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.

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.