“We’d better just grit our teeth and accept the fact that we’re going to have to pay to view the sport we love”
Shock, horror! I was lying in bed, listening to the news and looking forward to watching free practice for the Hungarian GP, when I heard that Sky Sports will now be showing all Formula 1 races from 2012 to 2018, as well as the practice sessions and qualifying. BBC TV will be showing half the races, including the Monaco Grand Prix, the British Grand Prix and the last event of the season, plus extended highlights.
Bloody hell! That woke me up, I can tell you. It’s a major happening for petrolheads like you and I, because watching F1 on the box is a must. We’re surely all delighted with the BBC’s superb coverage, so how could such a thing happen? Well, as the saying goes, “Follow the money. Always follow the money.” And that’s what it’s all about. Acting for the commercial rights holder, CVC, Bernie Ecclestone’s mission in life is to maximise the income from every aspect of Formula 1 – and TV rights are just about the biggest source of money available. At the same time as the BBC, strapped for money due to cutbacks, is vigorously looking for rapid and deep economies, Sky, who certainly aren’t
“Sky have the desire and the ability, they’ve got the money, the resources and the experience. But that’s not the point”
short of the readies, have seen an opportunity to increase their audience by ousting the current holder for the sport which, next to the Olympic Games and the World Cup, has the biggest TV audience of all. Job done. Bernie’s achieved his objective, CVC are happy and so are Sky – as they should be after such a brilliant coup.
But what about us? Not just in the UK but in all the other English-speaking countries that receive the BBC’s commentary. And what about the teams and their sponsors, for whom freeto-air coverage to maximise the audience has always been said to be essential? Good thing or bad thing? Well, Sky say they’re going to produce the best coverage ever. They’ve done very well with football, cricket and rugby, so why shouldn’t they do just as well with F1? They’ve got the desire and ability, they’ve got the money, they’ve got the resources and they’ve got the experience. But that isn’t the point. As I see it, the deeply disturbing thing is that many enthusiastic viewers who want to watch all the races live – plus millions of others, who aren’t necessarily F1 fanatics but who love watching it on the box – are going to be denied the opportunity to do so because they can’t afford to pay the £400 or so a year that Sky will presumably require.
The outraged public response to the announcement illustrates my point. When ITV got the rights from the BBC in 1995, Bernie said to me: “I’m not just doing it for the money. They’re going to do a much better job.” And to be fair, they did. Having spent a mint on obtaining the rights, ITV spent another mint on giving F1 much more programme time and much better in-depth coverage from many more good people with much better facilities, including a fabulously impressive and expensive mobile studio that went to all the European races. The viewers benefited enormously, except for the hated commercial breaks, which Sky claim they won’t burden us with.
But will Sky really be able to match – let alone improve – on the superb coverage we currently receive from the BBC’s Jake Humphrey, Martin Brundle, David Coulthard, Eddie Jordan, Lee McKenzie and Ted Kravitz, plus all their behind-the-camera colleagues who present F1 so informatively and entertainingly? I hope so for all our sakes but even if they do, it will be for a very much smaller audience. Sadly, the massive
32 F1 Racing September 2011 Forthright chatter from the legend of F1
“I see no advantage to us, the viewers, from what has happened. Those who can afford to pay Sky as well as the BBC licence are going to be alright, but so many of us are not. A lot of F1 fans are going to suffer”
costs involved in producing high-quality programming such as Formula 1 are increasingly unaffordable to terrestrial broadcasters with the result that, from the 2012 Australian Grand Prix, which is only six months away, we will have to decide whether we are prepared to pay a great deal more to be able to watch all the races live.
I fear, although I sincerely hope I’m wrong, the fact that the BBC will be covering only half of the races live, and that they will be spending a lot less money on doing so, means their coverage will not be as good as it is now. For instance,
which of next year’s ten races that they are going to be covering live will they choose to show? Just the lower-cost European ones? And will the BBC’s stars stay with the Corporation to help present half the races or will they, if their contracts permit, accept a more lucrative offer from Sky to do them all? It’s a no-brainer, isn’t it? When the BBC lost the rights to cover F1 in 1995 I was lucky enough to have ITV contacting me the very next day and I’d be very surprised if Sky haven’t already approached the BBC’s top people about moving over.
“Can Sky match the superb coverage we get from the BBC’s Jake Humphrey, Martin Brundle, David Coulthard and Eddie Jordan?”
Rather gloomily, I fear that television’s audience for Formula 1 is probably going to drop dramatically and there is a possibility, even though it has signed up until 2018, that the BBC could eventually lose heart altogether and abandon the sport to Sky’s advantage – if not to ours. However, what we have to accept is that the whole media scene is changing at a dizzying rate. The BBC isn’t going to get any richer and it has to make some agonising decisions about where its money-allocation priorities lie. Expensive programming such as Formula 1 has to be paid for, and free-to-air sports programmes could eventually become a thing of the past. So we’d better just grit our teeth and accept the fact that we’re going to have to pay to view the sport we love.
Bernie seems to have managed to calm the teams’ major worry – namely that they will suffer a dramatic loss of income as a result of the change. But currently, I see no advantage to us, the viewers, from what has happened. Those of us who can afford to pay for Sky as well as the BBC licence fee are going to be alright, but so many of us are not. And that’s more than a pity. But is there anything we can do about it? Unfortunately, not really. The die has been cast and, this time, a lot of Formula 1 fans are going to suffer.
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