This morning’s announcement by the BBC and BSKYB that they are to share the coverage of Formula 1 in the UK has come as a bolt from the blue to the F1 paddock and to fans of the sport. It is clear that the teams and sponsors have not been consulted and it remains to be seen how they will react when they learn the details of how this arrangement will work. And it could start a trend across the international broadcast landscape of F1.
The teams are likely to resist any deal which reduces the audience number. Whereas the BBC currently enjoys audiences of around 6-7 million per race the SKY audiences for Premier League football suggest that they might get an F1 audience of around 1-2 million on their pay sports channel, far less when the race is also on BBC at the same time.
Until recently it had appeared that the BBC was likely to drop the expensive contract it signed in 2008 as the BBC Trust looked to make significant savings. The word in the TV sports industry was that Channel 4 was a possible destination.
But with ITV not in the running and no other competitive free to air offer on the table, F1’s commercial supremo Bernie Ecclestone clearly wasn’t satisfied with the money on offer from Channel 4 and has struck a bold deal, which doesn’t completely go against his and the team’s stated credo that F1 should stay on Free to Air TV, but which offers a rather awkward compromise for fans and sponsors, whereby half the races stay on BBC with the mass audience, while the whole season will be covered in great depth and with significant resources thrown at it by Sky Sports.
Although half the races are free to air, this will still require the dedicated fan to get a Sky dish or sign on to a Sky package on at around £40 per month on BT Vision, Freeview or Virgin Media.
But the economics of the situation mean that as fans will get 10 of the 20 races for free on the BBC, they will still have to pay the monthly subscription for only half the races which are not shown free to air. That seems an awkward sell to me.
Sky also runs adverts during its coverage of long-form sports like cricket, but has confirmed they will not put adverts into the 90 minutes of the live race.
There is already a strong reaction to the principle of this deal among F1 fans in the UK.
Here is my analysis of the situation.
What’s the deal?
Sky Sports will cover all the races, qualifying and practice sessions.
BBC will continue to broadcast F1 in its current format but for only half the races. The only races they have confirmed are Monaco, Silverstone and the final round. This is likely to save up to half the roughly £8 million production budget a year plus offer a possible discount on the rights. But crucially it extends the BBC’s relationship with F1 until the end of 2018 (its original deal was due to end in 2013 and would not have been renewed). They will continue to be active online and on mobile.
“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,” said BBC head of sport Barbara Slater.
How will the gaps be filled in?
There are a number of questions arising; for example what races will the BBC show live? If they have a strong negotiating position, they would prefer to go for the races in the UK friendly time zones, which means Europe, Middle East, USA, Canada and Brazil – in other words not the ones which show in the middles of the night.
But one wonders whether it will be as simple and convenient for the BBC as that. Sky need to have some marquee events if BBC are showing the crown jewels of Silverstone and Monaco.
Another question is how the commentary and presentation will work. Will it be two separate units or will there be crossover?
Sky is likely to want the Martin Brundle/David Coulthard line up because they are established and offer credibility. Brundle is not under contract to the BBC and it remains to be seen whether he will want to be part of this. He has described himself as “not impressed” this morning.
One school of thought is that the commentary might perhaps be shared across the two platforms. I think this is probably unlikely given the way the two broadcasters work.
Either way the two broadcasters will obviously have two separate presentation teams. if the BBC really want to save money they will host the race from a studio in London and have just the commentators and reporters on site at the races.
David Croft and Ant Davidson could get either job or may fill in the gaps covering the practice sessions, as they do today on the BBC TV Red Button. It’s all to play for.
As I’ve posted here before it’s been inevitable that at some point the UK F1 fan was going to have to pay for his/her pleasure like football fans have been doing for over 20 years on SKY. Williams’ boss Adam Parr, who is reserving judgement on the deal said to me this morning that the balance between revenue and audience reach needs to be right and that, “Nobody asks ‘Where can I see football on TV in the UK?'”
And as with SKY’s investment in sports like football and cycling, F1 will inevitably get much wider coverage in the NewsCorp owned newspapers like the Times and the Sun.
However Whitmarsh has already questioned whether the deal aligns with the principles in the Concorde Agreement which have to do with Free to Air TV. Ecclestone argues that this deal extends the level of coverage of F1 in the UK, Whitmarsh says that the teams want to know the details of how it will work and whether their safeguards under the Concorde Agreement have been protected before giving a detailed response.
Many fans will be unhappy at the idea of having to pay Rupert Murdoch, one of the main shareholders in SKY and its driving force, in order to watch F1, especially in the current climate with all the goings on at the News of the World.
This is a typically bold deal by Murdoch and a strong forward move in the teeth of adversity. To me it feels like it’s been coming for some time. F1 fans will provide new cashflows to the Sky coffers, in a business which always needs to generate new lifeblood.
Who knows, Murdoch may even have personally had a hand in the deal, popping in to see Ecclestone while he was in London appearing in front of the Parliamentary Select Committee last week!
Major sponsors I have spoken this morning have mixed feelings; on the one hand they are concerned that the mass audience will inevitably fall in size, but on the other hand they have more opportunity to activate their sponsorship on Sky as it is a commercial station. And their return on investment from F1 is so much greater than the spend in any case that it is not going to fall in value below what they spend, even with the shrinking of audience.
Foreign broadcast colleagues have already resigned themselves to their own networks looking at this deal and seeing a way forwards for the future. Who said the revolution will not be televised?