I’m not entirely sure how I got tagged in a tweet and re-tweet festival linking an article at a site called ARS Technica by someone named Jonathan M. Gitlin but I did and it seemed like the thread that would never stop.
Admittedly I have no clue who ARS Technica is or Mr. Gitlin but I am sure they are wonderful folks who do a terrific job but as I, apparently, live under a rock and fail in the hip and cool category, you’ll have to forgive me on my not knowing.
More importantly is the content of the article and resounding refrain from fans tweeting me and using this article as the definitive judgement of NBC Sport’s Formula 1 coverage. The judgement, it seems, is that they should immediately face a firing squad for treason or worse yet, the sword of He-Man infused with the power of Gray Skull.
The article has its share of comments echoing the sentiment but as a person who has visited the broadcast of a live Formula 1 event and seen the people at work and systems in place, I now feel compelled to respond. I have already done so many times on our website but once again, I sally forth and tilt at windmills.
Where NBC is right
Firstly, totaling the time of commercials and non-racing action with a watch is not something new to readers of FBC. We’ve seen many of you do the very same thing for a few years now. The fact that 20+% of a broadcast is commercials is nothing new to us either so I am a bit perplexed at all the F1 fans suddenly becoming self aware due to this article as to the revelation that 20% of a broadcast is littered with adverts. In fairness to Mr. Gitlin, apparently he’s doing a terrific job of bringing this to everyone’s attention because given the response, it seems as if very few US F1 fans were aware that they were watching commercials and in great numbers. Who knew?
Broadcast rights from Formula One Management are tiered and Sky Sports F1 pays a small fortune surpassing many national budgets to carry the amount of content they do. NBC does not pay for that kind of access or coverage including digital packages. Even so, NBC spends millions for the level of coverage they do receive and given America’s anemic viewership, contextually, due to a lack of interest in F1 as well as most races being in the ridiculous hours of the morning, it’s not a lock that they will recoup their expenses. Certainly not a given to justify buying more digital rights.
The package they have is very similar, if not the same, that Fox Sports (SPEED) had and in order to broadcast it, they need on-air talent, production teams, satellite time and a host of other expensive equipment and personnel to make it happen. Not to mention studio space rent and all of the overhead involved.
All of that has to be covered and, like it or not, NBC is using a traditional broadcast model and commercial sales approach to their package. Before you argue they could sell ad space to companies for pre and post race inserts only, keep in mind some of the companies and ads you’ve seen on broadcasts. Phone dating hotlines? Adult super stores? These aren’t massive corporations paying top dollar for a 5am commercial slot folks. It’s only when on NBC or in prime time that you see the types of advertisers get above the belt so to speak.
Where NBC could improve
Now, I have been as critical as anyone over the actual content presented during the race but I also understand that NBC is a slick operation that has a model they follow. They also water F1 down as they continue to measure potential F1 fans so their broadcast is seeker-sensitive or palatable for the casual channel surfer. F1 is complex and this weekend we added yet another sporting regulations regarding brake zones and other nuances and unless you are an anorak, all of this is lost on the casual viewer. NBC knows this and they have to cater to as wide of an audience as they can.
The UK broadcast is a superior product, no doubt, but that’s coming from an anorak and I love that they broadcast as if you do know what F1 is and don’t repeat the simplest of elements every single weekend. But the UK is loaded with F1 fans and they do get it, the US is not. It’s a completely different demographic and market. I’ve argued that a casual observer doesn’t know what a nickel defense in football is but they don’t explain that every week so why F1? That’s because the viewership is huge for NFL (but waning) and it’s a much bigger sport in the US.
NBC has Will Buxton and Jason S. on the ground and the amount of content they could produce would be much more granular (they’re very sharp guys who know the sport) but the broadcast package isn’t designed for granular anorak content so they can get 300,000 viewers per race, it’s designed in the hopes of getting 1.5 million per race by drawing casual and new fans into the broadcast.
I have the honor of calling Steve Matchett a dear friend and you know he knows his stuff and far more than he speaks of during a broadcast so it’s not difficult to understand that the broadcast is a package meant to appeal broadly.
The fact is, NBC has to pay for its overhead and production costs and make money. That’s why they sell ad space and they need as much as they can get away with during a broadcast. The production crew and producer calls the shot for commercial breaks and that’s an educated and calculated guess as to when to call it but it’s a bit like predicting earthquakes, it’s tough to do.
Using Mr. Gitlin’s numbers, you tell me where best to place 20% of the airtime in commercials during a race? Admittedly that’s a lot and will ultimately always miss some action in break.
As for B-roll, well, again, F1 isn’t NBC Sports’ only reason for being and they run bumpers and teasers to get you to watch other sporting events on their channel. If you missed my editorial recently on this very issue, you can read it here. The fact is, fans of any sport are getting spoiled.
NFL, Premier League football, F1, NASCAR…they are all feeling the pressure of an eroding business model in broadcast and there is a serious amount of self preservation going on here. Maybe Liberty Media will swoop in and completely revolutionize the way we watch F1 but until that day, NBC is using a traditional approach.
One of the reasons for this erosion is the lack of patience viewers have for commercials these days. YouTube’s “skip in 5 seconds” button, on-demand streaming with no commercials, cord-cutters and more all have little or no patience for commercials. This has a huge impact on a traditional model for sure.
The bigger question isn’t really how many commercials we can count on an F1 broadcast (admittedly I agree with Mr. Gitlin that NBC is pushing the limit due to the nature of a F1 race format and length) but where is this changing landscape taking not only broadcasters—and their broadcast rights packages and the value of those packages—and advertisers as well? The traditional approach to commercials is eroding and how will the entire ecosystem exist in the future?
Just because people are impatient with commercials doesn’t mean they are dead. I suspect that this model will change to accommodate advertisers in some way or shape eventually. too many industries rely on this model. Recall paywalls for newspapers or streaming sites that inject commercials into their content regardless if you like them or not.
We can argue that the consumer is king but unless the consumer is willing to view ads or pay a serious premium to replace lost ad revenue, it will most likely be present moving forward in one guise or another. The notion that everything on the internet is free just doesn’t work for serious content providers with serious infrastructure costs. Simple math(s).
Facebook is monetized by ads, so is youTube and Twitter (at some level and possibly arguable) and we think it’s all free, it’s not. F1 isn’t free either and neither is NBC’s coverage of it…all 80% of it.
I want to see 100% of the race and I would love for F1’s footprint in the US to grow to such a level that NBC could block out an afternoon for pre, on and post-event programming. Keep in mind, NBC pays for several other sporting series and they will move the smaller series around to CNBC to make room for other major broadcasts. I don’t envy the producers who have to juggle that decision, I can tell you that.
I appreciate Mr. Gitlin’s article and the frustration is reveals but I also appreciate what NBC is trying to do with their model and broadcast package. It’s not completely my cup of tea but then I am a sick, anorak F1 fan who doesn’t need soft-served content. Maybe the better news is that Mr. Gitlin doesn’t need it either anymore and that’s a positive right? Perhaps the sport is growing in the US and Liberty Media can take it over the goal line.
Until that day, I very much appreciate what the entire crew at NBC does for F1. Please know this, I have spoken to many of them and I can tell you that they all know F1 far better than many of the folks I know in the paddock who are credentialed media or bloggers. There is nothing lightweight about the crew at NBC or the broadcast team. Leigh, David and Steve are very much embedded in the series and you should see the notes all three of them bring to a broadcast let alone the support staff behind them. Very sharp folks indeed.
If there were no limiter on Leigh’s rev count, he could speak as in-depth on the series as anyone else you may know. That, however, is not his role as a professional broadcaster who has created a very nice career as a multi-disciplined on-air talent professional.
My proximity to the crew affords me a different angle but I am always reticent to let the bravery of being out of range have it’s will on something that few folks have seen in action. If asked, I’m sure they would all say they have areas they would like to improve and if resources were there and the audience was there, they would. As it is, they work their tails off and I, for one, appreciate it and that’s why I put the stopwatch down many moons ago.
Hat Tip: ARS Technica