F1 goes OTT

Liberty’s latest innovation is good news – for some

Formula 1 is ramping up its move into the digital sphere with the announcement of a new ‘over the top’ platform.

That’s streaming to me and you.

Previously F1 has been shackled in the old media world, bound to television contracts. Now Liberty has the freedom to tap into the massive mobile and streaming market that has so far been dominated by US sports such as Major League Baseball, Basketball and American Football.

Liberty’s new service is to be called F1 TV Pro. It was supposed to have gone live for the first race of the season in Australia, but was delayed by a glitch at the last moment. When it eventually is rolled out it will allow users to tailor their own viewing of each Grand Prix. It promises “unique feeds not available on any other platform with the capability of multi-level personalisation”. In effect, fans can choose their onboard cameras from up and down the grid – as on the IMSA and WEC apps.

Initially this will be available on desktop computers and the web, but mobile apps are coming. Liberty promises Amazon, Apple and Android devices will be able to download it soon, making F1 more accessible than ever before. And it won’t just be the races: every session will be broadcast live, plus press conferences, F2 races and other support races.

But those old contracts drawn up by CVC still have a hold over F1, and it’s mainly UK fans who will suffer. Sky’s contract means it has exclusive rights in the UK to F1 between 2019 and 2024 and its Now TV service already exclusively offers OTT coverage. So F1 TV Pro will not be available in the UK for at least five more years, but will be for much of Europe and the Americas from this season.

For those not in the available countries, a cheaper non-live F1 TV Access will give users extended highlights and archive video access, plus radio commentary and live timing. A second-screen service, as such.

F1 TV Pro is set to be available for between $8 and $12, but the ‘Access’ pricing was unavailable at the time of writing.

The knock-on effect is there will be very few live terrestrial races for the foreseeable future – at least until 2025. Sky has promised that all highlights will be available free-to-air from 2019 and the British Grand Prix will be freely available. Sky also has its own more immersive initiatives in the pipeline for its coverage, so UK fans might not be quite stuck in the dark ages, but the live options for UK viewers are therefore limited. It’s a Sky TV subscription, Now TV rolling subscription or make do with highlights. And for many fans, none of those three will be acceptable.

In the UK at least, it seems F1 may have to accept plummeting viewing figures. Just when it needs the opposite.