Thursday, June 12, 2014

F1 on the TV and Internet

Hello again, dear readers.
After some time off, the blog is back with another F1 related matter, namely the way F1 is broadcast and the way FOM handles the coverage in social media. Let's separate that in sections. I know I may sound harsh with the words below, but F1 fans should be treated with the best.

F1 on the TV

As some of you may know, I co-host the national-wide TV show for F1 in Bulgaria. Hence, this question is of paramount importance for me as a TV pundit and tech analyst, but most importantly, what the viewers get on their screens. This is how the studio looks like (but now always):

A little secret: when we are on air, we watch the same global wide HD feed that comes from the track and it's up to the FOM TV director to show you what he thinks is important. The most recent example of that was the crowd on the Canadian GP, which has had its 15 minutes of glory. Or more. Literally. Certainly, people on the track have paid quite a lot and it's always fun to show them, or capture a precious moment, but this time this was done at the wrong time, as there was a quite a lot of action on the track.

One of the other striking issues is that the camera action is simply slow this season. The way that the race is shown makes it look like it's actually 20 seconds slower than it is. Example is a static camera frames from a helicopter view at the middle of a straight. Few cars just pass by and that's it. No tracking them down to the hairpin, no movement. It looks like a static police traffic camera for electronic speeding tickets. Come on, guys, you could surely do better. So, watching the sport the way it is transmitted right now doesn't make it exciting - neither for the fans, nor for us, the commentators. I sometimes find it hard to sound ecstatic, as there's simply nothing to talk about. This is an onboard edit of the race from Canal Plus (hats off!). I don't know for how long is it going to stay, so let's enjoy it. It's much more thrilling than what we have been presented on the TV feed.
The video is here thanks to Matt Somers, who pointed me to the right place.

Fortunately, there's the team radio we could intercept, and there are guys like Kimi Raikkonen who don't care what's get transmitted or not and they talk straight. This is, of course, entertaining. Way to go, Kimi.
One thing on the positive side: the thermal camera. But that's pretty much all. I can't count the live graphics and comparisons as something that has to be praised, as this is a must.

Next we have the TV ratings, which are definitely seeing decline. This fact has large context around it, and we cannot really blame FOM alone for that.
The TV ratings are closely tied with the way the season unfolds and how drivers are faring.  In Germany numbers show 10% decline, despite names like Mercedes, Vettel and Nico Rosberg shining under the spotlight. In Latin America the numbers are close to the mind-blowing half-slice 50%! Italy and Spain are tethered to Ferrari and Alonso success (or lack of). There we see an average of 20% down.
Again, this has its roots back to the Red Bull and Sebastian Vettel's dominance during the last four years. Don't get me wrong - they were more clever than the rivals and they wiped the track with them. This is what Ferrari did before and now it seems it's time for Mercedes to raise the game and step up on the podium many times. This is likely to lead into another drop of the numbers, but some have done better job than others, have invested large amounts of money and cannot de-tune their engines just for the sake of equality on the track. The 2014 sound issue adds another bitter ingredient to the whole story.

Further decline is helped by the move to a paid TV channels. While this is not unusual, it is certainly a factor. Almost half of the channels worldwide are paid now. On some occasions, I must admit I find the channel prices bit too high. I cannot accept the argument that the real F1 fan will pay whatever it takes to watch his favorite game. We are all still feeling the effect of the global economic crisis and people have different bills to pay. Having said that, money are now spent well and wisely, in my humble opinion. And if the product isn't worth, there's no deal. Here it's time to say that the extras on the paid channels, such as dedicated pit lane and onboard channels are available only to Sky group and BBC.
The idea of having Sky to control and manage the global feed seems inappropriate to me, as the moment with the national bias will be inevitably crashing the wall. Moreover, the idea of the local-enabled broadcasters isn't a good one either - there have been many bad examples.

So, bottom line - FOM can certainly do better in providing the most exciting parts of the race, because this is what F1 fans deserve. The highlights of the race which are posted on are, well, sometimes under the average and I can certainly call them mediocre, considering that there are much better race edits done by fans. Another problem is the fierce pursuit of any F1 related videos on sites like YouTube, for example. The easy exchange of F1 video snippets is hard due to the closed proprietary commercial model. On that matter I definitely think that F1 can be more 'open-source'. For example, the race edits could be done as a competition where the best one wins and gets his name featured on Open the video data, provide it to those who wish to re-master and re-mix it and then select the best. Does it sound idealistic? Yes. Is it going to work? For sure. We live in a global world where getting in touch happens with just a few taps on the phone screen. Which leads to the second part of the article. The way information is being shared and handled in the social media.

F1 on the social media

It sounds like an impossible love affair, right? F1 barely has any presence in the social media, where again, sharing F1 info, such as videos, is being pursued by cyber cops. While I can't say I support digital piracy, well, the 'clients are asking for it' and the clients are us, the viewers and the fans.
Last week the almighty Bernie Ecclestone said that he doubts the social media will last. Seconds of silence for that sentence. He's so unbelievably out of touch, says a neurosurgeon from Canada on Twitter. Because as we agreed, we live in easily accessible global world. Mr. Ecclestone, however, in my view will be soon leaving the house, and I truly hope that his successor will be inline with the new technology world.
At the same time, Pirelli motorsport chief Paul Hembery believes understanding what fans want from the sport is one of the biggest issues facing F1.

"We look at how many people are watching the sport and what they think of the current F1. Viewing figures so far this year are extremely disappointing - there's no doubt about that."
But with BBC figures suggesting that iPlayer growth was 33 per cent last year, and live radio audiences jumping by 53 per cent, there is a growing view that the way people consume F1 is changing dramatically.
The proposal of having a pay-per-view per race F1 model will be further taking the TV figures down, but one has to wonder - is that necessarily a bad thing? Wouldn't the same sponsors and advertisers have their logos in the digital world as well? This is a fairly known and successful model. Today there's no legal way for you to watch an old race, in case you have missed it for some reason. Period. You can't even pay for it.

One good example of how social media and highlights are handled, is the National Basketball Association in US, which has excellent communication with the fans, a YouTube channel that feeds quite interesting and quality content.
However, F1 continues to employ its closed commercial model, which is against what people really want. Social media aren't going anywhere - some may fade, but others such as Facebook and Twitter, are destined to stay as a core part of online communication. Not to mention that almost entire F1 world lives in Twitter.
You can find me there at @Kiril_Varbanov

Bottom line: F1 has to embrace social media as a way to communicate and to stay inline with the rest of the world.

Footnote: I understand from the number of messages I receive that this is a sensitive subject. Anyone who is willing to co-author the article - feel free to email me and I'll add your text.