Analysis: Why we should never watch F1 the same way again


The Formula 1 media landscape is in a period of transition, and it will soon be much different. Kate Walker looks at the challenges the sport will face to regain the audience it has been losing.

It is no secret that the past decade has seen a rapid evolution of the ways in which the general public consumes its broadcast media.

Where our grandparents got their news from the radio or wireless, and our parents saw the evolution from black and white to colour television, this generation has lived through the rise of the internet and the introduction of the smartphone.

Television unit sales have been in decline for years. In the United States, there was a nine percent drop in sales figures between 2013 and 2014, but globally the past five years has seen dramatic drops in unit sales in developed and developing nations.

In 2011, 255.2 million televisions were sold worldwide. In 2012, that number dropped to 238.2 million, while in 2013 the global five percent drop in unit sales saw 226.7 million television sets sold across the world.

As television sales have been on the decline, smartphone sales have been on the rise. An estimated 75 percent of the world's population now has a cell phone, while only 69.2 percent have access to a television.

By 2020, smartphone penetration is expected to reach 70 per cent globally, while in developed nations around 80 percent of the population already use smartphones.

A changing landscape

The media landscape is currently in a period of transition, with the older broadcast models altering their approach to market to increase profitability in the face of a growing tide of free (both legal and illegal) options for media consumption.

Much ink has been spilled bemoaning Formula 1's move from free-to-air to subscription model, but the change is not unique to F1, nor to sport in general.

By the end of 2013, more than half of the world's televisions were within reach of a digital signal - 55 percent, up from 30 percent in 2008. Across the same period, the world's TV watchers moved from FTA to paid television in droves.

At the end of 2012, there were 728 million TV subscribers across the world. The year before, the number of TV users with subscription access tipped over the 50 percent mark for the first time. Between 2008 and 2012, subscription TV adoption increased at a rate of 32 percent.

Online, the growth of subscription streaming services like Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime has also changed the way in which we consume our media.

Not only have the services normalised the notion of paying for content in a way that would have been inconceivable in the first decade of the new millennium (the golden age of internet piracy), but the paid model has also allowed users to escape the litany of advertising that accompanies the traditional TV broadcast model both paid and free.

In the face of this changing model, F1 has been forced to adapt. The move to subscription-only access has not proved popular with fans accustomed to enjoying their sport for free on terrestrial television, but it has been a necessary evil in a number of markets.

The shared broadcast model, as seen on Sky and the BBC in the UK, or on Sky and RTL in Germany, has proved to be an acceptable compromise.

Delayed highlights of grands prix are not ideal from the user's perspective, but it does allow for a modicum of access without any outlay on the part of the viewer. And for the moment, that model is the best we can hope for.

New contracts

Over the course of the Belgian Grand Prix weekend in Spa, RTL announced that it had extended their contract with FOM for two more years, and that the deal covered "exclusive German free-TV rights to all the elements of each Formula 1 race weekend".

Much was made of the retention of FTA broadcasting in Germany, an undoubtedly positive step. Little attention was paid to the length of the contract extension, which was for a scant two years.

When the contract was announced, programme director Frank Hoffmann conceded that the deal had been done against a backdrop of falling viewing figures across the network.

"The [F1] figures are still good. They are not as good as they used to be – 2001 was the peak when we had 10 million average viewership, and now it is down to 4.5 million. But if you compare it to let's say blockbuster movies on German television – a blockbuster had 7.6 million and now in these years it is down to 3.5 million. So the market has changed rapidly and dramatically.

"If we compare the ratings of F1 to our main opponent in the private sector, the ratings of F1 outperforms every other type of broadcasting, so we are happy about the ratings."

Germany is not alone in seeing a decline in F1 viewership. Much has been written about the 5.6 percent drop in global viewing figures over the course of the 2014 season, and there were significant falls in both Spain and China.

But the first half of the 2015 season has seen the BBC's FTA coverage increase its viewing figures by around 12 percent. In the same period, Sky's TV figures (online viewing figures are not recorded) are reported to have seen a record decline, although the network declines to make its figures public.

Despite this, F1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone declared himself satisfied with the UK's model.

"We're interested in entertaining the public and doing a service," he told reporters in Spa. "That's what we are there for. The continuation of the Sky/BBC deal would be good. It works at the moment, so there is no reason why we should change. Sky has done a super job. They have lifted the level, and they have lifted the BBC."

The future challenge

The challenge F1 now faces in all of its markets is to find a way to make the changing media landscape work for the sport - capitalising on emerging technologies and broadcast models to deliver a level of service to subscribers which far outstrips that which has come before.

In its early days, the sport was able to use the spread of television across the world as a means of growth, of income, and of opportunity.

The next step for the sport is to work with leaders in information and broadcast technologies to carry on pushing the envelope.

Joe Brown, a long-term F1 fan and well-connected US editor of tech bible Wired would be the perfect consultant.

Brown has already spoken extensively about improving fan engagement and interest though the use of emerging technologies, and through his work he has access to those men and women whose current work will shape the future of media consumption around the world.

F1 made its money in television, but the sport has rested on its laurels for far too long.

If grand prix racing is to remain successful, it must become a market leader in new broadcasting tech, a trailblazer in user-tailored content.

With declining TV ratings now the norm in most entertainment categories, this futuristic sport must end its reliance on 20th century technology.

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