Brad Spurgeon's Blog

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I wrote the following article, published in the International Herald Tribune on 10 March 1997, the day after the season-opening Australian Grand Prix, about what would prove to be a revolutionary new television system by Formula One for watching the races. It was also a pay-TV package, changed the series’ history of free-to-air coverage. It ultimately failed to gather enough subscribers to make it economically viable. But it was definitely a fabulous product. In re-reading this article 21 years later, I see that I was not gentle with my criticisms of the product, although my memory, on the contrary tells me that it was a fabulous system, that I absolutely loved. Had I not begun attending all of the F1 races by the time it disappeared, I would have been greatly disappointed in its demise.

Above all, I am republishing this on my blog in place of the article I wanted to write about Formula One’s launch of its streaming service at the 2018 Spanish Grand Prix this past weekend. I am replacing the article I wanted to publish because the truth is, there was no comparable article to be written after this weekend’s fiasco. In short, whereas Formula One under Bernie Ecclestone was able to launch a revolutionary, multichannel, digital product for a small fee from fans 21 years ago, today, under the new regime, Formula One has been unable to launch a working product whatsoever, and for a price that in Europe comes to more than 180 euros per year, excluding the introductory offer that cut the price to 170 euros. You will be able to find reports around the internet that show that the new streaming system simply did not work. Personally, I was able to watch fewer than two minutes of live coverage throughout the entire race weekend, while spending hours updating, rebooting, logging out, logging in, refreshing, etc. It simply was impossible to receive the live transmission, for reasons that I can only guess at, since my fiber optic connection was working very well, with well over 200 mbps bandwidth both descending and ascending….

So compare that story to this one from 21 years ago, and do keep in mind that much of the criticism herein was in fact coming from the hand of my editor, as I recall, as, for instance, the lede sentence is something that I both at that time and now would not have written. Paying for a service that works and gives improved coverage is something I, as a fan, am willing to do. But it has to work! And the original digital television DID work, and it did improve (with a mosaic channel showing all screens offered soon after this):

PARIS – Formula One, one of the most high-tech and expensive of sports, is using the latest digital satellite technology to squeeze more money out of its fans.

The Australian Grand Prix on Sunday opened the first full season of digital pay-per-view multichannel coverage of Formula One. This is the shape of sports broadcasting of the future, and the Formula One Administration, which is supplying the pictures from its races, had 40 cameras at Melbourne and gave itself excellent access to cars and the pits.

Such coverage first appeared late last season in Germany on Kirch Group, which has 20,000 digital subscribers. This year, Canal Plus, the French subscription network, is offering pay-per-view digital coverage of the 17 races. Canal Plus, which has been showing French soccer on digital pay-per-view this season, has 260,000 subscribers so far and deals with Polish, Spanish, and Italian networks for a connection to the service.

The International Automobile Federation, which owns the rights, also is negotiating deals with Brazil and other countries in South America.

The digital image is crystal clear. By comparison, TF1, the French terrestrial channel that also showed the Grand Prix live, seemed to be broadcasting a race under water. But the innovation is the six simultaneous channels. Jean-Luc Roy, a Canal Plus announcer, repeatedly called these the ”six gifts.” But they are not free. The weekend’s viewing – it also included all the practice sessions – cost 80 francs ($14) plus the cost of the antenna and a monthly subscription.

The six channels were:

– Traditional coverage of the race with commentary.

– The race leaders, with a different commentary.

– The hot spots – where the battles are going on.

– The view through one of 14 on-board-the-cars cameras.

– The pits with the interviews of drivers, mechanics, team owners, wandering guests and periodic flashbacks to moments of excitement.

– Times and statistics.

All is not perfect, however. A viewer may not see all six channels on a single screen at once, so the announcers spend much time telling viewers what may be seen on the other channels: ”You may now drive with Olivier Panis aboard the Prost on Channel 4!” But changing channels is painfully slow and the remote control confusing.

On the statistical channel, not all lap times are visible at once, and viewers may not manipulate the statistics. There are few statistics on the other channels.

Canal Plus boasts that viewers become their own TV directors. In truth, a directorial hand lies heavily across all the channels. Even so, where traditional television watching is passive, this kind of sports-watching is labor-intensive and needs Formula One-type reaction times.

The format does seem ideally suited to Formula One. In all Grand Prix, there are long periods when not much happens. With six views to choose, a viewer may switch around in slow moments in search of what Formula One has been trying to find for years: spectacle.

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