Liberty Media has arrived to Formula 1 with the promise of change in all the major aspects of the sport - and broadcasting is as major as it gets. Adam Cooper looks at the concrete plans behind the early buzz.
Since their arrival, F1’s new owners have already made some small but well-received changes to grand prix weekends, such as adding post-qualifying interviews on the grid and making it a little easier for teams to bring their guests into the paddock. As a result, there's a lot of goodwill around, and an air of optimism about the future.
However, as the Liberty team keeps telling us, the strategy is not about the next race or even the rest of the 2017 season, but where the sport is heading three or four years down the line, when it will have a new engine package and a new commercial framework for the teams.
During that time the new bosses will face some major challenges as they chase their goals on several fronts, while picking their way through the complicated arrangements left behind by Bernie Ecclestone.
Redistributing income among the teams, maximising revenue from current and new venues, and adding multiple official sponsors and partners are three of the key targets. But Liberty will also have to deal with the future of F1 broadcasting.
Free, pay, digital
Of course, to a large degree all of these issues are interrelated – just consider where the TV side fits in. The more events there are on the calendar, the more hours of content there are for the broadcasters to sell advertising around.
The more revenue received from TV companies, the more cash goes into the kitty for the teams. The more eyeballs watching races, the more attractive F1 is for sponsors.
As such, how races will be viewed by fans is one of the keys to the future – and the word that keeps coming up is 'digital'.
The magic phrase in any discussion of F1's future is OTT, or 'Over The Top.' In essence, that encompasses reaching the consumer's phone, tablet, computer or TV via the internet rather than traditional satellite or cable broadcasting services. Think Netflix, Amazon, and the like.
Carey plans to create a premium package to allow fans around the world to follow the sport this way. It won't be the only way – the idea is that traditional free and pay TV formats will survive, but the exact pattern will depend upon where you live.
"It's going to vary market by market, it's clearly not going to be one size fits all," Carey explained recently. "We were really a non-player in the digital platforms, so whether it's free, pay or digital, we want to make sure we're engaging with them all.
"There's no question that the migration in places from free to pay has an impact on audience. Now, almost every sport in the world is going through a migration from free to pay – there is a directional shift to pay.
"Part of what we have to do is make sure it's more than free to pay, it's digital – how you connect and engage fans across the broader spectrum of free-pay-digital, including OTT, which is a tremendously important opportunity."
F1 cannot lose sight of the fact that overall viewer numbers have to be kept as high as possible. In the UK, for instance, the switch from every race being live on the BBC to only half appearing on C4 has obviously had a significant impact on viewership - and that is something sponsors, looking to maximise their exposure, will naturally take note of.
"We're going to be much more analytical about trying to evaluate the trade-off between reach and dollars," says Carey. "I think in general what has been true is you expect to gravitate towards the pay platform over time, but we want to make sure we're maintaining the reach.
"Obviously, digital will help maintain some of that reach to the degree we can find the right agreements to marry that with some free over the air. That is something we clearly value.
"But our goal is really going to be to engage the full spectrum of video platforms, to find the right balance of reach and dollars."
Catering to the core fanbase
Carey sees F1's future digital service as a premium product that dedicated fans will be willing to pay for so that they can really become deeply involved. It's a vision that the oft-maligned Ecclestone had more than two decades ago, when he was ahead of his time.
"Your most valuable fans are your most passionate fans," says Carey. "Because we actually have an incredibly important group of passionate fans around the world who love the sport.
"And we're actually, as a sport, ideally suited, because we have such a wealth of data and information and such great history, so the ability to really create unique packages. We're still figuring it out for that fan who wants a much deeper understanding of what's going in the sport, what's going on on the track.
"And the demographics of those fans are great too. We have generally a wealthy, educated group, so if you create a package that creates value for them, we think there's real potential to tap into something very special for those fans."
Exactly how it will work is still up for discussion: "I think this year we'd like to really define that package, and take it out into the marketplace and start engaging with consumers.
"We're spending a lot of time with a whiteboard defining what's the product, what is the experience, what is going to be in that to motivate the hardcore F1 fan around the world to pay?
"We haven't priced it yet, but let's say, for example, 10 bucks a month to access that package.
"So creating a subscription package for the strongest F1 fans we think is a tremendously important opportunity. There are geographies that are clearly just upside to us, big countries like China and the US, that we're really just scratching the surface in.
"Some of the digital connections have already indicated the opportunity that exists. It will take time, the US and China aren't going to drive the business in a year or two, but I think we'll get visibility between now and 2020 to really paint a better picture of that opportunity."
As Carey suggests, digital works for F1 because it's an effective way of using the data that permeates the sport, such as laptimes, top speeds and so on.
"There is obviously an opportunity to integrate information with the linear video stream," says Liberty CEO Greg Maffei. "The reality is that that is easier on digital platforms other than television, and it's one of the reasons why OTT offerings are attractive, particularly in a data-rich environment like baseball or F1.
"These digital platforms are going to grow, they are going to fill in interesting opportunities for us in markets, and you will be inter-splicing those, I suspect, with traditional broadcast partners."
It also ties together with sponsorship revenue. F1's sponsors will love the aforementioned demographics – in essence, they love people with money to spend on premium products – and they will have the opportunity to reach those folk directly via the new digital service.
"Sponsorships in the past have been too one-dimensional," says Carey. "We didn't take advantage of technology, just slapped signs on walls and then counted how many minutes they showed up on TV.
"We need to develop a much more targeted set of experiences that will have that new technology to get differentiation."
The challenge is all this is that F1 can't just do what it wants. It has ongoing contracts with broadcasters that were agreed on the basis of exclusivity in those territories. Some of those companies have their own OTT platforms – Sky UK has Now TV, for instance – and competing with F1's own service will create complications.
"We will have to navigate through broadcast agreements, they'll vary by country, so it's never a one size fits all when you're global," says Carey. "So there'll be a process we have to work through with our broadcast partners to enable us to do that. We're on that path already.
"In two to three years we probably have well over half of the TV agreements coming into some form of renewal. It does happen over a multi-year period, they are either three- or four-year contracts. I think we probably have a fair bit bunched in in the next few years."
New or renewed agreements, such as the one recently concluded with France's Canal Plus, will be written to take F1's digital plans into account. Carey even hopes that broadcasters with ongoing contracts can be persuaded to accept change sooner rather than later.
"We're carving out the flexibility. In some of the historic agreements, there'll be issues that we have to navigate around. It doesn't mean we can't go back and talk to somebody about ways to address it in the midst of an agreement, but as we go forward, the agreements will be structured to much more contemplate the ability to make sure we can exploit all our rights.
"In many ways we think it's good for our television partners, it creates a level of excitement, it creates a level of variety of experiences for fans that we think are good. Bottom line, in the agreements we are doing, we are creating that flexibility."
It's hard to imagine that the broadcasters will be all that accommodating, but who knows?
Of note, too, is that when F1 does renew those deals, it's aiming to have them be shorter than the current ones. The hope is that, a couple of years down, the line the sport will have grown and become so attractive that it can put prices up.
"I would say in general the strategy is not to do the longest deals," says Maffei. "Because we're very bullish on our ability to increase the excitement level, the fan interest, and the broadcaster interest therefore in the sport.
"So having actually shorter-term agreements with an opportunity to increase our position in the next few years is a strategy."
"It is a sport that we think has got a lot of potential," adds Carey. "We're just starting to market it, we're just starting to engage fans in areas like digital platforms, so we think we can create some real momentum and energy in the next couple of years.
"And we really believe we'll be able to take advantage of that as we go forward with current renewals, as well as the next round of renewals."
As the plans all come together, Carey and co. appear to be hoping that over the next few years teams will accept less money, that venues will continue to pay more and more to host races, and that the established TV companies will do the same while potentially ceding viewers to F1's own digital service.
However much of that comes to fruition, there are certainly interesting times ahead for F1.