel, including the presenter, was a former international-level cricket player, yet none floundered on TV as so many do.

I’ve also seen football games which are well presented and produced, as well as golf and more. They do a lot of American-style wooshy sounds and boistorous intro music and over-hyping which is all probably a little unnecessary, this is countered with a knowledgeable staff of presenters and analysts and as many on-screen stats as you can imagine. I genuinely would love to see what they could do with F1 coverage, it could be transformed.

There are those who decry Sky Sports based on their IndyCar coverage, which is frankly awful, a few talking heads sitting in a little studio in London trying to fill time whilst their host feed is on yet another ad break. (If anything this is a good sign as it means Sky themselves won’t take too many breaks.) I hope they don’t approach F1 in the same way because it is interminably boring. I don’t have a problem with a studio, just put it at the track in the same way the football and cricket studios are at the grounds. That way the on-air talent can speak to the relevant people before the race and get a better sense of the event. I don’t think they will just plonk them in London and make them work from a feed. I think they are more sensible than that.

As an aside, perhaps they could cross-sell IndyCar to F1 fans to bump up viewership of that series, this could actually be a really good thing for IndyCar viewership figures in this country, which are currently tiny. What good timing with a brand new car being launched for IndyCar next year. Sky might even start sending people to the States to cover IndyCar more effectively rather than simply taking a feed, even just a reporter..? I’m dreaming. I’m hoping.

Conclusion

The main problem here is one of cost. I think people who can’t afford Sky, including me, are going to have to revise their expectations. In any case, with a record 20 races next year surely nobody can expect to watch all of them live complete with an hour of talking before and an hour of talking after. Where would you find the time? Highlights, even extended highlights, could be a blessing. Mind you, I’m holding out for a tape delay.

The Killer Years

I urge any fan of any branch of motorsport to watch this programme.

It will not be an easy watch, although it may be easier if you are accustomed to watching war documentaries with the detachment that brings.

It tells the story of Grand Prix racing, and racing generally, in the 1960s and 1970s and the attitudes that persisted at the time. It tells of the battle fought by Jackie Stewart and others to change the attitudes by all means necessary. The shock after Clark. And it shows the courage and bravery of these drivers to continue what they were doing as their peers were being killed off.

As Stewart says, “it was like the circuit owners were holding a pistol to our heads”.

It also tells of the immense bravery of David Purley and the stupidity and futility of those who either couldn’t or wouldn’t do anything to help Roger Williamson, and so many others through the years.

On a different note, aside from the valuable history lesson, it is also worth watching for the other period footage (most of which I had never seen before) and the contemporary interviews with ‘names’ from the time and notable racing historians such as David Tremayne.

If you are in the UK you can watch on the BBC iPlayer before Sunday by using this link:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b00z8v18/Grand_Prix_The_Killer_Years/

If you are outside the UK or are reading this after Sunday, you can find the programme on YouTube in 4 chunks of 15 minutes: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4. I urge UK residents to please use the BBC video above – it registers a viewing with the BBC and will encourage them to air more motorsport documentaries.

Like any documentary it may have a few faults, things it misses for brevity.. but it is still worth a watch.

Do watch it.

Thursday Thoughts: The Future of F1 Content

Thursday Thoughts visits different blogs and is hosted here this week, so it is my turn to ask the question. Here is my response.

– What innovations would you like to see in F1 content delivery?

I think most of us by now are aware how far F1 lags behind other motorsports, even other sports entirely when it comes to delivering their product to the end user, the customer, the fan. It is quite frustrating to be told repeatedly how F1 teams use the most advanced technology to create these fantastically fast cars and yet the rights-holders are in some cases years behind the game in introducing the technology needed to provide real insight to the fan.

The rights-holders to Formula 1 are the collection of companies owned by CVC and controlled on their behalf by Bernie Ecclestone, I am not sure which company controls which element but I think FOA runs the races or at least the bits the FIA don’t run, and FOM handles the TV and online offering. For the sake of argument I’ll use FOM.

FOM seems insistent on relying on traditional avenues to get their message across, whether it be TV, magazines or newspapers. They seemingly reluctantly got themselves involved with the web business with www.formula1.com but they only did so in 2002 or thereabouts. Given the web recently celebrated 25 years of existence and most forward-thinking companies have been on it in some for or another since the mid-90s it was a curious oversight.

Why is it that F1 keeps talking about “embracing the internet” as if it’s 1994 and it’s a clever idea? Perhaps get on with it?

Ed Straw, F1 Editor of Autosport, via Twitter yesterday

Two major gaffes have appeared on Formula1.com. There may have been more.

One was the SMS text service. This was a great idea in principle: sign up to the service and you would receive a text message after every session informing you of the fastest drivers, and the points positions after races. The problem was they introduced it with the pricing structure of a decade earlier and the world had moved on, at least in the more developed mobile phone markets.
While I forget the specifics, the prices would have looked reasonable in 1997 when the mobile market was enjoying rapid growth and a plethora of new applications but in 2007 they looked utterly ridiculous and far too high. I would like to see this adjusted so that the more casual fan who isn’t able to watch all the sessions or even all the races can receive updates at reasonable rates. My Dad gets a text message whenever his football team scores a goal. It can’t be that hard.

The other was the web shop, again a good idea in principle – yet the original version was stocked with the wrong goods. Like so much in F1 it was pitched towards the premium customer, the more affluent fan who wants something special. Only in F1 could you buy an official carbon-fibre mouse mat, replete with F1 logo, for £200. Which is fine – I actually like the fact these items are there because I appreciate it helps position the brand of F1 – they just forgot to include things mere mortals could afford, a position they have gone some way to correcting in 2009.

Another aspect website is the live timing. When it works it is very informative, unfortunately it has a lot of glitches. It has been used ever since the site went live and is probably due a rethink. It could be bigger and contain more information. F1 is full of data, let’s make use of it. Again, this year they’ve gone some way to making the info they offer open to more fans by creating the iPhone app which I’ve heard is tremendously useful, if pricey (there seems to be a theme here).

While I’m on the subject of timing, the TV coverage desperately needs to cut back on the “1-stop” graphic and tell us how far apart the cars are! Of course if they borrowed from DTM they could just mark a little ‘1’ on the vertical position graphic that appears to the left of screen from time to time. If I don’t have an iPhone or can’t get near a computer to access live timing, I shouldn’t be deprived of the basic car-to-car gaps, these should be available to all on the main feed and if I want the extra info like sector times then that’s when I should look it up elsewhere. With any luck this data will be rolled out to further mobile platforms in future.

I must admit, other than the iPhone timing app I don’t know what else is offered officially for mobile devices because I don’t own a modern smartphone – but soon I and most others will do, I suspect I am already in the minority among mobile-owners.

I see no reason why FOM cannot offer an app offering short video clips to mobile devices, for a small fee. I see no reason why they cannot offer those same videos on their website, although I think most of us expect web video to be free unless it is of some length. On the website I would therefore offer short, free videos to anyone who visits. I would also offer a premium subscription (‘premium’ in name only, priced at a level we can afford!) where you can watch entire races, let’s say until Jan 1st. They could expand that to show classic races and send FOM TV to each test session to provide us with reports from winter testing.

FOM claim they don’t offer these because the commentary and ownership is specific to particular broadcasters, yet the broadcasters claim they can’t provide online coverage because the video is owned by FOM. The only notable exception seems to be the BBC’s iPlayer (an excellent service) and the FP sessions trialled last year by ITV. At the end of every session aired on the BBC there is a particularly large copyright notice stating that the production is copyright of FOM. If FOM owns the video,can they not put it online, even a version with no commentary? Even better, work with each broadcaster to offer the same footage with different reactions. It would fascinating in the week after a race incident to go to Formula1.com and compare the reactions of crews from BBC, SPEED, Globo, RAI, RTL, etc, etc. They could make a montage and sell it for money.

They also need to bring in High-Def coverage to those who will take it and offer that as a quality option for the downloads. There are HD channels in more and more countries and even the little devices support it now. They’ve been using HD cameras for a year or so now but they still won’t release a true HD feed for broadcast or sale, which is crazy, why invest in the technology if you aren’t going to use it?
This is the most technologically advanced sport in the world and it is still in fuzzy-vision. NASCAR has 36 races per year and most, if not all of them, are available in HD in the US (and sometimes in the UK). It doesn’t matter if you don’t have an HD TV or monitor, you still notice a difference. I think Abu Dhabi was in HD and it looked fantastic on my SD TV on the SD digital broadcast.

Conclusion: FOM are applying 20th Century solutions to 21st Century fans. They need to change. Fast.

There are signs that they are changing slowly. The iPhone app. The F1 2009 Wii and PSP games, and the 2010 PC, Xbox and PS3 games. These should be released annually in the way that the FIFA, Madden and other licensed games are, there is a demand for it.

Perhaps they are starting to wake up?

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You can read the Thursday Thoughts of my fellow bloggers by following the links in the Question post!