After a rough start to their Formula 1 coverage last year, ESPN and ABC switched to a commercial-free broadcast setup (while still simulcasting Sky Sports’ coverage) and received both plenty of praise and good ratings, up year over year from the old broadcasts on NBCSN and NBC. We already knew that ESPN’s commercial-free approach will continue this year, and they’ve now released further details of their broadcast plans, including two new Sky shows that will air on ESPN’s digital platforms:
ESPN is again teaming with Sky Sports and Formula 1 to bring Sky Sports’ award-winning presentation of Formula 1 racing to American viewers. New this season will be Sky’s Welcome to the Weekend program, which will air on Thursdays of race weekends on ESPN3. The half-hour show previews the race with driver interviews as well as commentary and analysis from the Sky team. The Australia edition will expand to an hour and will air at 3 a.m. ET on Thursday, March 14, with replays available on the ESPN App.
Also part of ESPN’s expanded F1 coverage this year will be Sky’s Pit Lane Live, a one-hour program airing on race day. Pit Lane Live features the Sky F1 commentators discussing the upcoming race and all the latest news from the paddock, with the show also including feature stories. Pit Lane Live from Australia will air at 11:30 p.m. on Saturday, March 16, on ESPN3, also streaming on the ESPN App.
The Sky Sports team has been bolstered for 2019 with the addition of former world champion Jenson Button, joining fellow former champions Damon Hill and Nico Rosberg as Sky commentators. David Croft returns in the lead announcer position for the race telecasts.
It seems logical for ESPN to add more shoulder programming for F1 fans, especially as they already have an arrangement with Sky for these races. And the plan to distribute these programs digitally means they’re not taking away space on ESPN’s linear channels. It is somewhat surprising that this is going to ESPN3, which is free to stream with an authenticated cable subscription, rather than the separately-charged ESPN+, as most recently-announced sport-specific shoulder programming has been destined for ESPN+ to try and get people to subscribe to that as well. But perhaps F1 wanted these programs in wider distribution, or perhaps ESPN felt they could show these on ESPN3 to try and build up the audience for the races on their linear channels.
ESPN’s F1 programming will begin this week with coverage of the Australian Grand Prix, with the F1 Season Launch on ESPN3 at 2:10 a.m. Eastern Wednesday. That will be followed by Welcome To the Weekend at 3 a.m. Eastern Thursday and by the first practice at 8:55 p.m. Eastern that day, with both of those also on ESPN3. ESPNEWS will carry practice sessions 2 and 3 (12:55 a.m. and 10:55 p.m. Eastern Friday), and ESPN2 will carry qualifying Saturday (live at 1:55 a.m. Eastern, replayed at 7 a.m. Eastern) before ESPN3’s Pit Lane Live at 11:30 p.m. Eastern. The pre-race coverage then starts on ESPN with On The Grid Sunday at 12:30 a.m. Eastern, with the race itself starting at 1:05 a.m. Eastern. The race will also be re-aired twice Sunday, at 6:30 a.m. Eastern on ESPN2 and at 9 p.m. Eastern on ESPNEWS. We’ll see how ESPN’s F1 ratings do this year, and if they can build on the success they found with this coverage last year.