Until stage 14 of the 2023 Tour de France it was possible for Australians to watch the GCN+ coverage of the race. This option is no longer available without a VPN as broadcasts of the TDF in Australia by any outlet other than SBS have now been geo-blocked.
Comment by Rob Arnold
SBS has been the official broadcaster of the Tour de France in Australia since the early 1990s. The network has introduced many to cycling and the TDF has had a significant role in luring viewers to a sport that had received little airtime in the Australian mainstream media before SBS got involved.
In recent years there has been a considered change to the format of the Tour broadcast, with long-term commentators replaced with new faces as part of a strategic approach taken by SBS.
“We are in the process of looking at ways to change up’ our TDF coverage,” SBS’s Head of Sport, Ken Shipp, told RIDE Media in February 2020. “We are also starting to look at the future strategy for SBS Sport in the longer term.”
Those comments came a year and a half before it was announced that Mike Tomalaris – who celebrated 25 years as host of SBS’s TDF coverage in 2020 – would no longer be part of the network. This effectively marked the beginning of sweeping changes that would eventually also mean Robbie McEwen’s commentary contract with SBS would not be renewed in 2021.
Management was looking to diversify the commentary team as part of the strategic review. “We are looking to increase younger audiences in general,” Shipp explained three years ago.
By the time of the Tour de France of 2021 (when the commentary team was still based in Australia because of the impact of the pandemic), the changes had been formalised and SBS announced that its Tour team would include Matt Keenan, Bridie O’Donnell, and Gracie Elvin.
Geo-blocking comes into play…
“Australia’s home of cycling, SBS, will capture all the action and provide exclusive and extensive coverage of the Tour de France and Tour de France Femmes avec Zwift,” says a media release issued on 6 June 2023 about the upcoming broadcasts of racing in France this July.
The public broadcaster has secured the rights to show the Tour de France exclusively in Australia through to 2030. Still, during the opening fortnight of the 2023 TDF it was possible to watch the livestreaming on other networks, including GCN+ (which works in collaboration with Eurosport).
After stage 13, however, the GCN+ option became geo-blocked meaning it could not be viewed in Australia without use of a VPN.
It is logical that SBS would want to protect its considerable investment in a broadcast that has helped shape the network into what it proudly calls ‘The Home Of Cycling’.
The Tour de France is a valuable asset for SBS and coverage of the race has traditionally rated well even though the live broadcast times provide challenges for viewers who need to sit up until the early hours of the morning to see the racing action unfold.
With the addition of the Tour de France Femmes avec Zwift (which GCN+ currently still lists as being available for Australian viewers) and many other bike races SBS has a large portfolio of cycling events that should endear it with fans of the sport. Yet, despite the considerable investments made to procure the rights and manage the broadcast from France, it is very difficult to source any information about the ratings of these programs on SBS TV and/or the ‘On Demand’ service.
Since the end of the Tours de France of 2022 (men’s and women’s races), I have attempted numerous times to get an overview of how the coverage rated on SBS but every one of my numerous requests has been ignored.
There was a time when SBS shared ratings information and audience analytics with RIDE Media, so I was hopeful of receiving a summary about how the fantastic showcase of the inaugural women’s race in 2022 impacted the viewing numbers. In 2023, however, the network is particularly coy about sharing details about the audience. Why?
‘Home of Cycling’
“SBS is proud to be Australia’s unrivalled home of cycling,” says Shipp in a release issued at the beginning of June 2023, “headlined by our exclusive coverage of the Tour de France – one of the biggest sporting events in the world.
“Our team will be the forefront of all the action and astonishing sporting moments that the Tour de France and Tour de France Femmes avec Zwift deliver.
“SBS is incredibly excited to continue to deliver world-class coverage with expert commentary to Australian audiences, providing exclusive access to the stars of world cycling and spotlighting our Australian contenders.”
And yet, for almost two weeks the geo-blocking that had been in place during last year’s Tour was left unchecked. For 13 stages, Australians could view the GCN+ coverage via a pay-to-view streaming service. There was the opportunity for Australian cycling fans to see how others manage the broadcast of Le Tour.
On Friday 15 June the GCN+ feed was no longer on offer in Australian (unless you use a VPN).
‘The Breakaway’, hosted by Orla Chennaoui, is a preview show on GCN+ / Eurosport that provides insights and analysis by a team of cycling commentators including former riders Robbie McEwen, Adam Blythe and Dan Lloyd. It’s a popular program that offers details about racing, professionally presented with impressive graphics and information that add to the viewing experience.
During the period before geo-blocking was activated, Australians could choose to pay for this additional coverage.
GCN+ isn’t the only streaming service that provides coverage of the Tour (and other cycling events) but it has become a go-to option for many who want to see more of the racing and hear commentary by respected journalists and ex-riders alike.
When it became apparent that geo-blocking had been activated there was a wave of commentary on social media, with many chiming in to say that they have opted to also pay for a VPN, enabling them to see the shows they want to watch.
Subscriptions to streaming services are nothing new; they have become a popular means for people to pay to watch programs they want to see, but GCN+ clearly states that some events will not be available in certain regions because of a conflict of broadcast rights.
In recent days the feedback from Australians who enjoy watching the Tour suggests that many are willing to pay to watch something they can also source for free, only that the free-to-air offering comes with a different commentary team and other inclusions such as SBS’s Bonjour Le Tour and Plat du Tour with Guillaume Brahimi.
Some viewers praise these additional offerings from the Australian broadcast rights holders of the Tour de France, others dismiss them as little more than interruptions to the racing coverage they would rather see.
For many years the public broadcaster enjoyed strong ratings, particularly given the late timeslot that the race has when shown live in Australia but, in 2023, the hesitation from the PR people at SBS to provide any data would suggest that things haven’t quite gone according to plan.
As RIDE Media is the publisher of the Official Tour de France Guide (Australian edition, which also features a preview to the Tour de France Femmes avec Zwift), it seems logical to report on the innovations and changes to how the races are broadcast in Australia. Again, despite numerous attempts since the end of the 2022 races, there has been never been a response from SBS to questions about ratings.
SBS’s investment into cycling has helped elevate the sport in Australia but there is overwhelming sentiment that suggests that the changes to the broadcasting – with different presenters and revised formats – are not popular with the viewing public.
Derision of other cycling programming
In 2022, the Amaury Sport Organisation (ASO) began a collaboration with Netflix to produce a series of programs about the Tour de France. Released a few weeks in advance of the 2023 TDF, ‘Unchained’ provided insights into the machinations of the race, the teams and riders, and some background stories that helped highlight much of what makes this event so unique.
Considering the impact that a similar series about the F1 circuit, ‘Drive To Survive’, has had on growing the audience for motor racing coverage, the Netflix collaboration has huge potential to attract new viewers to the Tour de France. Unchained is a fine showcase of a fantastic edition of the race in 2022 and it provides a fascintating perspective that helps explain the complexities of the event.
With this in mind it’s interesting to note the various responses to the Unchained series that appear on SBS Sport’s social media feed and online commentary, none of which are complimentary. This highlights the disregard the network has for programming by other outlets and raises the question: why be so dismissive of something that has huge potential to grow the broadcaster’s audience?
Unfortunately, this is indicative of how SBS often responds to what could be collaborative arrangements. There is a resistance to take constructive criticism and work with the feedback offered, with the producers preferring to denigrate other programming and plough on with their own approach irrespective of the opinion of many viewers.
* * * * *
For all the good SBS has done for cycling in Australia, the current mood of the audience seems to be more of discontent than satisfaction.
A fantastic race is unfolding and there are still six stages remaining in the 2023 Tour de France. Australians have had a chance to see how other broadcasters manage the production but, as of last Friday, this option has been revoked by geo-blocking.
Other sporting assets that are heavily protected by broadcast rights have multiple viewing options: free-to-air, pay TV, online streaming, etc. This creates confusion when it comes to who can watch what where and when… and it’s logical that those paying for the rights protect their assets. Still, is it appropriate for a public broadcaster to ignore comments by viewers while also limiting the scope for expanding its audience by having a more collaborative approach?
Events like the Tour de France, which includes many hours of coverage and – as of last year – spans the entire month of July (with two races and greater inclusion than ever before) are always difficult to manage. Some will be pleased with the offerings from SBS, others will wish they had the option to select another channel.
Those who watch the TDF in its entirety want good commentary that complements the images on the screen and the bravado of the riders. It’s not possible to satisfy all viewers but surely there must come a time when public opinion matters and a public broadcaster like SBS considers its audience and responds to feedback. Based on recent experience, this is unlikely to happen any time soon… and that seems a great shame, especially when the racing is as captivating as it has been this month.
– By Rob Arnold