It is noticeable that in recent days there has been more discussion centring on the likelihood that the BBC will pull out of its contact to cover F1 racing. The matter is of interest beyond the borders of the UK as the race commentary is taken by most English speaking countries around the world, as it was in my days with ITV.
BBC took over the rights from ITV at the end of 2008, when the UK’s largest commercial broadcaster pulled out two years before the end of its contract. This was in order to fund spend on football rights.
It would be very unfortunate for the sport and would send out some negative signals if the main broadcast contract in the UK were to be handed back prematurely for a second time, but the BBC is contemplating just that as it seeks to make significant cuts in its budgets.
New BBC Trust chairman Chris Patten was asked recently on a BBC TV show whether F1 was in line to be dropped and he replied in general terms about things that the corporation “would like to do but can no longer afford to.” Staff at the BBC are braced for a significant round of job cuts across all departments. I’ve heard some staff express fear that as much as 10% of them could be laid off.
There is no doubt that although F1 enjoys some strong support from certain factions within the Corporation, in the current economic context there is also a very powerful lobby against it.
The F1 rights will be costing somewhere in the region of £45 million a year and looking at the scale of the production and the staffing levels, that’s probably another £8 to £10 million a year.
Express writer Bob McKenzie, who speaks frequently to Mr Ecclestone and whose daughter Lee is a reporter on the BBC F1 coverage, has written a story today with a settlement figure of £50 million mentioned. Although Ecclestone mentions the word “settlement” he does not mention a figure directly.
“It would be like any contract I sign with people, either on my side or theirs – it has to be honoured,” Ecclestone told the Express.
“I always stand by a deal and I would expect them to do the same. Obviously if they ended the contract early there would be a settlement, otherwise I suppose we would have to sue.
“The BBC have done a great job and we obviously do our part in supplying great sporting entertainment.”
He wouldn’t be talking this way if this story was mere speculation. This suggests to me that the negotiations with the BBC over the exit are ongoing or imminent.
There has been some speculation in the F1 paddock that the BBC might even be looking to get out at the end of this year, but my understanding from contacts in the Sports TV industry is that we are talking about the end of 2012, which would be one year before the scheduled end of the current five year contract.
Ecclestone has been quoted saying that he’d offer it to Channel 5, but the current favourite within the TV industry to get the rights is Channel 4, which has a good record in minority sports and which did an excellent production job on Test cricket, winning many awards.
However the talk of Channel 5 will be as much about trying to create a market to get the rights fee up as anything else. I’m not sure Channel 5 can afford to do F1.
If Channel 4 do get it, one would hope that they’d innovate as they did with cricket and I’m sure that they would. But it’s an expensive sport to cover well.
So F1 fans in the UK will have to accept that the current coverage is probably the high water mark of F1 coverage in this country. Having no commercial breaks and a very large production budget mean that UK fans are in a very privileged position compared to fans in other countries.
This clearly cannot continue. So viewers should enjoy it while it lasts.