F1 Fanatic’s American guest writer Gerard Hetman gives his verdict on Speed’s coverage of Formula 1.
For an American F1 fan like me the amount of commentary regarding the BBC’s new coverage has been fascinating to follow. It seems to have been well received by many people, but how good a job are Speed doing of covering F1 in the US?
The quality of the broadcast provided by Speed, and it’s parent company Fox Network, inspired a range of responses in an earlier article on this site.
The recognisable team of Bob Varsha, David Hobbs, and Steve Matchett, plus with Peter Windsor reporting from the pit lane, seems to be well-regarded by some fans, while other viewers express disappointment at their work and seek a higher standard from Speed. While the discussion may not approach the fever pitch of the James Allen debates, the range of opinions on the Speed group is no less colourful.
Love it or hate it, Speed could be set to be a key point of discussion in what is shaping up as a critical juncture for F1 in America. Let’s take a look at the basics of the station’s operation, and what challenges it will need to resolve in the months ahead.
The nuts and bolts
Formula 1 has been broadcast in America for many years, with the coverage bouncing around between several different broadcast companies – including ESPN and CBS – before finally settling on Speed and FOX several years ago. The combination of networks broadcasts every F1 race of the season, with Speed carrying most races live, while a handful – including the U.S. and Canadian rounds in recent years – are broadcast nationally by FOX. The North American races were carried live, with a few European rounds broadcast on tape delay after being edited and packaged to fit into a two-hour timeslot.
Each member of Speed’s broadcast team brings many years of experience in motorsport and Formula 1 to the table, with each taking a different role in the coverage. Varsha serves as lead commentator, ex-F1 driver Hobbs offers insight on sporting decisions and strategy, while Matchett provides technical analysis and feedback. Windsor, in his role as pit lane reporter, is well known for his pre-race walks on the grid. The station carries live broadcasts of Friday afternoon practice, qualifying, and the race, with a pre-race show and full broadcasts of GP2 races also presented to the fans.
Several of the broadcasters also hold other commentary positions with the network, the best know of which may be Varsha’s twice-annual commentary during the Barrett-Jackson collector car auctions. Windsor also has an extensive journalist career of his own, with an extensive amount of work for F1 Racing magazine, in addition to his start up work with the USGPE project.
While the Speed crew have plenty of F1 experience and their broadcasts are well-received by many, several issues are set to bring the station’s status as F1 broadcast rights holder in the United States into the spotlight. How the station and parent company Fox handle them could determine how Formula 1 is received in America for many years to come.
The first is the issue of renewing the network’s contract with Formula 1 Management for the rights to broadcast the sport in the United States. According to various unofficial reports, the network’s three-year deal for broadcast rights is set to expire following the 2009 season, and as of this writing, no mention of a renewal has been made public. While a contract between the network and FOM may already be in place, no public word of such a deal seems to have come up.
It may seem natural for Bernie Ecclestone to agree to a quick extension, but the issue of F1 broadcasting in America has been a key point of discussion for many years, and the wish by FOTA and FOM alike to expand the American F1 TV market may prevent an easy renewal for Speed. The network is not carried on all mainstream cable and satellite providers, with some outlets making it part of special sports network packages that subscribers must pay extra to access. F1 team bosses- both before and after the advent of FOTA – have been critical of this lack of access, and have often stressed a review of how the sport is broadcast in America.
Second, and perhaps less pressing, is the possible loss of Peter Windsor as pit lane reporter after his USF1/USGPE venture hits the grid in 2010. While he certainly has his detractors, Windsor’s years in the sport make him a familiar face to many on the grid, and he often gets pre-race interviews with a slew of F1 drivers and VIPs. While he has said that he would like to be involved in some capacity with Speed in the future, it remains to be seen if his new duties as sporting director for his team would allow for his normal role to continue unabated.
If Ecclestone and FOM wanted to look elsewhere, it remains to be seen what options are available for the American market. A simple idea is to buy network TV time and pump in a foreign feed, such as the BBC broadcasts. While die hard fans may love the concept, it would perhaps be a risky move to have a completely foreign operation as the bedrock of F1 publicity in the United States. Other networks, such as American sports broadcast king ESPN, could also be courted for the role. But assembling a quality broadcast team and operation would be a challenge, and the risk remains that a new network would badly mishandle the product in a damaging fashion, such as assembling a poor quality broadcast team.
No matter who broadcasts F1 in America, Ecclestone’s recent pattern of commercial preferences and decisions have not made life easier for any broadcast company in America or, indeed, the entire Western Hemisphere. The recent late start times in Asia have led to live races being shown in the 2-5am range in terms of start times in America, and even European races often roll off while America is just rolling out of bed on Sunday morning. With only one race in either North or South America, showing live feed at prime viewing times is difficult. While tape-delayed broadcasts are an option and can bring greater ratings and exposure, they run the risk of further alienating existing fans.
For me, the Speed broadcasts are both informative and entertaining, and provide quality coverage that is often not matched by broadcasters in some of my other favourite sports. I believe each member of the broadcast team knows his subject, and the group seems to get along well as a whole. See here for an example of Steve Matchett in action.
I also enjoy Windsor’s pre-race grid walks, as he often snags some of the biggest names in the business – he twice pressed Bernie Ecclestone on the subject of a future United States Grand Prix last season, which was a welcome sight. I believe Ecclestone and FOM would be wise to stick with Speed, with perhaps some specifics for more exposure, such as allowing more races to be broadcast on FOX at certain points in the season.
But for as much as I enjoy Speed, I realise that some of my fellow fans don’t share my view. Many have experienced F1 broadcasts in other countries, and would like to see standards and habits used by other networks adopted by Speed.
No matter what you think of the current deal, the future of F1 in America is becoming a hot topic, and broadcast rights are just part of the package. While Fox and Speed- whose studios are very close to the USF1 home base- will be pushing for a renewal, we all know that things can take some crazy turns when Bernie is in charge.
Do you watch F1 in America on Speed? What do you think of their coverage? Leave a comment below.
If you watch F1 on ESPN Star Sports in Asia check out this post by F1 Wolf for his thoughts on their coverage.