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.