Viewers in France without subscriptions to pay TV are to have the curtains opened to them again next season under a deal announced today.
An agreement between F1 Group and leading French free to air station TF1, begins with the 2018 Championship and TF1 will show four Formula 1 Grand Prix races in exclusivity on free-to-air in their entirety, including the Monaco GP and the newly restored French GP at Paul Ricard in July.
Two additional races that have yet to be confirmed will also form part of the live race coverage. Meanwhile TF1 will also have the rights to show highlights of all rounds.
This deal is interesting because it rows against the tide of recent years which have become increasingly Pay TV focussed. While Pay TV undoubtedly pays far more for the live race rights than Free to air broadcasters can, it also takes the sport out of the minds of the people of that country.
In France F1 has been behind a paywall since 2013 and audiences have fallen from around 4 to 5 million on TF1 to 750,000 on Canal Plus, which renewed its contract in May to 2020.
France was an early and extreme example. The UK is heading the same way in 2019 with a five year exclusive deal for SKY, which now charges for individual sports channels. The UK, like another key market Italy, has managed to hold onto a split rights deal until now, whereby the terrestrial broadcaster has half the races live and the highlights of the rest. This works quite well in Italy, which scored dry high ratings for the recent Italian Grand Prix on both the free to air RAI and the pay TV SKY Italia.
What the TF1 deal shows is that the new management of F1, under Liberty Media, realise the value of what is known in the business as ‘barker content’ – content on the big platforms that lets fans see the sport and have some access to it, so they can then pay for full access if they are so minded.
TF1’s CEO Gilles Pelisson said, “The whole group will mobilise to ensure that Formula 1 gets the biggest exposure. We are also very happy to offer the sport to the widest audience possible at a time when France will once again play host to a Grand Prix race on the legendary Le Castellet (Paul Ricard) circuit.”
The problem with the SKY deal from 2019 is that it is not only exclusively behind a paywall, but also the highlights rights are not in F1 Group’s gift, but in SKY’s gift.
And their obligation under that package is only to show a single live race, the British GP plus highlights of the others, on free to air TV.
So theoretically they can put that secondary package on one of their own channels which qualifies as ‘free to air’ by the end of 2018 and F1 will disappear from mass market view.
One could argue that on the minority FTA Channel 4 it is half way there already, with audiences of just over a million and a half, compared to the mass audiences on BBC and before that ITV, which had exclusive live rights from 1997 to 2008, where race audiences were between 4 million and 12 million depending on time of day.
However Channel 4 has struck notable success this month with the revamped “Great British Bake Off”, which it poached from BBC and which has pulled in audiences of over 7 million, proving that people can find that button with the right incentive.
So the TF1 deal clearly gives pause for thought and attention turns to SKY now to see what their intentions are. The SKY deal is worth around £170m a year to F1, more than double what the combined SKY/Channel 4 deal nets and it was clever of CVC and the previous F1 CEO Bernie Ecclestone to do the deal in time for it to inflate the F1 sale price to Liberty Media.
For Liberty it is a double headache as not only did it mean that F1 cost more to buy, but it also has a potential backlash on its hands in the UK when F1 disappears from view behind a paywall, without them having any real levers to do a deal like the new TF1 arrangement in France.
In a perfect world SKY would do a deal with the BBC to give affordable access to F1 highlights and the British GP; this would be the most common sense approach as the BBC as a non-commercial entity, would not cannibalise SKY’s ability to sell packages to F1 sponsors, unlike ITV or Channel 4.
But BBC Sport fell out of love with F1 in 2015 and today has very different priorities in sport, including balancing out the gender gap, with widespread coverage offered of women’s sport, which satisfies political pressures from outside and is also very cost efficient.
What do you think of this story? Do you live in France? What has it been like with F1 behind a paywall? Do you welcome this deal? And if you live in the UK, what are you hoping for post 2018? Leave your comments in the section below