No live F1 testing coverage ahead of 2018 season

Formula 1 fans hoping to see more than a sneak peek of the 2018 machinery may be disappointed, as there will be no live coverage of testing ahead of the new season, I can confirm.

At the back-end of 2017, there were rumblings that Formula One Management (FOM) would provide enhanced testing coverage this year. The suggestions were amplified by comments made during Sky Sports F1’s coverage of the season-closing Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, where pit lane reporter Ted Kravitz noted that commentator David Croft would be “standing in a commentary box” for long periods of time during testing, alluding to the potential of live coverage.

The idea was that FOM would use Sky’s personnel on commentary for their coverage of testing, with coverage airing on Sky’s F1 channel, and via FOM’s new over-the-top platform or YouTube. However, I can now reveal that plans have not come to fruition. The news means that the first-time fans will see cars in live action will be during the Australian Grand Prix weekend in late-March. The one time testing aired live was in 2013, the move primarily designed to promote Sky’s 3D offering.

I understand that FOM will provide a similar level of coverage to last year’s testing season, with clips, such as on-board footage, shared via social media, and live segments from the paddock on Facebook during the on-track lunch break.

Many make the comparison between MotoGP and Formula 1. MotoGP does produce a live feed of their post-season test from Valencia; however, all their production equipment and facilities are already on-site following the final race of the season two days earlier. Dorna’s pre-season coverage of testing from Sepang largely consisted of updates at various points of the day (around three hours in total), with footage of riders on-track, live reports from pit lane and extended interviews.

In comparison, IndyCar produced a live stream of testing from ISM Raceway earlier this month, but this consisted of one static camera situated on the start-finish straight. So, there are ways and means, but unless you already have the facilities on-site, there is reluctance to produce a World Feed, as the cost outweighs any benefits it would bring. Famously, IndyCar did stream Fernando Alonso’s Indianapolis 500 rookie orientation day live last year, but they were extremely unique and unprecedented circumstances.

For me, the best scenario would be to go on-air with an hour of testing left each day, with some analysis after the chequered flag. Of course, the ‘hour’ of testing could consist of footage compiled from earlier in the day, along with key developments. A show of this nature would do the job nicely, giving each team ample air-time, as well as showing off as much of the cars as possible, whilst removing the need for a full circuit production.

ESPN’s US coverage to take Sky’s UK commentary
Overseas, ESPN have confirmed that their US coverage will take Sky’s UK commentary line-up of David Croft and Martin Brundle. The agreement between ESPN and Sky Sports was “arranged by Formula 1”, likely a result of the fact that Sean Bratches, Formula 1’s Managing Director for Commercial Operations, used to work for ESPN.

ESPN follows in the footsteps of many broadcasters around the world who take Sky’s UK commentary, such as TSN (Canada) and FOX Sports (Australia). Sky Sports will also produce special segments to supplement ESPN’s television coverage, something they do not currently do for other broadcasters.

A variety of outlets have reported this deal as ESPN taking Sky’s coverage, which may be stretching the truth. ESPN say that a further announcement on their content plans is coming in forthcoming weeks. If Sky’s pre and post-race segments turn up, I suspect it will form part of ESPN’s online offering given that race start times have already adjusted to suit their needs.

Whilst Sky’s UK coverage is excellent compared to many broadcasters, and stateside fans will love hearing Martin Brundle’s commentary, American fans deserve to have a broadcaster covering Formula 1 who are prepared to invest time, money, and home-grown talent into the sport.

To NBC’s credit, they produced content tailored to their audience, with Will Buxton, Jason Swales, Leigh Diffey and more at the helm. Viewing figures may go up, but audience appreciation of the raw Formula 1 television product in America could decrease because of the ESPN deal.

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News round-up: New F1 TV agreements finalised; OTT moves closer

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.

Formula 1 to remain on free-to-air television in Germany

Formula 1 will remain on free-to-air television in Germany for the next three seasons, after Formula One Management (FOM) and RTL signed a new contract.

Historically, RTL and pay-TV broadcaster Sky Deutschland have shared television rights, with their existing deal expiring following the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix. This evening, RTL have confirmed that Formula 1 will remain on their network for the next three years, until the end of the 2020 season at least.

As part of their announcement, RTL also confirmed that Nico Rosberg and Timo Glock will join the network as pundits, replacing Niki Lauda, who stepped down from his duties at the end of the 2017 season.

Speaking on Tuesday, RTL’s Manging Director of Programmes, Frank Hoffmann said “We have made Formula One great here, it has thrilled an audience of millions and has become an important component of our brand. The owners of Formula 1 have an economic interest in the fact that the sport is seen by many people and we stand here as a free-TV broadcaster in general and RTL in particular.”

Ian Holmes, Formula 1’s Director of Media Rights, said “Germany is one of the most important countries for Formula 1, where motors sport has deep roots, and RTL Television has been a fantastic and loyal partner for many years.”

“The extension of the agreement comes as a natural consequence of such a strong and mutually fruitful relationship and will guarantee that our fans in Germany will continue to watch Grands Prix on free TV. The agreement is part of our strategy that aims to increase and strengthen television coverage on a worldwide basis, whilst tailoring it to the characteristics of each TV market.”

The pay-TV rights that Sky Deutschland previously held now hang in the balance, and it appears that Sky could well end up losing the television rights in Germany altogether to Eurosport, a fascinating development if it comes to fruition. One reason for the delay may be the change in management recently at Sky, with Martin Turner, who oversaw Sky’s F1 operation globally, including in Germany, leaving Sky during the Summer.

This is the third key market where Liberty Media have signed a television deal. In France, it was agreed to bring F1 back to free-to-air and air key races live on TF1 (a free-to-air station) from 2018, whilst in America, rights switched from NBC to ESPN, in a move aimed to boost Formula 1’s digital presence from 2018 onwards.

You cannot talk about trends with such a small data set, but you get the impression that Liberty are not signing rash pay-TV deals like their predecessor did.

F1’s digital strategy unfolds as conflict with TV model takes centre stage

ESPN are to broadcast Formula 1 in America from 2018, it has been confirmed today, ending NBC’s existing partnership.

The reasoning behind the split between Formula One Group and NBC is clear, based on a press release issued by NBC today. The broadcaster says, “Although we take great pride in having grown Formula One’s visibility and viewership since we became its exclusive U.S. media rights holder in 2013, this will be our last season with the series.”

“In this case, we chose not to enter into a new agreement in which the rights holder itself competes with us and our distribution partners. We wish the new owners of F1 well.” The key phrase “competes with us” is ominous. Not specific to NBC, but an example of this may be interpreted as Formula 1 uploading full classic races to YouTube.

Formula 1’s digital strategy, which encompasses social media and a new over-the-top platform, has consequences for the more traditional broadcast deals that Liberty Media wish to sign with the likes of NBC. Clearly, if a new over-the-top platform is to launch in territories such as America, new broadcast contracts must align with the new approach.

Clearly, higher-up decision makes in the NBC chain were unwilling to buy into a situation whereby F1’s own over-the-top network would be screening the same live broadcast as NBC’s product. I have referenced in the past WWE’s over-the-top Network. The wrestling franchise also airs on the USA Network in America. USA, is also part of the NBC stable of channels, so there is a parallel situation.

The key difference? WWE’s weekly flagship shows ‘Raw’ and ‘SmackDown’, which air live on USA, are not added to the WWE Network until a month after the traditional transmission date. A simulcast was not an option for NBC: it dilutes the value of their contract significantly. However, WWE also has special events every four weeks, such as ‘SummerSlam’ and ‘WrestleMania’ (outside of the NBC deal), which justifies the existence of the network.

A new F1 Network, without live racing action, is not a viable product. For the Formula One Group, live action on their over-the-top network is an absolute must. But, as outlined above with the WWE situation, it is not in NBC’s interests, hence why F1 is heading elsewhere as FOG were keen to retain the over-the-top rights.

ESPN’s coverage will air across ESPN, ESPN2 and ABC, marking the first time that Formula 1 has aired on their portfolio of channels since 1997. ABC will air the US and Mexican rounds of the championship live, with the Monaco Grand Prix on tape-delay. The remaining races will air on ESPN or ESPN2.

According to SportsBusiness Journal, ESPN are not paying Formula One Group a fee for the deal, and there will be no supplementary coverage on ESPN outside of the World Feed, even if the network are airing practice, qualifying and the race itself.

Whenever a split like this happens, I always ask the question about who needs who more. Does F1 need NBC more than NBC needs F1? Personally, I think so. Viewing figures for NBC’s programming were on the rise. If ESPN is only providing World Feed coverage without wrap-around, it is fundamentally a step backwards for Formula 1 state side, even if audience figures do increase as a result.

Elsewhere, last week it became official that Formula 1 was heading to pay-TV exclusively with immediate effect in Australia. Because of financial difficulties for Channel Ten, FOX Sports’ new rights kicked in from the Malaysian Grand Prix onwards.

The future for NBC’s F1 team
If we are to assume that ESPN’s American coverage does not have an on-air team, and instead takes commentary from elsewhere (such as Sky), it leaves several highly-rated figures in the motor racing broadcasting world currently without roles for the 2018 season.

Leigh Diffey is NBC’s lead Formula 1 commentator currently, with David Hobbs and Steve Matchett alongside him. The two figures relevant to UK readers because of their past are Jason Swales and Will Buxton.

Prior to joining NBC, Swales’ was BBC’s Radio 5 Live producer for their Formula 1 coverage, whilst Buxton was lead commentator for GP2 and GP3 before stepping down from the role at the end of 2014. Swales is NBC’s F1 producer, but also appears on-screen regularly as a double act alongside Buxton, who is NBC’s pit lane reporter.

Swales and Buxton are likely to be in high demand by other broadcasters covering motor racing given their experience and popularity with fans state side and in the UK. The problem that both have is that there are unlikely to be many vacancies for 2018.

A vacancy might appear if the BBC decide they are unhappy with Jack Nicholls only doing part-time duty as lead commentator for their 5 Live F1 coverage and look elsewhere, given his decision to commit to Formula E for their 2017-18 season.

A plausible opportunity for Swales might be to take up the role as Head of Sky Sports F1 following Martin Turner’s retirement. However, the latest on that from Charles Sale of the Daily Mail indicated that Matt Bishop, formerly of F1 Racing magazine and McLaren, may take up the post. Saying that, if Sky hired Bishop, he may decide to hire Swales and Buxton to the team.

The alternative is that the former NBC team ends up jumping to Formula One Group’s new over-the-top network, whichever format it ends up in. Whether we see a version of that for 2018, I do not know. But, clearly FOM are placing more emphasis on the overall World Feed product before and after the races, with Rosanna Tennant conducting the interviews.

If ESPN puts together a small team, they have personnel internally to hire from: the likes of Jennie Gow and Maurice Hamilton currently produce and record material for the ESPN website, so it will be intriguing to see where they fit into the wider picture.

There is a huge amount of talent around now, at the BBC, Channel 4, Sky Sports, NBC, and other broadcasters. I do worry slightly that, if Liberty’s strategy does alienate broadcasters, we might see a situation in some territories where the diverse opinions become replaced in favour of a standardised approach, at lower cost to those buying in.

Who knows what the future holds moving forward, but one thing is for certain: an over-the-top network is coming, and it might be sooner than we think…

Update on October 5th – ESPN have issued a statement exclusively to this site. “We will not air additional pre and post-race coverage on television. It’s been our experience that the overwhelming majority of motorsports viewers tune in for the race itself.”

“We want to attract new audiences for F1 by drawing ESPN fans from one program directly into race coverage. We will not have any ESPN announcers involved in the telecasts.”

Continuing their statement, ESPN note “The F1-produced world feed that we will use will have announcers (to be named). We feel that the television product produced by F1 is very good and will serve our viewers well.” ESPN’s statement certainly makes it a more realistic possibility that the over-the-top network for Formula 1 will launch next season.

News round-up: Harris to hang up his microphone; F1 heading back to FTA in France

In the news round-up, fans of MotoGP will hear a slightly different tone to broadcasting from 2018 onwards, whilst Formula 1 is making a return to free-to-air television in a key territory.

Formula 1 returning to free-to-air television in France
The return of the French Grand Prix in 2018 is not the only good news for Formula 1 fans in France. Earlier this month, it emerged that the sport would also be returning to free-to-air television, in the first major deal signed by the F1 Group under Liberty Media’s ownership.

For the past few years, Formula 1 has stagnated in France with the sport hidden behind a pay-wall, exclusively on Canal+. Now, Liberty have signed a deal with free-to-air broadcaster TF1 for three years from 2018. TF1 will air four Grand Prix live, including Monaco and the home race at Paul Ricard, with all other rounds covered in highlights form.

Some outlets interpreted the deal as a new direction for Formula 1. Not quite. Article L333-9 of the French Sporting Code states that “sporting events of major importance shall be retransmitted under the conditions laid down in Articles 20-2 and 20-3 of Law No 86-1067 of 30 September 1986 on freedom of communication.”

And Article 20-2, referenced above, explicitly says “Events of major importance can not be retransmitted exclusively in a way that deprives a significant portion of the public of the possibility of following them live or delayed on a free-to-air television service.” In other words, there was an obligation for the F1 Group under French law to offer the French Grand Prix to a free-to-air broadcaster, it was not by choice.

The other three races and the remaining highlights were by choice, although Liberty might have been in a weaker position here if TF1, or any other broadcaster, were unwilling to play the French Grand Prix without any other races alongside it. Either way, the narrative painted by the mainstream media has missed a significant fact.

However, the deal signed by the F1 Group and TF1 does align with quotes from F1’s Managing Director for Commercial Operations, Sean Bratches earlier this year, who suggested a 30-70 relationship where free-to-air and pay-TV were concerned.

Harris to retire from MotoGP duties at end of the season
The big broadcasting news from the Aragon MotoGP weekend is that their World Feed commentator Nick Harris will retire at the end of the year. Harris has been in and out of paddocks, pit lanes and various other fora for 36 years. The paddock came together on the Thursday prior to Aragon to celebrate Harris’ career at the Alpinestars motor home.

I have not spoken to Harris during my stints in the MotoGP paddock, however Harris seems respected and liked by just about anyone you speak to within the paddock. 36 years is an astounding career, I imagine he has many stories to tell post retirement, whatever the future may hold for him!

Harris currently commentates on MotoGP alongside Matt Birt and Dylan Gray in pit lane, with Steve Day leading on Moto2 and Moto3. I imagine Day will lead on MotoGP commentary as well from 2018, unless Dorna bring in someone from the outside to take on Harris’ duties.

Carrasco’s win generates headlines
Elsewhere on the motor cycling front, Ana Carrasco helped generate significant headlines for the Supersport 300 Championship, a feeder series to the Superbikes World Championship. Last weekend’s Supersport 300 race at Portimao saw Carrasco’s maiden victory at world motorcycle level, the first woman to achieve that feat.

Outlets in the United Kingdom and abroad reported on Carrasco’s victory. In the UK, The Guardian and the BBC reported Carrasco’s achievement, whilst aboard, outlets such as the New York Times and Rolling Stone covered her achievement.