NBC Sports F1 mid-term grade: C-

In our latest podcast, Grace and I discuss the issue of the American broadcast on NBC Sports. The company secured the rights for the Formula 1 broadcast from SPEED (now Fox Sports 1) for a three-year deal with 2013 representing their inaugural effort. So how are they doing mid-term?

Securing the help of Leigh Diffey, David Hobbs and Steve Matchett (all three were SPEED on-air talent) as well as several members of the back-office production staff that was at SPEED, NBC Sports (NBCS) dutifully set off on their quest to produce a Formula 1 broadcast.

It took NBCS quite a while to iron out the details of their contracts with production and on-air talent and when the season opener in Australia was merely hours away, the NBCS crew had little to no presence regarding Formula 1. No schedules, times, dates or information about their plans for the series let alone the first race.

Eventually, buried in their website, dates were posted but times were wrong and then times were ironed out but the information was still buried and impossible to find. Fans would defend the channel by saying there were “Tweets” about the coverage from NBCS but pardon me if I suggest that “tweeting” critical broadcast information is hardly a plan for informing your viewers.

The first races eventually came and the NBCS team seem to have done a very good job of effectively recreating the SPEED broadcast with a slightly polished look in the form of suits for on-air talent, a big video-rich studio in which to broadcast and the addition of, what I will call, quibble time before and after the race.

Elbowing out time after the race is commendable and I must give NBCS some accolades for showing some respect to the sport by earmarking time to debrief post-race which is something SPEED simply could not muster due to their paid infommercials, soccer, random acts of instanity or NASCAR coverage. Is this post-race quibble time the extent of NBCS’s grand F1 coverage? It seems so.

The challenge is that NBCS has a tremendous resource in Steve Matchett and have chosen to ignore that resource and the capability it has to generate content that the fans want to watch. The contacts within the sport, the amount of compelling content that could be generated all pushed aside.

NBCS’s Jon Miller said:

“We want to be part of the sports fan’s everyday conversation. I know we’re a part of the NHL fan’s everyday conversation. I know we’ll be the default channel for soccer fans starting Saturday. In motorsports we’re going to be the only network with NASCAR, F1 and IndyCar, and we’re going to be around for a long time in that business.

We want fans to look at NBC and NBCSN as a place they can go to get quality programming that’s well produced that treats the sport and the fan with great respect and a place people want to go to consume their sports.”

With all due respect to Jon, he’s parsing words here because being a part of the fans everyday conversation is the 80/20 rule at best. The reason we even mention NBCS is the simple fact that they own the rights to the Formula 1 broadcast, not because they have such comprehensive coverage and bespoke content that unpacks the sport in a way that is utterly compelling.

The simple fact is, 80% of the people who discuss NBCS do so because that’s the channel they have to watch F1 on. The other 20% of fans might consume the post-race quibble time or venture into the sea of despair which is their website. The rest of America’s F1 fansbase go to other websites for content and conversation. Simply saying it doesn’t make it true Jon.

What NBCS has apparently succeeded at is completely copying SPEED’s F1 coverage sans Bob Varsha and even he crops up from time to time when Leigh Diffey has to cover Indycar races. That’s a bit odd as Varsha is an actual Fox employee by contract and not a sub-contractor like Diffey, Hobbs and Matchett but I am glad nonetheless as Bob is a consummate professional and a welcome friend to the broadcast.

NBCS have secured the production staff to make the transition as seamless as possible and they’ve tried to re-create what SPEED had and avoid the hiccups of learning the ropes of a broadcast from scratch. That was a bad idea.

If you intend to take SPEED’s F1 contract and broadcast milieu, then you place yourself as an easy target for comparison and most fans we’ve heard from have made that comparison to SPEED and found NBCS wanting and woefully short even with the new quibble time added.

SPEED was facing its own criticism about its F1 coverage and instead of learning what fans did and didn’t like about that product, NBCS assumed that out-bidding SPEED for their coverage, hijacking their on-air and back-room talent and producing, effectively, the same broadcast would be a good idea. A junior-league move on the best of days.

One of SPEED’s faults, and it has been gleefully adopted by NBCS, is that it acted like an evangelical church and produced a seeker-sensitive sermon every single race. Speaking as if we’d all stumbled upon the broadcast in a NASCAR-induced stupor and needed to be taught the galactically complicated concept of F1 and what “understeer” meant each and every race. Every single broadcast was geared to a person who was watching F1 for the very first time and the most basic of concepts was re-introduced week in and week out. It was beyond patronizing—even to new fans of F1.

NBCS’s online F1 offerings are nearly non-existent and intertwined with NASCAR, Indycar and all lumped under the oddly ambiguous heading of “Motors”. There is little or no fan engagement and if you didn’t know any better, you would be forgiven for not knowing NBCS even covered the sport of Formula 1 by a cursory visit to their website. The attempt at “community-building” under the painfully obvious moniker of “motorsport talk” is replete with links to a host of professional F1 news sites for content—If I were AUTOSPORT, I would be elated with NBCS’s lack of conviction to the process of real F1 journalism and send them a fruit basket for all the traffic they send to the British-based news site. Wait…is NBCS an American effort? I’m all for British-US relations but that can be achieved over a bottle of Jack Daniels right?

With talent such as Leigh Diffey, David Hobbs and Steve Matchett, NBCS could have a tremendous amount of bespoke content for their broadcast and online efforts. They went to the expense of sending the team to Monaco and didn’t offer any additional insight (from being there and having boots on the ground) than a normal broadcast. There was no discernable benefit, to the viewer anyway, of having them on location. Will Buxton on a jetski with Lewis Hamilton? Really? That’s all you have? Will is a swell guy but that’s just a waste of a good tuxedo and viewer’s attention span.

It could be said that this is their launch year and things will be ironed out over time and it will get better. I don’t see that happening over a three-year deal. One only has to watch a Sky Sports F1 race broadcast and see the difference and before you berate the American public for not liking F1 so much as to endure a weekend of coverage, keep in mind that we are fully capable of grasping such mind-bending concepts as race strategy, fuel loads, weight transfer and car balance. We get the nearly impossible concept of aerodynamic drag and downforce as well as slip angle and pull-rod suspension. We’re not that damned obtuse.

NBCS is apparently not familiar with Google’s Zero Moment of Truth and seem bereft of the concept that people research things they buy or cosnume. They are missing the concept that people are curating their timelines in order to reduce timeline fatigue and have done nothing to create a bespoke online F1 experience to compliment their broadcast investment and honor their viewers. Creating a “me too” product is unfortunate and short-term thinking at best.

NBCS is not part of the fan’s everyday conversation…certainly not as it pertains to Formula 1. Those conversations are being held far away from NBCS’s website. It’s a shame as F1 in America needs all the help it can get and it seems that NBCS’s main goal was simple—beat SPEED/FOX to the F1 broadcast rights. Feel like a pawn in the network battle yet? Me too.

Chin up…let’s hope it improves. Call if you need help, Jon.

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Sean Long
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Hey, anyone know why you cannot watch the race online any,ore?