Why the BBC/Sky deal is bad for F1

By on Friday, July 29, 2011

So, it’s finally happened. After various stories for months, Formula One coverage in the United Kingdom is going behind a paywall and will be available on Sky between 2012 and 2018. Sure, you can still watch half of the races on the BBC, but that is a compromise that many fans are unhappy with. 20 races, not 10, make up a World Championship and you don’t watch half of a football match or 2 sets of a tennis match, do you?

Barbara Slater, director of BBC Sport, says: "We are absolutely delighted that F1 will remain on the BBC.”However, obviously not delighted enough to keep all 20 races.

"The sport has never been more popular with TV audiences at a 10-year high and the BBC has always stated its commitment to the big national sporting moments. With this new deal not only have we delivered significant savings but we have also ensured that through our live and extended highlights coverage all the action continues to be available to licence-fee payers."

Her comments are full of hypocrisy. If F1 is so popular, then why cut it? And if the BBC is so concerned about significant savings, then are they really cutting the right programmes? They’ve recently announced than an X-Factor style talent show will be launched to rival ITV, costing in the region of £20m. The move to Salford is thought to be costing in excess of hundreds of millions and has caused unrest amongst several members on long running TV programmes, such as the popular Breakfast. BBC Three, which appears to broadcast endless repeats of sitcoms, costs £117m a year. Therefore, if cost is such an issue, then you can quite easily cut BBC Three’s budget to retain full coverage of Formula One. The BBC pays in the region of £40-45m a season for the Formula One coverage. For this, they broadcast 38 live sessions on BBC One, a further 57 practice sessions on the red button and highlights after every race. That is a lot of coverage for the price, especially as the viewing figures are so high this season. Therefore at an average of £1m/programme, viewing figures of approximately 5 million are strong.

Eight F1 teams are based in the UK

The hypocrisy of some teams is also staggering to fans. Previously, FOTA has been against F1 going behind a pay wall. It’s logical to see why. Eight of the twelve teams are based in the United Kingdom: McLaren, Red Bull, Mercedes, Renault, Williams, Virgin Racing, Team Lotus and Force India. They have to keep sponsors happy. For example, Vodafone is one of the most prominent sponsors in Formula One, having been with Ferrari and then McLaren since the turn of the century. Will they be prepared to stump up so much money if only half of the races will be on terrestrial coverage? It’s not just Formula One that becomes affected. People can become motorsport converts, developing an interest in grass roots motorsports and this can boost the industry. Thousands of people are thought to be employed in motorsport in the UK and less interest will result in job losses. It may sound like an extreme theory, but if there’s reduced coverage on the BBC, then interest will surely dwindle. But now, fans need the teams to speak out against this. But on the evidence so far, that isn’t going to be the case. Adam Parr (Williams) has said that "I am sympathetic to them. I understand it is difficult - but English Premier League fans have had that for a while haven't they? It is not a bloke or two blokes with a tennis racket and a pair of plimsolls with zero cost. It is a very, very expensive sport. The best thing we can do for fans, whether they want to come to the races or want to watch it on TV, is to reduce the cost of the sport without spoiling the show." Parr is obviously ill-informed as to the cost of the Tennis industry. Bernie Ecclestone has also changed his tone. In May he said that F1 on Sky would be ‘suicide’, yet now it is ‘super for F1’.

Then there is the issue of cost and Sky themselves. Murray Walker has picked up this point, saying he is ‘dismayed’ that some people may not be able to afford it. Many people simply will not be able to pay for Sky TV. It’s a simple, undeniable fact. Sky is expensive (thought to be around £30 for a race) and whilst their coverage of sports has taken football to a new level, many people cannot afford to shell out so much money during a period of economic struggle.  A lot of people also have a moral stance against what many refer to as ‘Murdoch’s evil empire’, with feelings exacerbated after the recent revelations in the phone hacking scandal.

The general consensus therefore is one of disappointment. Sky might produce brilliant coverage, but then again, the BBC already does that at a much cheaper price for viewers. Jake Humphrey won’t front the coverage, whilst Martin Brundle – the voice of F1 for many for the past decade and a half – is out of contract and ‘not impressed’. The BBC commentary duo received praise for their work this year and it’s a crying shame that they will now only be remembered for one season. How must the team feel as well? They’ve won BAFTAs for their work, only to be told by those above them that their work has now been cut in half.

2011 is Brundle's 15th season as a commentator. Is it now his last?

There will be some positive aspects of the deal though. Sky says that adverts will be restricted solely to the pre-race and post-race coverage, meaning that the actual races themselves will be uninterrupted. A minor bonus in that some moments missed by ITV when they cut to adverts – Damon Hill taking the lead in Hungary 1997, Hamilton’s gearbox problems in Brazil 2007 – would not be missed by Sky. However, Sky has confirmed that you can’t just buy the race coverage: you have to buy a monthly package.

It’s a sad day for many F1 viewers and the consensus is that many will not pay for F1 coverage on Sky and simply find means of watching 10 races on the Internet (through widely available streams) and the remaining 10 on the BBC. Remember, it isn’t just the UK that is affected. Many Europeans watch the BBC coverage and have been in praise of it. The BBC commentary duo usually broadcast to 50 million people across the world.

It won’t be the end of Formula One, far from it. But it remains difficult to see how Formula One will ever be as popular as it is today if this deal happens. F1Zone's Twitter has been inundated with fans, all of them angry at what has happened.

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