© accioloki

Operation: “Watch F1 In 2012”.

At the end of July it was announced that, from 2012, live coverage of Formula One in the UK would be shared between the BBC and Sky Sports. You’re probably aware of that by now.

I do not have a great deal of money. Currently we have a basic Sky subscription - essentially, most channels except the Sky Movies and Sky Sports packs - at a slightly discounted rate, after having called Sky and wheedled a bit about being poor. We pay £23 per month for this subscription, rising to £24.50 per month when the discount period finishes. For the Sky Sports Pack, consisting of five standard definition Sky Sports channels, we would have to pay £20 extra a month. Here’s the maths bit - that’s £240 per year on top of the current subscription.

This prohibitive cost means that watching F1 on Sky Sports in 2012 is absolutely not an option for me, unless I traverse Hampshire to watch each Sky race at my grandparents’ house. I don’t think turning up on their doorstep at five in the morning for the Korean Grand Prix would be very endearing.

So, what are the other options? Illegal streaming? Not reliable enough, in my American motorsports-watching experience. Watch the races in a pub? That would mean being sociable, not to mention the problem presented by the flyaway races. Watch the BBC’s highlights several hours after each race? No no no no no no no no with knobs on. Buy a second satellite dish, point it at Astra 19.2°E and receive European channels that show F1 for free? Well, now…

After wallowing in annoyance for a while - and a certain Mr. Collantine mentioned F1 being free-to-air (FTA) in Germany - I plundered the Digital Spy forums and came across this post. It sounded easy enough; buying a cheap satellite kit, sticking it all together and pointing it in the right direction. As a popular UK motoring show often says, How Hard Could It Be?

There are a few satellite kits around, some just rebadged versions of others, and reviews can be quite mixed. The poster on Digital Spy seemed pretty happy with his, and it has the bonus of two USB ports for recording to an external hard drive, so I plumped for the same model - a secondhand Ross HD Satellite Kit.

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Once it arrived I bolted the dish together according to the instructions…and ran into the first problem. The instructions ask that the top of the mast is horizontal - fair enough, it’s harder to align the dish properly otherwise - but the supports provided with the kit made it impossible. A Bit Of Wood was acquired, screwed to the supports and all was well.

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It must be said that patience is a must when setting up a satellite dish, especially if you don’t have a satellite finder. Even more especially if, instead of a satellite finder, you’re using a compass from a Christmas cracker that refuses to work properly. There are three elements to aligning it - the elevation (the vertical angle), the azimuth (the horizontal angle) and the skew (rotation of the LNB, the thing at the end of the arm on a satellite dish). The elevation bracket in our kit has markings on it to roughly set the elevation, and the azimuth is the main thing that gets adjusted. Patience is an absolute must.

The intention was to use the floor mount configuration to fix the dish to the decking in the back garden. According to the ever helpful Dishpointer website, the dish needed to be pointing towards the back of our south east-facing house. The 10m coaxial cable provided in the kit wasn’t long enough to connect to the main TV, so the portable set that hadn’t seen use in years was dusted off and set down in the garden. After ten minutes or so of initial fiddling, we had no luck, the picture quality meter stubbornly remaining at 0% for every satellite listed on the receiver’s menu. Perhaps, we thought, the signal was being blocked by the roof of the house. We put the dish on a small table and tried again. Still nothing. Then we tried it on an upturned plastic bin, taller than the table. Still nothing. 0%.

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Perhaps the equipment was faulty. Carting everything back inside - but for the dish which was left to sit and think about what it had done - I connected the coaxial cable from the back of the Sky unit into the HD receiver. Success! 63% picture quality! Must have been the dish that was faulty. Yes. To prove it, I carried the dish through the house into the front garden and set it, in the spirit of that Digital Spy forum poster, on the wheelie bin. An extended period of fiddling and adjustment followed. Eventually, after many minutes of dish nudging, the picture quality shot up to 54%. Adjusting the skew a little brought the quality up even more. Actually quite giddy by that point, I adjusted the skew further…and the picture quality dropped to 0%. Nothing I did for the following half an hour would bring it back up. Despair.

But the equipment wasn’t faulty and the signal was there somewhere, so, instilled with a new stubborn determination, another half an hour later and a signal of some kind returned. The receiver claimed it was from “Chinasat 6B”, which is interesting, given that my dish isn’t pointed the right way for it and isn’t big enough to pick up anything from said satellite. Performing a scan brought a few channels, notably the French stations Canal+ and Canal+ Sport, and something quite unnerving called Supreme Master TV, a spiritual channel so keen to get its point across it has subtitles for twenty languages covering most of the screen. Interesting, but not what I was after…

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After becoming rather hypnotised by Supreme Master TV, I returned to the installation menu to find, without having touched the dish, picture quality for the satellites at 19.2°E was back up to over 60%. Not wanting to tempt fate a second time by adjusting it further, I performed another scan and at last, all the expected channels were found. 787 of them, in fact, not counting the radio stations. This would eventually be pared down quite drastically to just under 300, after deleting the duplicate channels, blank channels and channels intended for interactive pay TV.

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For one final test, we rigged the dish up on the wheelie bin (and several Bits of Wood) in the back garden, about where we intended to fix it permanently and dish-nudged with great patience until a successful scan could be performed. Woo!

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It had been decided that the supplied floor mount was inadequate - the dish would be too close to the ground and thus too easy to knock out of alignment by cats/dogs/idiots - so we scoured DIY stores for a pole and something to fix it to the decking with. The pole was easy enough to come by in the shape of an aerial mast, but the fixing - something like a “top hat fixing” but bigger, I’m told - was impossible to find. We were told by the helpful man at TLC that what we were after didn’t exist to his knowledge. So now what?

Fortunately, the aforementioned grandparents still had bits and pieces from their old pre-minidish Sky setup, including the pole. It was just the right height but about half an inch thicker than necessary, so attaching the dish was tricky but not impossible. Any thicker and it wouldn’t have fitted. Fixing it to the decking was a total bodge job using assorted screws and washer substitutes from the bottom of the toolkit.

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Some days later, after pleading and promising cider as payment, a family friend with miles of coaxial cable, a satellite finder and significantly more know-how than us popped around to finish the job and align the dish, getting the best picture quality yet of 69%. That might not sound very good, but it’s better quality than our Sky setup! As long as the quality is over 50%, the picture is clear, so 69% is more than adequate.

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The whole process took just over a month from start to finish, but we were very disorganised and trying to do it for as little money as possible. It’s probably achievable over a weekend, or even a day. The total cost was around £70, £50 of that being for the satellite kit. It would have been about £90 more had we had a professional install the whole thing. The point is, with the services of RTL in Germany and TV3 in Spain, it is very much possible to watch Formula 1 for free next year. You just have to put some effort into it.

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(EDIT: A helpful soul in the comments has reminded me that SPORT1, also free-to-air at 19.2°E, broadcasts FP1 and 2 instead of RTL. I may also be incorrect about TV3 - or rather, the version of TV3 that I receive, TV3 Catalunya - broadcasting F1. I’ll check this weekend and amend if necessary.)

(SON OF EDIT: TV3 Catalunya does NOT broadcast F1, sorry for any confusion. I watched the Singapore GP weekend through SPORT1 and RTL; here’s a follow-up post about it.)

(SON OF EDIT 2: THE REVENGE: Unfortunately, SPORT1 have recently announced that they will no longer be broadcasting FP1 and 2. As of the 10th of March, no other FTA channels available at 19.2°E have picked them up in SPORT1’s absence.)

(SON OF EDIT 3: ELECTRIC BOOGALOO: Hooray! Picking up where SPORT1 inexplicably left off, FTA news channel n-tv will be broadcasting FP1 and 2 live as of the 20th of April, with commentary featuring DAS BEARDKING Nick Heidfeld. There’s no mention of ad breaks, but I wouldn’t expect the sessions to be ad free. The Google-translated announcement is here.)

(SON OF EDIT 4: EDIT HARDER: New for 2013, SPORT1 have once again picked up the exclusive rights to show FP1 and 2, this time until 2015. Why did you drop it in the first place then ffs The Google-translated announcement is here.)

(SON OF EDIT 5: THE EDIT OF REASON: HELLO MOTOGP FANS. All the above is valid for those of you wanting to watch MotoGP for [effectively] nothing next year and possibly beyond. SPORT1 is the channel you’ll be wanting. Also I should note that the sister channel SPORT1+ is not available free-to-air. If German isn’t your bag, you can pick up MotoGP on Italia 1 & 2 at 13.0°E.)

This post was powered by:
- Lyngsat, Dishpointer, Wikipedia, RTL, TV3, ServusTV, cider and “Roy-o-Roy”, dish-nudging, the wholesome, cleansing, not-sinister-at-all power of Supreme Master TV, and adverts for things with names like “Knobi-Vital”.

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  6. kobayboshi said: *snortles* Well, it’s good to know it’s doable! I think my landlord or council would take a rather dim view of me bolting a dish onto the lamp post outside my window though. *sigh* I’ll explore the options ..
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