Media Role in Formula 1

The amount of international media coverage generated by each Formula 1 World Championship Grand Prix is staggering. The total television and print exposure amassed over the 17 race season (2007 season) is approached only by the Olympics and Football’s World Cup, and those events take place only once every four years.

A majority of the world’s population is atleast aware of the pinnacle of motorsport, and those avidly follow it, number in the region of 300 million. Certainly, the statistics say that 350 million people watch each race on television.

Formula 1 attracts $ 3 billion a year in income, half of that from sponsors. When marketing people take those numbers and factor in a dramatic, glamorous and colorful sport, in which 22 drivers from almost a dozen nations contest events in 15 countries, it all adds up to a global advertising opportunity unavailable in any other sport. Formula 1 is by far the world’s richest sport.

With sponsors led by Philip Morris and British American Tobacco, who spend sums in excess of $ 100 million every year in support of the Marlboro and Lucky Strike cigarette brands, the sport delivers a huge return on their investment.

When audience reach is divided into the amount of money spent, the cost per head is relative bargain. Beverages, cigarettes and financial services find Formula 1 very effective; food and industrial brands less so.

For the most part, the official names of the teams include major sponsors’ names as well of those of the technical partners of the teams – Scuderia Ferrari Marlboro, Mclaren Mercedes, Williams Toyota – so that the brand names become inextricately associated with Formula 1 racing.

Each team has an average of 25 sponsors, ranging from titles sponsors spending $ 80 million to those with just an association spending $ 250,000, often in kind rather than in cash. The sponsors bet three forms of exposure on the cars, the team and the drivers. For many, corporate hospitality is the name of the game, together with exposure to the perceived glamour of the team.

Formula 1 cars are more than just high speed billboards, seen in the living rooms of consumers around the globe. If they were just that then sponsors would merely buy the highly visible advertising signs around the racetracks themselves. This association and the image rub off.

For years, running a Formula 1 team was not expensive and it was possible to go racing for $ 14 million a year as late as 1996. Then television exploded and the income from it. In Britain the BBC paid $ 1 million a year in 1996 to be replaced by ITV paying $ 12 million a year from 1997. It was a pattern repeated throughout the world. The teams found that instead of getting an annual $ 1 million they were suddenly getting $ 14 million.

The viewing numbers also exploded and it quickly went from 35 million watching on a Sunday to 10 times that. The TV money was spent by the teams and suddenly, with the increased audience, the sponsors paid much more. Budgets shot up ten fold.

Now a Grand Prix is shown on 200 television networks in 200 countries and the number of viewers for a single race has topped 500 million. Last year the total cumulative TV audience – watching live or delayed action, race highlights, news reports, feature programs and so on – amount to 53.27 billion viewers who watched a total of 1.46 million minutes of broadcasting and 61,501 separate broadcasts in 195 countries.

Then there are millions of radio listeners who follow this sport and every race generated thousands of news paper and news-agency reports and feature articles in magazines, which are consumed by millions of readers in many countries. In 2007 a total of 1,257 newspaper and magazine publications and news agencies in 64 countries covered the sport race by race, and many more media outlets covered it but did not their own representatives attending the races.

The numerous Formula 1 books published each year in many languages are further testimony to the enormous international appetite for the sport. Adding to the proliferation of Formula 1 related words and pictures is the internet, where the profusion of official and unofficial websites continues apace. A surprisingly small number of journalists provide this media output on 17 races a year. The media circus that follows the sport is divided into two sections – electronic and print. Electronic is effectively television and radio, while print covers magazines and newspapers.

Last year 228 journalists and photographers attended every race and had permanent accreditation. Temporary race by race accreditation was issued to as many as who attend races held in their own country or random events. There are probably 400 print journalists and photographers at every race.

The electronic media contingent is even larger. Three hundred people work for individual TV networks contracted to cover the full season, and 350 people work for Formula 1 Management Television (F1 TV), which records the race entirely separately for digital transmission. The digital and analog teams work alongside each other and effectively duplicate the broadcast. In total there are about 1000 electronic media people at every race.  In the broadcast system, the host broadcaster is responsible for terrestrial/analog coverage at each race and for supplying free to every other contract holder, so ITV provides facilities at Silverstone for the British Grand Prix on behalf of some 195 broadcasters; RTL does the same at German races, and TF1 in France. The digital service which is seen by French, German, Spanish and Italian audiences and anyone else who can afford the receiving equipment, is filmed entirely separately and also provides the internal TV service at races and the statistical service alongside it.

The media facilities at the circuits are highly sophisticated. The TV commentary booths have a commanding position, usually opposite the pitlane and overlooking the start/finish straight. The media center, or pressroom, is usually located above the team garages on the pitlane. The standard of facilities to be provided at circuits is a joint effort between the individual race organizers, the FIA and the FOM. They are without question the best facilities provided to journalists in any sport.

The media center has seats, desks and telephones for up to 600 print, photographic and TV journalists. They watch 150 TV monitors with up to 5 channels, which record every minute of a Grand Prix weekend together with every statistic.

Photographers have separate quarters, complete with darkroom and film developing and transmission facilities – and even camera repair services.

The media center is run at each race by the host country’s media relations staff. The amount of information its staff, the FIA, the teams and the FOM throw at journalists is extraordinary. First comes a comprehensive press pack from the race organizers; then a series of live press conferences on Thursday and Friday of the race with six team principals and drivers appearing in each by rotation, so that over 3 races journalists have a chance to question every driver and team owner. On Saturday and Sunday, the top 3 drivers in qualifying and race appear in person right afterwards in separate conferences for electronic and print media.

Then the FIA, FOM and the eleven competing teams throw press releases at journalists by the bucketful. A host of PR people are creating and distributing a wide variety of news releases, supplemented at many race by material from the organizers, who provide a detailed synopsis of lap-by-lap action after each on-track session. Each team makes about 500 copies of every press release for distribution on site, and also emails the releases to hundreds of media outlets around the world. All this information is also hosted on the official websites of the teams and sponsors.

The FIA information is supplied in English, French, German, Italian, and Spanish and, if required, in the language of the country hosting the race. Throughout the weekend the FIA also issues bulletins from the race stewards, which by Sunday night can number over 50 different documents. Also, after each practice, qualifying and warm-up session, and during and after the race, an astonishingly comprehensive selection of timing and results information is made available on sheets of paper. These are provided by the Tag Heuer and Siemens-sponsored FOM timing service.

Moments after the chequered flag has been waved to end the race, the mass of mathematical detail accumulated in the timing and results sheets makes it possible to keep track of every single car, on every lap, to the 1000th  of a second.

In addition to all that, each team will hold atleast one press conference of its own over the weekend in its garage or motorhome. Each team principal and driver will do atleast half a dozen separate one-to-one interviews and then some group interviews. Most teams hold several press conferences and schedule numerous photo opportunities; they also entertain, and wine and dine, favored media representatives.

Lazy journalists do very well in Formula 1 because their work is made easy. Industrious ones become very rich. And nowadays there is no need to attend races. Armed with the digital TV service at a cost of less than 1000 pounds a year, the internet journalists at home have as much access as journalists on the spot do.

The FIA provides full transcripts of press conferences to the media on site, and the information is also distributed electronically to the world at large via the FIA’s official website. Supplementing, and in volume far exceeding the FIA–originated media material, is that provided by the teams and their sponsors.

The journalists are cited in several big rooms with bench desks. Almost everyone comes armed with a laptop and a modem. Some even carry portable printers and faxes. Others have portable radio transmission sets for broadcasting radio commentary live.

Journalists and commentators also follow the live on-track action visually by means of a host of timing monitors and TV screens located in the media center and commentary booths. Grouped in batteries of 4 or 5 screens, the data shown includes the position and lap times of each car, the gaps between cars, their average speeds, written notification of spins and other track-side incidents, and so on. The TV screens show the action, with close ups and replays, from several perspectives – on the pit wall, along the pitlane, and in the garages, as well on the track.

The service is wonderful and mind-blowing and undoubtedly encouraged mediocrity in reporting skills, especially in the print segment. Journalists may have a comprehensive overview of the proceedings, but greater effort is required to get the insight necessary to make sense of it all, and to be able to make informed judgement and comment. This is best achieved by interviewing key team personnel and drivers – ideally in one-on-one sessions; or, failing that, in the informal media scrums held after each track session.

Useful information is to be found by searching for scoops in the paddock, consulting privately with informants, comparing notes, and gossiping with colleagues – whatever it takes to get the inside story. Ofcourse, the ideal way to capture the complete Formula 1 experiences is to go out on the track and watch the heroic men in the marvelous machines in action, though the vast majority of the journalists never do this. Few venture outside the paddock into the public areas.

There is a downside of a gathering of 600 journalists in one room. The rumour machine is in full swing throughout each race weekend but very little gets into print. Seventy Five percent of rumours are just that; 10 % are true; and another 15% are outright rubbish put about by the small number of conspiracy-theory journalists who abound in every magazine and newspaper.

But generally the media representatives are some of the most avid Formula 1 fans in the world, and during the race the bedlam in the media center can seem as wild as the mayhem of the Ferrari-mad Tifosi at Monza.

The din hardly stops with the chequered flag, as the business of meeting deadlines is conducted at top speed. People scream frantically into telephones, they yell (and curse at delays) across the room to each other in a babble of languages, they dash out for breathless quotes from drivers, and they try to unscramble the plethora of information in the press releases, they pound away at their laptops, they scramble for the fax machines, and generally fight to be the first to get the news out to the waiting world.

And on Sunday night, long after the drivers have jetted home, and the teams have packed up their transporters and headed back to base, in the midst of the deserted and darkened circuit, now covered knee-deep debris left by the departed throngs of the spectators, the lights still burn brightly in the media center. Finally, well after midnight the last people to leave the Grand Prix site are invariably the exhausted members of the media.

They are the core professionals who are sending words to newsrooms all over the world for midnight deadlines so that millions of readers can avidly read about what they have already seen on the Television. Meanwhile the photographers are increasingly transmitting digital images home over the internet.

The top journalists in the media room typically earn 125,000 pounds, their regular activities supplemented by PR work for drivers, teams and sponsors. Against that, the traveling and expenses of attending all the years’ races is probably in the region of 25,000 pounds.

Photography is even more lucrative. There are two top photographers who earn more than $ 1 million a year and the heads of the major photographic agencies are all millionaires. The TV commentators can earn even more. Murray Walker was reputed to be the highest earner in the media. He has become a rich man from his years in Formula 1. His annual salary from ITV was rumored to be 250,000 pounds plus and he earned atleast 500,000 pounds a year doing books, videos and other work. His autobiography has netted him1.25 million pounds advance. No one would begrudge him any of it, and he is a shinning beacon of what a Formula 1 journalist should be.

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