What impact will the series have on the event?
The release of “Tour de France: Unchained”, the new documentary series from the streaming giant Netflix, was released in France on June 8, in the middle of the Dauphiné and just before the start of the 2023 Tour de France. If Drive to Survive has drastically refreshed Formula 1, are there lessons to heed? And what can we expect for the Tour de France and for cycling in general where the codes differ from the glamour of the F1 paddocks?
By Fanny Margoux, Senior Account Director – Communications, CSM Sport & Entertainment
To win over new, younger, more diverse and more connected audiences in fast-growing markets, Netflix and its mastery of storytelling is a valuable ally in highlighting sports products that are sometimes complicated to understand, and often the preserve of a public of specialists. With 232.5 million announced subscribers, the platform is obviously a formidable strategic choice.
Netflix documentary series’ all have one thing in common, regardless of the theme addressed: a clearly defined narrative. It is the streaming platform who controls the story and the chronology of events. Above all, this helps orient the points of attention and to establish the nature – even the structure in some cases – of the relations between the stakeholders.
With Drive to Survive, Formula 1 and Liberty Media were able to reach the audience on their terms, in a language they could understand. And whilst the drivers may have spoken out about the overly scripted aspect of the show where, after five seasons, fiction tends to take precedence over accurate narration, the strategy has certainly paid off. The value of the F1 product has never been so strong in terms of brand image and marketing revenue.
The structure of the sport – redundant, opaque, staged, opulent, and with a small number of protagonists – made it a strong – if not easy – platform for playing with narrative arcs and applying the Netflix method.
The Tour de France – open, accessible, popular, unpredictable, and the antithesis to all that F1 represents, should be able to offer narrative arcs that are even richer and more varied. A 2.0 version of a formula that already works.
The other key element to the success of the Netflix sports documentary series relies on the interview as the centerpiece of the narrative and its ability to place the viewer on the same level as their hero.
Tour de France: Unchained will be no exception, and in many ways the shows producers are at an advantage. For, where F1, ATP or the PGA Tour may have felt the need to humanize athletes who have been hitherto inaccessible to the general public, cycling does not lack personalities and will not suffer from the same problem. We can, therefore, expect a real spectrum of characters to appear from across the sport, enabling an uninformed public to get a grip on the action, not dissimilar to a Hollywood blockbuster.
What might that look like? It seems logical to have a strategist as part of the cast; the one who has planned everything in advance. And how about a punchliner? The one who will offer up the right words at the right time to make you smile and provide the shock factor, in French no doubt. Every good story needs a hero and a villain, too, so who would bet against a curated rivalry between a (supposedly) benevolent and a (supposedly) aggressive cyclist. Finally, there is always that one character that those on the inside world will make fun of; the one who makes the viewer pass for an instant specialist. Conflicts within teams and comeback stories should not be ruled out either.
The beauty of cycling is that these unfiltered characters are not overly media trained but with the intelligence to know they need personality to exist and be visible. The ingredients are in place for Netflix to tell a terrific story.
Beyond the cast of the Tour, the heart of the series should surely be the feeling of toughness, tension, apprehension and angst. That is the currency Netflix trades in, and this is no doubt where the viewer will be seduced. The desired brand uplift will likely come when casual viewers see cycle racing for what it is: painful, fear inducing and far from the summer sojourn watched at nap time.
Cycling pundits and fans are unlikely to learn anything from the show, but insiders aren’t the audience the Tour needs to win over. Rejuvenating the brand and opening it up to other markets, notably the American, Chinese and Emirati, is the objective.
In a recent Extraordinary Tales podcast, RedBull Racing F1 Team Principal Christian Horner summed the equation up neatly “Drive to Survive happened during lockdown where people were at home watching content and it stood out from the rest. The impact it had, particularly in the United States and in terms of the demography of Formula 1 fans, bringing in a younger, female-skewed type of fan, helped deliver an audience the sport had never had before.”
The sport is now in a position it has never been in before, with a totally renewed fanbase. Horner would go on to add, “Drive to Survive is a soap opera, like the Kardashians on wheels. It’s behind the scenes content but they’re creating a TV series first and foremost so they’re cutting and presenting it in that sense. It’s an amazing piece of work for Formula 1.”
The “Kardashianization” of sport is a recurring debate in our industry. Reality TV has infiltrated many genres and sports is no exception. Can we be true to a sport’s identity by representing it on such a superificla level? Netflix will answer yes, the purists less so. Unchained is undoubtedly the opportunity to unite the two camps. Unlike driving a race car or chipping from a bunker, the general public knows the difficulty of cycling. Many people cycle every single day. They know how hard it can be and how much it can hurt: legs, buttocks and even pride.
The other challenge is to raise the profile of not just cycling, but the Tour de France itself – amplifying its reach on social networks. F1 had nearly 12 million subscribers across Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Youtube in 2018. It has more than 52 million in 2023. The Tour de France has just over eight million followers on social media. Not a bad number, and a credit to the effective content it has created for the past few seasons. The hope now is that all that effort will be rewarded with the acquisition of an entire new generation of fans in the coming months.
And what about the place for French culture in all this? The Tour de France is also a tour of France and a great tool for promoting tourism. It will be interesting to see which localities feature in the show and the image of France that is projected. Will they opt to focus on the quaint, if rugged, countryside villages of rural France, that are perhaps more emblematic of what the Tour de France symbolises? Or will it centre on those cliched tourist hotspots, playing into the sensibilities of the target audience who are more accustomed to watching Emily in Paris?
Who knows. In five years time, if the show is a success, perhaps “Emily” will be responsible for styling and promoting the yellow, polka dot, green and white jersey. The cycle complete.
This article was first written in French and has been translated. If you’d like to read the original version, you can do so here.