Atlas F1 Pick 'n' Pay: A Viewer's Guide to Digital F1 TV

  by Robert German, RaceFax Online

Bernie Ecclestone is gambling million that F1's tobacco-free future lies in the revenue potential of digital television, and what amounts to pay-per-view. Robert German has been sampling the coverage, and gives a viewer's perspective on the benefits and drawbacks of this brave new world

The Six Screens of Digital TVIntroduced during the 1995 German Grand Prix at Hockenheim to great fanfare, if not to immediate success, Germany's DSF Plus digital F1 broadcasts have been steadily gaining in popularity, although not rapidly enough to make it profitable... yet. In mid 1996, DF1 owner Leo Kirsch finally managed to get DSF Plus allied with the German Premiere channel, which is much like HBO in the United States, and that alliance meant that digital F1 would scale the biggest hurdle of all: accessibility through cable TV in a country where television is dominated by the state–run monopoly, German Telekom. Sounds complicated, doesn't it? Welcome to Germany. Like everything else in post–WWII Germany, laws are not passed, so much as they are pried loose from the jaws of the bureaucracy, and then only after much soul searching and endless debates. Still, Germany got the first foot in the digital F1 door, even if half the televisions in the exhibition tent at Hockenheim in 1995 went sour because of the summer heat.

From an initial subscriber total of 50,000, DSF Plus now has close to half a million viewers, and must be close to being out of the red. By comparison, France's Canal+, started only a few months after DSF Plus, is still sucking six–digit sums out of Bernie Ecclestone's gross income, if recent press reports in Germany are to be believed. But is Digital F1 worth it? Bear in mind that, here in western Europe, and in England, which will get digital F1 next year, we get to see around 80 percent of the Grands Prix live in the early after-noon. The bigger question for Americans – if and when digital finally arrives – is whether or not six channels of high–quality images and sound will entice more fans to stagger out of bed at 4:45 a.m. every other Sunday, and pay a premium for the service. The content provides the basis for answering that question, but the value it provides is obviously an individual value judgement. In any event, here's what digital F1 currently provides to its viewers like myself, who live in Germany.

The service consists of six channels, the first four having their own individual directors, and the other two providing, respectively, timing and scoring information, and a split screen which shows what is at that moment available on the first four channels. The line– up:

  • Channel One: Basic race coverage, called the "Supersignal," which is similar to, but definitely not the same as what you see on analog, free TV.
  • Channel Two: Verfolgerfeld, or mid–field action.
  • Channel Three: Cockpit, in–car camera footage.
  • Channel Four: Pit Lane, plus replays of race highlights.
  • Channel Five: Live Timing and Scoring, exactly like what the teams get on their monitors in the pits.
  • Channel Six: Overview, a four–way split–screen showing what is being broadcast on channels one through four, with audio from the Supersignal.

    In theory, it is a fan's fondest dream, but in reality, there are a few drawbacks to surfing the digital channels. Much of my criticism centers on the Cockpit channel, as that is arguably the main attraction of the six–channel digital package, especially now that Ecclestone has generally restricted the analog broadcasts to a single on–board camera.

    The Advantages

    Why is the Cockpit channel such an asset? For exactly the same reason that the Pioneer Japan “Driver's Eyes” laser disks were worth watching over and over, especially the 'Opening Lap 1991' disk. The forward–facing on–board cameras catch a lot of interesting details that the trackside cameras miss, especially when the trackside cameras zoom in too closely, which is often the case.

    The best camera angle is, in my opinion, the one mounted on the airbox above and behind the driver's head. Individual drivers take different lines, and they all have different throttle techniques, and you can make comparisons via the on–board cameras, which make all this very apparent. For example, Mika Hakkinen blips the gas pedal in slow corners, much as Ayrton Senna used to. David Coulthard, Heinz–Harald Frentzen and Eddie Irvine do not.

    Also, the trackside cameras often miss many close calls which the on–board cameras pick up, and sometimes the audio signal will reveal excessive wheelspin, gearbox problems, a sticking throttle, and so on. A perfect example of this is the footage of Michael Schumacher's crash at Silverstone, which proved immediately that a sticking throttle was not the cause of his leaving the track.

    There are other advantages. You can scan the four–screen view, or the timing and scoring screen to see if there are any interesting mid– pack battles when the leaders are spread out. The timing and scoring channel also gives split times, the only reliable source of such revealing data. Yet another good thing is that DSF Plus repeats the race broadcasts periodically during the season, again transmitting all six channels. Unfortunately, you have to be present to select the channel you want, as the decoder box cannot usually be pre–programmed to select the channel you want.

    The Disadvantages

    Channel changing is not the instantaneous jump to which analog viewers are accustomed. There is a one–second audio and video drop-out when you switch between channels, along with an annoying display at the top and bottom of the screen asking you to select both the picture and audio (with or without announcer commentary) you want.

    Compounding that problem, the switching mechanism – via the remote to the D–Box – is sequential. This means, if you want to go from the four–screen channel to, say, the Cockpit channel, you must page through the Supersignal and the mid–field channels to get to it, with all the accompanying drop–outs in picture and sound at each junction.

    Except for the four–screen channel and the Supersignal, the top right–hand corner of the picture contains a picture–in–picture showing the Supersignal feed. For the mid–field channel and the pitlane channel, this is fine, but for the on-board camera channel, this can be quite annoying, although it does help you follow the overall race. From the Cockpit perspective, the less flat a course is, the more this picture–in–picture blocks the main view from the car, especially on tracks like the A1–Ring in Austria. Except for the few counter–clockwise circuits, right–hand corners predominate, and the PIP often appears on top of the coming corner.

    Especially during free practice, qualifying and warm–up, the director in charge of the Cockpit channel makes the same kind of mistakes we've come to hate in the free broadcasts. Rarely do they seem to have the slightest clue about which in–car camera is most relevant. All too often, either the in–car channel shows a still photo from a car in the pits, or shows lap after lap from the camera aimed at the side of the track, or through the steering wheel at the driver's face shield. Both of these camera angles have absolutely no use whatsoever as far as information or content goes. Frequently, it is impossible to discern even where the car is on the track from the bobbing helmet perspective. Quite honestly, the view is worse than useless most of the time, unless the primary aim is to give maximum exposure to the decals on a driver's helmet.

    Other on–board views include a rear–facing roll bar–mounted camera, which is also useless in most circumstance, especially during practice, qualifying and the warm–up session, especially when no cars are immediately behind the camera car.

    Another problem with the Cockpit channel is that the director very often inappropriately switches from one car on a hot lap to another just entering the pits. To make matters worse, in Hockenheim, the Cockpit director began aimlessly switching from the forward–facing camera of cars beginning their qualifying laps, to a still shot, to – wait for 60 seconds – the same car, from the very same camera. Or worse, another camera on the same car, thereby missing the bulk of the lap. There should be a few rules imposed on the Cockpit director. When you choose a forward–facing on–board camera, you must stay with that camera for at least one entire lap, unless there is a complete break up of the signal for more than two seconds. Second, only the forward–facing cameras should be used, especially when there are no cars around the camera car.

    There is an over–reliance on showing the views from only the front–running cars, at the expense of the mid–field cars. This is really a shame, because a lap with Tora Takagi at Silverstone is really worth watching, as he struggles to keep the ill–handling Arrows from powersliding off into the gravel.

    All too often with DSF Plus, the pictures in the main digital signal and the mid–field channel are the same. The pitlane channel is also often redundant, as the main feed tends to show the pit stops of the leaders. And the pitlane channel director tends to like the same shots of driver wives that many fans, including me, find so annoying. The one really good thing about the pit channel is that it also provides highlights during the breaks between pit stops, including the start, shown from several in–car perspectives.

    Likewise, viewers are very rarely treated to riding with Jean Alesi, or the Stewarts, the Prosts, the Minardis and even Alessandro Zanardi's Williams. This is especially annoying during the beginning minutes of free practice and qualifying, when the only cars on track are the backmarkers. One has to ask what value there is in showing the on–board view from a McLaren or Ferrari which is sitting in the pits with all its wheels off. Indeed, why bother to mount cameras on the mid–field cars if nobody shows the pictures, especially during some of the more uneventful races where the only battles are in the mid– field?

    During the races, however, the Cockpit director seems to make good choices initially, only to lose interest after the first 10 laps. A glaring example of this was the Austrian GP telecast. I suspect the director headed off to the toilet in mid–race, because the onboard picture switched to leader David Coulthard on lap 13, and remained there for the better part of 20 more laps, despite there being absolutely no cars in front of the Scot. At the same time there were an unusually high number of mid–field passes for position, because of Mika Hakkinen's drive from the back after being shunted off on the first lap. Most of these passes were ignored by the Cockpit director. Making matters worse, he then switched away from Coulthard before he hit the traffic which ultimately cost him the win.

    Another problem with the mid–field channel is that it only shows shots from the trackside cameras, unlike the main 'Supersignal', which does include short intervals of in–car shots. It would be much more interesting, in my opinion, if these trackside shots were also interspersed with in–car shots from the mid–field cars during their battles, which are often the only real contests on the track.

    Still, after having been an Emerson Fittipaldi fan since 1970, and having had to suffer through the all–too–rare entire broadcasts of Grands Prix in the late 1970s that only showed his yellow Copersucar when it was being lapped, the midfield channel does have its attractions. Fans of Jacques Villeneuve may well agree. The final irritation is the persistent signal breakup with the on–board signal, no matter which car is on screen. This is especially inexplicable, given that for years CART in–car cameras have had much better picture quality, with very little signal breakup over the course of a lap, and enjoy such excellent reception simultaneously with several cars, even at tracks in wooded areas, such as Elkhart Lake. It is especially curious, given that the FOCA–TV technicians have solved the problem of getting the cars to show the on–board pictures all the way into and through the Loews tunnel at Monaco, with very little signal interference going in and out of the tunnel. At this year's British GP, there was so much signal interference that the director often resorted to showing a still frame picture on the in–car channel much of the time.

    Another irritation is that the previously glitch–free switching between on–board cameras seems to be no longer functioning, as both the British and Austrian GP telecasts were marred by as much as a 30–second interlude of still–frame as the director switched car cameras.

    Another option viewers have is between sound with or without the commentators. Jacques Schulz and ex–F1 driver Marc Surer are quite good about being informative, but more often than not, I opt for the raw sound of the engines. However, after the practice, qualifying and race, in the analysis of what has happened, Surer really comes into his own, as he often notices small but telling details that only an expert would notice. Better yet, he usually is quite accurate in his analysis, and he never seems to talk down to his audience, perhaps because he is aware that the main audience for this channel consists of hard–core fans, unlike F1 commentators in America, such as Derek Daly.

    So, all things considered, is digital F1 television coverage worth the extra money, and what is the cost?

    Taking the money angle first, in Germany, a three–month trial subscription is available, and costs roughly $29 a month, on top of the Federal Television subscriber fee of $18 a month for the licensed use of one television. Germany is like Britain, where viewers are charged to support the BBC. Here, the costs pay for ARD (channel 1), ZDF (channel 2) and the regional third channels (WDR, NDR, MDR, SWF and BR3). I am legal, unlike many Germans, who live in fear of that knock on the door from the television police.

    The trial subscription also includes many old movie channels, which increase the value... if you like old movies. The “Sport” package alone, which I plan to subscribe to when the 90–day trial period runs out, costs $18 a month. Given what digital F1 coverage provides, even with the bugs which remain in the service, I find it well worth the cost. For others, the balance can swing either way, depending on what they want F1 television coverage to provide.

    Having access to the greater variety of on–board cameras, even if the director in charge is not very creative, is enough justification for me, but for others, may not be. If the in–car cameras weren't so important to me, I probably would opt for a satellite dish instead, as that would allow me to aim it at satellites that also carry foreign channels with only light scrambling, through which the cars are recognizable. That way, I could switch to another (analog) channel during RTL's twice–an–hour seven–minute commercial breaks.

    Because you have to be, in essence, your own director, choosing from five available channels (plus the master four–view), it can be difficult to get a coherent story of the race. Luckily, for viewers in Europe, there are still the free TV broadcasts, so if all else fails, I can let the VCR tape the in–car feed, while I switch over to RTL for a more complete picture of the race... when RTL isn't in the middle of one of its seven–minute commercial breaks, that is.

    The difficulty in getting a sense of the race comes partially from having the ability to switch between channels. However, if you limit yourself to only the 'Supersignal' and Mid–Field channels, instead of indulging in immediate gratification via the Cockpit channel, you should have no problem following the action. In fact, you would probably get a much better overall picture during the final laps, when both the analog, world–feed director and his DSF Plus Supersignal colleague tend to focus on the leader, as he soldiers on to victory. Do–it–yourself directing isn't bad, but remember, we are talking about Formula 1, anno 1999, with grooved tires and very few on–track passes. During the mid–1980s, my reaction to having to decide between channels might have been very different, as there was a lot more going on during the vast majority of the races.

    In short, many of the problems which exist with the analog, free broadcasts also exist with Bernie Ecclestone's digital coverage. If you were expecting a perfect world from all–digital Bernie TV, it isn't here yet, because while the digital technology is impressive, the weak link continues to be the human element. That said, the viewer choices available with digital F1 provide a significant improvement over the traditional analog version.

  • Robert German© 1999 Atlas Formula One Journal.
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