[Updated] France has become the latest major European market for Formula 1 to switch to a Pay TV model, as Canal + snapped up the rights starting this season.
The 11th hour deal is exclusive, which means that long time free-to-air broadcaster TF1 is out of F1 after many years of association and it is another nail in the coffin for Free to Air broadcasters as purveyors of premium live sports.
It also means that three of Europe’s largest markets for F1 coverage are now under the control of Pay TV, following the UK which switched to Sky in 2012 and Italy which is following suit this year. French TV audiences for F1 have usually been at a similar level to the UK, perhaps slightly lower, at around 4-6 million per race. F1 in Holland has also switched to Pay TV only for this year.
This exclusive Canal+ French deal prioritises revenue over reach; it will have an inevitable effect on the viewing figures, particularly as there is no free to air dimension to the deal, so only the audience paying €35 per month will be able to see F1 in France. After many years without a French driver on the grid, the country now has Romain Grosjean, Jean Eric Vergne and Charles Pic. And Jules Bianchi (above left) may be confirmed at Force India in the next few days.
It is interesting to compare F1 to football, which went down this PAY TV route first and has since thrived in UK, Italy and many other markets. But football is a national sport for most countries, whereas these deals will test whether F1 is a ‘minority” sport or whether the fanbase is dedicated and committed. Research shows that in many European countries F1 is second only to football in terms of audience demand.
In the UK there is a half way house solution; the concept of Sky carrying every race live with BBC showing only half the races live and the rest on highlights led to a small decline in figures last year compared to 2011, according to BARB figures. It will be interesting to see which way the trend goes this year.
In Italy a similar effect is anticipated under the arrangement proposed with SKY carrying all races live and RAI showing selected rounds free to air.
Global TV audiences were up by around 12% last year on 2011 values, thanks to additional races in Bahrain and Austin and to a more sustained and exciting championship than 2011. Typical global audiences for races in European time zones were around the 45 million mark.
F1′s global popularity was built up over the last 30 years on mass market free to air TV. It is now entering a second phase where it looks to maintain its TV platform but the only place to turn to keep the revenues high is Pay TV.
Down the road one imagines that F1 may look at shifting to a different model, whereby users have a direct relationship with F1 via the F1.com website and can pay to live stream races as well as order other content.