German free-to-air broadcaster RTL to exit F1 contract at end of 2020

RTL will cease broadcasting Formula 1 live at the end of the season, the German broadcaster has announced.

The broadcaster first showed live races between 1984 and 1988 and has done so continuously from 1991. In 2017 it renewed its deal with F1 to continue broadcasting until 2020.

Financial reasons lie behind the decision. In a statement, RTL’s Head of Sport, Manfred Loppe, announced on Sunday “When you have competitors in the game who are prepared to offer double as much as you can then you are forced into a position of having to withdraw.”

Loppe stressed that RTL “still obviously wants to try in the future to present attractive sporting events to our viewers. But it is clear that economic limits will play a role, as well as the changing competitive environment.”

“We have broadcast Formula 1 for over three decades with great love and passion, as well as with a plucky readiness for innovation and investment,” Loppe continued. “RTL will forever be associated with the most widely viewed, most emotional, unforgotten moments in the top motor racing series.”

In Germany viewers have had two choices for watching F1: either to pay a subscription to watch uninterrupted coverage on Sky or to watch free-to-air coverage on RTL with advert breaks.

Figures from show that a peak of 5.26 million viewers tuned into RTL’s coverage of the Italian Grand Prix last year (a market share of 32.3%), whilst a further 450,000 viewers watched on Sky (2.8%). Over the course of the whole of last season RTL was able to secure average viewing figures of just over 4 million viewers.

The managing director of RTL, Jörg Graf, added “Competition for TV rights has changed and the market has in part overheated. As such it has extended beyond our ambitious, but at the same time economically justifiable, limits.”

In January 2020 the company announced it was expanding its football coverage by signing an agreement with UEFA to broadcast the Europa League and the newly created UEFA Europa Conference League from 2021.

Graf confirms that this is where focus for the broadcaster will now lie. “We will now with our power, passion and joy concentrate on football as our number one sport,” he said.

It remains unclear whether Germans will have access to free-to-air coverage going into the 2021 season or whether F1 will consider a model like the UK currently has, with all races airing live on pay TV, and the home race live on a free-to-air channel.

As Motorsport Broadcasting speculated in March, following an interview with RTL’s anchor Florian König, it remained unclear, especially in the current climate, whether RTL would extend its deal.

Today’s decision therefore does not come as a total surprise and is indicative of the changing F1 broadcasting landscape. König, long-standing pit-lane reporter Kai Ebel and the lead commentator Heiko Wasser have yet to react to the news as they now enter their final season of broadcasting live races for the Cologne company.

Analysis – RTL’s decision gives us an insight into the road ahead
Any broadcaster opting not to renew a contract after 30 years is always a big story, and RTL’s decision to not renew their F1 contract falls into that category.

It is, however, not a major surprise.

Interest in Formula 1 in Germany has gradually declined since Michael Schumacher’s heyday in the mid-2000s, although viewing figures remained strong during Sebastian Vettel’s four championship victories.

Now, with Vettel heading out of Ferrari at the end of 2020, there is a distinct possibility that there will be no German drivers on the F1 grid in 2021.

Combine this with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic presents the perfect storm. RTL, like all free-to-air broadcasters worldwide, will be looking to save money as advertising revenues slump.

The situation is like the one UK broadcaster ITV found themselves in back in 2008. ITV needed to save money following the worldwide financial crisis at that time, and prioritised football over F1, executing a get out clause in the latter’s contract.

RTL’s contract to broadcast F1 is expiring anyway at the end of this year, but the overall business direction from both is identical.

The COVID-19 pandemic means that, in my view, we are likely to see more pay TV deals moving forward. The motor sport industry right now needs money pumping into it, more than ever before, and the crisis has exasperated problems the industry had prior to the pandemic.

Free-to-air and five million viewers will only get you so far. Ask MotoGP for another UK equivalent.

In 2013, the series was struggling with Moto2 and Moto3. Faced with a choice, they brought pay TV broadcaster BT Sport into the fold, who outbid the BBC significantly in acquiring the UK television rights.

MotoGP went with BT Sport. Yes, the fans at the time may not have liked the decision (including me), but that move ensured many Moto2 and Moto3 teams could continue racing to ensure the wider eco system did not collapse.

The optics may not be as severe here, but fans should be prepared for a further move away from free-to-air, not towards as motor sport fights against COVID-19.

There is not one specific reason RTL has opted not to extend its F1 deal. But one thing is for sure: 2020 will mark the end of an era for F1 broadcasting in Germany.

Reporting by Edmund Wareham; analysis by David Nelson.

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2 thoughts on “German free-to-air broadcaster RTL to exit F1 contract at end of 2020

  1. Such a heritage they will leave behind. There coverage was somewhat different and unique (see also the interview with Kai on this site). From the Netherlands, RTL was always the well known free to air alternative when on holiday or in a commercial break before Sport1/Ziggo took over. And even now, if you don’t have a subscription with the cable company Ziggo, than you cannot watch F1 free to air. A lot off my fellow Dutchmen therefore still watch F1 on RTL Germany, because it is the only Free to Air channel with F1 if you don’t have a subscription with Ziggo. The impact of stopping with F1 is bigger than Germany alone. Frankly I still cannot believe it and somehow think they will use it as a leverage for negotiations on a new deal. Let’s hope (or dream) so…

  2. Does anyone think there might be a time where we could have a repeat of the ITV Digital episode, but with a pay TV network and F1, rather than football?

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