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Over the past two years, much has been said on this website regarding the diminishing audiences, and increasing disconnect, between Formula One and its fans. This has come into sharp focus here in Australia over the past few weeks.
Down under, F1 has been broadcast live on free-to-air television, most recently by the Channel 10 network on its digital ‘One’ channel. Notwithstanding the frequent commercial break interruptions, and at times bumbling incompetence of Daryl Beattie (motorcyclist!) and Greg Rust (‘professional’ commentator, who at least once has driven a hot-lap in a V8 Supercar), it was difficult to complain because each and every qualifying and race session was broadcast live, and free.
Towards the middle of last year, it became increasingly apparent C10 was perilously close to insolvency; but the Motorsport team pushed on merrily, and in a move that would no doubt have excited Mrs Judge13 – and as it turns out, Mrs CC – they even signed Mark Webber, that well-known and grid-wide respected conversationalist, to join the commentary team for 2015. F1 fans in Australia thought this year would now be relatively positive.
Suddenly, just weeks ago came the bombshell. C10 announced they had on-sold the F1 broadcast rights to Fox Sports, via Foxtel – a Murdoch owned Australian Pay TV service. C10 would broadcast 10 races live, and the remainder would be shown as highlights packages on Monday nights (similar to BBC UK); while Foxtel gleefully announced they would provide paying customers with all sessions live, with a syndicated deal providing “the same incredible coverage provided by Sky Sports in the UK” (1).
Despite the cost, many Australian fans scrambled to subscribe to the Foxtel service. Prices were set starting at $50/month for standard definition services – and a further $10/month to actually make use of the HD screen technology that exists in more than 75% of Australian homes (2).
Now heavily invested in their F1 coverage to the tune of at least $600/year, viewers sat down to watch the coverage of the Australian Grand Prix. To say we were surprised would be an understatement. Minutes into the broadcast there was an advertising interruption, and these continued through every on track session of the weekend.
The race alone saw more than a quarter of the race (15laps) interrupted by commercial breaks which muted all commentary and provided a one-quarter sized picture-in-picture view of the racing action. This was, more-rather-than-less, the same level of coverage provided free by C10 last year.
Now, the common understanding here in Oz is that Sky Sports UK provide uninterrupted coverage of all track sessions of every Grand Prix weekend. So Foxtel stating they would be providing the coverage “the same [as] Sky Sports UK” – was misleading to say the least.
Then, in a moment that can only be described as truly worthy of Formula 1, Foxtel explained they had contractual obligations that required them to serve up advertisements during their F1 coverage. This Sauber-esque reasoning appeared to pass way over the heads of the Foxtel PR machine
Customers mobbed Foxtel via their community forums and Twitter accounts, with most struggling to understand how their paid up subscription for a ‘contracted uninterrupted F1 coverage’ was now being stood down for another contract to deliver advertising (3).
It now turns out, that C10 had pre-sold F1 advertising for 2015 as the sole provider of the F1 broadcasts.
All this is further complicated, by a particularly twist in Australian broadcasting law that protects a list of ‘nationally important’ sporting events from be ‘siphoned-off’ free-to-air TV. Foxtel appear to have failed to observe this regulation and now remain uncommitted to providing uninterrupted coverage of further weekends (3).
And so, another year begins with the continued erosion of F1 fans access to quality Formula 1 coverage. As the sports owners continue to peel every last dollar out of a dying product, I’m left wondering why FOM haven’t moved the way of every other professional – and growing – sporting body, and taken true ownership of their broadcast revenue streams by providing online access to live streams and past clips. This is even more confusing seeing as they provide all the infrastructure, all the data, all the personnel, and indeed, the entirety of the global stream via the FOM broadcast already.
But as always, I’m sure Bernie has a grand plan. It’s just too bad us underlings aren’t part of it.