It’s been a while since Formula One was available live and free to air in New Zealand. In fact it’s a whole ‘generation’ of fans ago. In terms of access to F1, the TVNZ coverage of the mid-late 1990s was a high point, and the Shell Motorsport programme that was its ‘portal’ is still the best we have had and established new benchmarks in FTA access to motor racing coverage in this country. As noted in previous articles, it rescued F1 coverage at a time when SKY seemed utterly disinterested in continuing.
Bernie Ecclestone’s dedication to a massive presence on FTA saw F1 coverage rival that of the Olympics, major tennis and golf events and football (the real football not our local niche version). He was adamant for years that F1’s dominance was about the size of that FTA audience, and the coverage was priced to attract countries that would screen the racing package to that widest of audiences.
Then someone briefed Bernie on the potential of the digital world. Twenty years ago Bernie made his vision for F1 coverage public: user-chooser views including onboard with every driver, each camera round the track, car telemetry graphics, stats. All available digitally and all available on ‘subscription’. Another instance of this guy being way ahead of his time.
Where he was too far ahead, though, was in expecting to reap billions from monetising the service. Audiences accustomed to getting their F1 fix – and remember these were incredibly exciting championship years – were resistant to the notion of paying for the package even though it offered so much more than the unsophisticated terrestrial TV coverage. And never mind that the laggardly telecoms industry in this country wouldn’t have the ability to deliver the speed or breadth of connection to make it work until – well, until this year actually.
Those days, tech geeks were enthusing about phone tech like WAP. Remember WAP? WAP was crap.
Those days sowed the seeds of the Pay TV revolution though, and increasingly F1 became veiled behind broadcast exclusivity. SKY rose, and eventually even New Zealand watched its F1 coverage disappear back into pay TV land. Apologists for the change pointed out it gave access to Martin Brundle’s pit lane walkabout and so much more analysis of the sport. There were some post-race gems too.
Now, Formula One’s new owners are saying the UK television rights deal they have inherited from the previous management, is detrimental to the sport – with UK coverage entirely behind a paywall from 2019 to 2024.
Sean Bratches, the managing director of commercial operations for the Formula One Group (FOG perhaps an appropriate acronym), sees free-to-air television as key to the future of the sport but F1 will be shown exclusively on Sky for five years from 2019. On Tuesday the chief executive, Chase Carey, criticised Ecclestone as having a “short-term, deal of the day focus”. Powerful stuff. Not sure we’d have dared say that to the guy in the late 1990s.
Last week, five-time world champion Lewis Hamilton came out against the growing trend away FTA coverage. F1’s broadcast deal with Sky means UK-based fans need a subscription to the broadcaster’s dedicated channel to watch every grand prix live this season He said it does not make sense to block or deter Formula 1 fans from watching races by reducing free-to-air television coverage.
Who is correct? Time will tell. Certainly, F1’s own figures (get that grain of salt handy) show 490.2 million ‘unique’ users caught the coverage last year.
UK and Kiwi race fans can, of course, buy a package directly from Formula One that gives post-race replay coverage including unlimited user-switchable onboard views. That costs $49 for the whole season. But then everyone else knows the outcome before you do. Ouch.
Update following first weekend of Spark Sport and Formula One
So in New Zealand, despite looking unlikely to hit the deadline, Spark Sport did have its F1 coverage up and running in time for us to see Valtteri Bottas, ‘The Beard to be Feared’, dominate the Aussie GP. Though they tried, nobody had an answer for his speed including team-mate and defending champion Hamilton.
The coverage also went onto Duke, free to air where you can get a signal.
Spark Sport reported no outages to the streamed service and a ‘very small number’ of customers who experienced minor issues with playback on some devices. These days this is the landscape, you have to be sure your customers can watch on their preferred Apple, Android or mainstream internet desktop connection. I have to say I still favour the latter, especially Chromecasting to our 40-inch flat screen and routing the sound through the Sony home theatre.
Spark says since it launched the service on the Thursday morning before the AGP, more than 9,000 customers had already subscribed. Many may have been taking advantage of the company’s 30 day free trial of the service. If you have a drainpipe internet connection on fibre the clarity and seamlessness of the coverage is notable. I do worry about my rural and small-town cousins where fibre is what you get in your breakfast and high speed is someone doing 35 km/h down Main Street. They are, for the present at least, simply excluded.
Chorus was in the media last week, braying to all who would listen about how it had connected 49 per cent of all fibre-capable households and businesses. Turning that around, they have not delivered to 51 per cent of that market and I guess maybe four per cent of rural customers. I wonder what their benchmarks were for the end of this financial year. Surely more than 49 per cent.
Spark Sport says its technical team is now working on the next beta version of the app, and is looking to include additional features to improve the ‘viewer experience.. For F1 fans this could include merging the Formula 1 ‘pre-race’ and ‘race’ coverage into one programme rather than two to make it easier for customers to roll seamlessly into the race, and adding signage where required within programming (e.g. ‘end of programme’ or ‘advertising break’) to improve the viewing experience.
Spark has also confirmed that the FIA F3 races at F1 rounds will be part of the package – which means we get to watch Marcus Armstrong, Liam Lawson and any number of non-Kiwi graduates from the Toyota Racing Series doing battle in these newer, faster cars.