One of the biggest changes in store for Formula One this year will hardly get any exposure in the UK. The change is the switch of F1's broadcaster in the US to the NBC Sports Network from Speed which had screened the sport since 1996.
It comes at a time when F1 is making a concerted effort to crack the US market. Last year the US Grand Prix returned after a five year hiatus, while a race in New Jersey is planned for 2014 and several other locations in the US are also under consideration. The more interest the US market shown in F1 the more races there are likely to be there. The question is what will NBC bring to the table?
NBC stands for National Broadcasting Corporation and when it was launched in 1926 it was the first major broadcast network in the United States. NBC Sports is its dedicated sports channel which is also home to US coverage of IndyCar. Its deal to broadcast F1 was announced with great fanfare in October.
"We are thrilled to add the top international open-wheel racing series to our already-strong motorsports portfolio," said Jon Miller, President of programming for NBC Sports and NBC Sports Network. "Formula 1 is a perfect fit for the NBC Sports Group as it provides content across three platforms - broadcast, cable and digital - for nine months a year with more than 100 hours of premier programming annually." It is the distribution method which is expected to boost F1's profile in the US.
NBC is one of what are known as the big three television networks in the US with the other two being CBS and ABC. They are broadcast across the US whereas other channels, such as Speed and NBC Sports, are available on cable which has a varying line-up of channels depending on the location. Accordingly, exposure on network TV is often considered to be preferable to cable and this year F1 will get a taste of it.
This year all races will be screened live in the US with live streaming also planned for the practice sessions and qualifying. However, the big news in the announcement about the new deal was that four races will be on NBC with the remainder on NBC Sports. It was reported that the four will be the Canadian GP and the final three races of the season at Abu Dhabi, Austin and Brazil in November. This seems to be a strange choice for a number of reasons.
Choosing the Canadian GP obviously makes sense due to the location and time zone. However, block-booking the last three races seems more risky. Whilst the US GP is currently one of the last three races of the season a question mark has already been raised over the date.
Late last year it came to light that the November 15 to November 17 slot for this year's US GP clashes with a major University of Texas football match in Austin's Royal-Memorial Stadium. Nick Craw, the highest-ranking US official of the FIA said in November "we are aware of the UT date and are considering options to move away from it." It remains to be seen whether this will come to anything but the question mark remains.
A bigger concern with picking the last three races is that the F1 title is often decided by then. Last year was an exception but in 2011 the championship was won five races before the end of the season. This means that there may be little at stake and little tension during the last three races. It also means that the NBC viewers would miss the race where the champion is crowned. It would of course be hard for NBC to pick this race in particular but it seems surprising that it did not specifically choose the US GP as one of the four it broadcasts.
Remarkably, the specific choice of the US GP is perhaps not the biggest omission. More surprising is the lack of the Monaco GP in the NBC line-up. The Monaco GP is probably more closely connected to F1 than any other race and is one of the few which is well-known to an American audience. Your average man on the street in the US may not know what F1 is but he is likely to have heard of Monaco and know that there is some form of racing on its streets. It's no surprise since Prince Rainier, the late father of Monaco's current ruler Prince Albert, was married to Grace Kelly, one of the most famous Hollywood actresses of the 1950s.
Monaco's status as a hangout for celebrities stands to this day and the roll call of stars who have visited the race there reads like the guest list of the Oscars. Will Smith, Antonio Banderas, Brad Pitt, Roger Moore and George Clooney have been guests at the Monaco GP over the past decade and they are all names which your average American will recognise. Showcasing the glitz and glamour associated with F1 may be just the kind of thing that is needed to engage the US audience with the sport.
Interestingly, although NBC Sports is building up its portfolio in some areas, the brakes seem to be on elsewhere. On Friday nights it hosts Sports Biz a regular sports business show which was not racing focussed but was due to touch on F1 in the run up to the start of the season. However, Mary Duffy, vice president and senior executive producer for NBC's business arm CNBC, says "Sports Biz has gone on hiatus and will no longer be producing new programs."
What is in no doubt is F1 boss Bernie Ecclestone's interest in the US. He has no permanent ties to the country but has visited it eight times since 2005. He visited New York twice to investigate the possibility of holding a race there - once for five nights in June 2008 and another time in June 2010. Ecclestone also joined his family on a shopping trip to New York in November 2008 and took his family on holiday to Las Vegas in 2007. The remaining trips were to the US GPs in Indianapolis in 2005, 2006 and 2007 as well as three nights visiting the race in Austin last year. If NBC does a good job then he may have to visit the US much more in future.