There are almost twice as many people routinely watching Formula 1 in the U.S. on average in 2021 than in 2018 when ESPN acquired the rights to live races, as The New York Times reports. The third season of Netflix’s Drive To Survive also outperformed the first in viewership — a very rare feat in this era of streaming platforms striking the next big thing and making everyone tired of it almost immediately. But F1's stock keeps rising, which leaves a logical next step for Netflix: Buy the live TV rights.
It could happen, based on comments that the CEO of the streaming service, Reed Hastings, made to German publication Der Spiegel.
The interview appears to be locked behind a paywall, but the gist of it is that Netflix would consider airing F1, the sport, if it was available for the taking today. As it happens, those rights will become available soon, at least in the U.S. ESPN’s current deal with F1 is due to end upon the conclusion of the 2022 season, according to Racer. If F1 owner Liberty Media isn’t automatically looking to re-up with the sports network, that could leave the door open for Netflix to make a play and kick off a little bidding war.
I personally don’t care where I watch F1 — I don’t have access to live TV, so I pay for F1 TV. If I was Netflix, though, I would absolutely do this. Drive To Survive is great, and that new Schumi film seems ... fine, but I wonder how many times Netflix can cash the sports doc check before it loses value. Besides, the natural progression of the budding F1 fan is that they watch those shows and then they tune in to the races.
But the way Hastings discusses Netflix and live sports, it doesn’t seem like airing rights would be enough. Before telling Der Spiegel that he’d be interested in negotiating the commercial rights to F1, he speaks at length about how Netflix only likes to engage in content it can control, content with a known, consistent return on investment. Cushy, padded-walled entertainment, not news and — heaven forbid — not journalism. From Autosport:
Speaking in an exclusive interview with Der Spiegel, Netflix’s CEO Reed Hastings said: “News is by its nature political, and it varies greatly from country to country.
“It is difficult to produce news as a globally operating company without making enemies. It’s much easier for others who only cater to a regional market. Besides, we make entertainment and not journalism, which should have certain standards and follow ethical guidelines. We also keep our hands off live sport.”
Cowering behind the shield of “entertainment” seems like a convenient way to try to absolve yourself of “standards and ethical guidelines,” but sure, Reed, whatever you say. He continues:
“With sports broadcasts we have no control over the source,” he said. “We don’t own the Bundesliga, which can make deals with whomever it wants. But this kind of control would be a prerequisite for us to be able to offer our customers a secure deal.
Hastings is saying in effect that rather than stop at the rights to broadcast races, Netflix would prefer to own F1, which sounds ridiculous until you think about it for 10 seconds and realize that’s entirely possible. Should Drive To Survive continue to rake in eyeballs as it has, don’t be surprised to wake up to that headline in a couple of years. It would be a big change, because F1 traditionally has worked out broadcast rights per region rather than on a global scale, but this is Netflix after all.
Also, Hastings’ comments about entertainment and how lack of control makes live sports less desirable are a little alarming to me. Sure, you can’t direct racing the same way you direct, say, Stranger Things, but that’s also why people enjoy sports. They’re amazing feats of competition that happen in real life. When people say “you couldn’t write this,” the implication there is that if one did write it, nobody would care because it’s easy to make shit up.
Things carry more weight when they happen organically. And I know that bears inherent risk for a company like Netflix, which wants to reliably put on a good show. But if Hastings is more interested in inventing his own version of reality through the creative license of documentaries, maybe it’s best for the sport if Netflix stays out of the live aspect.