Top Stories from the Sports pages of the International Herald Tribune,
Monday, March 10, 1997

Grand Prix Racing Goes Multichannel With Digital Input

By Brad Spurgeon International Herald Tribune
PARIS - Formula One, one of the most high-tech and expensive of sports, is using the latest digital satellite technology to squeeze more money out of its fans.

The Australian Grand Prix on Sunday opened the first full season of digital pay-per-view multichannel coverage of Formula One. This is the shape of sports broadcasting of the future, and the Formula One Administration, which is supplying the pictures from its races, had 40 cameras at Melbourne and gave itself excellent access to cars and the pits.

Such coverage first appeared late last season in Germany on Kirch Group, which has 20,000 digital subscribers. This year, Canal Plus, the French subscription network, is offering pay-per-view digital coverage of the 17 races. Canal Plus, which has been showing French soccer on digital pay-per-view this season, has 260,000 subscribers so far and deals with Polish, Spanish, and Italian networks for a connection to the service.

The International Automobile Federation, which owns the rights, also is negotiating deals with Brazil and other countries in South America.

The digital image is crystal clear. By comparison, TF1, the French terrestrial channel that also showed the Grand Prix live, seemed to be broadcasting a race under water. But the innovation is the six simultaneous channels. Jean-Luc Roy, a Canal Plus announcer, repeatedly called these the ''six gifts.'' But they are not free. The weekend's viewing it also included all the practice sessions cost 80 francs ($14) plus the cost of the antenna and a monthly subscription.

The six channels were:


Traditional coverage of the race with commentary.


The race leaders, with a different commentary.


The hot spots where the battles are going on.


The view through one of 14 on-board-the-cars cameras.


The pits with the interviews of drivers, mechanics, team owners, wandering guests and periodic flashbacks to moments of excitement.


Times and statistics.

All is not perfect, however. A viewer may not see all six channels on a single screen at once, so the announcers spend much time telling viewers what may be seen on the other channels: ''You may now drive with Olivier Panis 1aboard the Prost on Channel 4!'' But changing channels is painfully slow and the remote control confusing.

On the statistical channel, not all lap times are visible at once, and viewers may not manipulate the statistics. There are few statistics on the other channels.

Canal Plus boasts that viewers become their own TV directors. In truth, a directorial hand lies heavily across all the channels. Even so, where traditional television watching is passive, this kind of sports-watching is labor-intensive and needs Formula One-type reaction times.

The format does seem ideally suited to Formula One. In all Grand Prix, there are long periods when not much happens. With six views to choose, a viewer may switch around in slow moments in search of what Formula One has been trying to find for years: spectacle.

Back to Samples Index