F1: Sky finally claim the Grand Prix
My first reaction when I heard the news this morning that the BBC had lost exclusive rights to F1 and would show only half of next year’s Grand Prix events live, while Sky would show the entire season, was one of dismay and outrage.
Certainly when it comes to timing, announcing a deal which hands one of the currently most loathed media companies (News Corp, which owns 39% of BSkyB) one of the sporting crown jewels was spectacularly inopportune.
Now, however, I’ve calmed down a bit. At my emotional core I’m still seething, but the logical side of my brain is asserting itself and starting to point out: this could have been even much, much worse. And sadly, probably will be down the line.
The warning signs have been there for some time, ever since the Sunday Times had a story suggesting that the BBC wanted out of the F1 contract as soon as possible. We rather dismissed it at the time as being News Corp mischief making, but it turns out that they were nearer to the truth than we gave them credit for. Hey, even a broken media organisation is right twice a day, it seems.
I think it’s clear now that the BBC did come very close indeed to just returning the keys to the F1 paddock to Bernie Ecclestone and walking away completely, much as ITV did at the end of the 2008 season. The reason is totally financial and down to the high license costs charged by Ecclestone’s media rights company for the coverage (I’ve heard various figures estimates from this, but they seem to be around £40 to £60m per annum.)
Given that the BBC is being squeezed (by the government cutting the license fee on advice from, among others, the Murdoch family and businesses – funny cycle that, isn’t it?) for cash and looking for savings anywhere it can find up to and including any cash lost down the back of the sofa, it’s no surprise that they should see such a whopping expenditure line on the accounts and quickly come to the decision that it simply has to go: it’s not unlike Ford Motor Company looking at its employee wages and seeing Eddie Irvine getting paid more than anyone else, and deciding: this F1 thing must stop.
I suspect that even someone as business- and monetarily-inclined as Ecclestone realised that losing the BBC’s backing and prestige for F1 would be a disaster for him and for the sport from which he makes his living, especially as there was no one else to turn to in the free-to-air market to fill the gap. ITV certainly weren’t interested in returning, Channel 4 have their own money problems, and Channel 5 – well, it’s possible given their tie-up with Richard Desmond, but it’s still really out of the channel’s financial reach and not even their target demographic. Even if they had bid for it, it would be a surprise if they lasted two years before walking away themselves under the heavy load that F1 coverage responsibility now confers.
But Ecclestone had already said he wanted the sport to remain on free-to-air (and the teams and the key sponsors definitely had an expectation of this being the case to maintain the sport’s the and sponsor’s visibility – there’s even a suggestion that the all-important Concorde Agreement requires it, otherwise Ecclestone is in breach of contract himself) and so just throwing it open to the Sky Sports premium satellite/cable subscription channel wasn’t open either.
When it comes down to it, this emergency compromise that has been reached is probably the best that could be done in the circumstances: free-to-air retains half the live Grand Prix events and ensures fans will still get to see extensive coverage of the rest through highlights packages and radio coverage on 5live; while Sky presumably carries most of the financial load by virtue of being able to claim to be the only place to see the whole F1 season from now on. Sky would probably rather not be sharing the coverage of half the races with the BBC but they’ll see it as a “free advert on the BBC” for their product for the other 10 races that people will have to sign up for. It’s not a bad product placement deal for Sky, all things considered.
This sort of split coverage of sport is not in fact unusual. The football rights are fragmented across multiple networks, while even the international rugby union rights were split with Sky Sports having all the England Six Nations matches while the BBC had the remainder. In the US this is even more common, with IndyCar coverage shared between the ABC broadcast network and the cable channel Versus (and interestingly, fans seem to deride the ABC races and lament that Versus can’t do them all!) while NASCAR splits the 36 races of the season into three lots of 12 between three different networks, and there’s talks about come of those being further offloaded onto a cable channel such as SPEED next season. Again, it’s all because the broadcast rights in each case are simply too expensive now for any one single network to sustain and justify them across the whole year.
Truth is, though, that this BBC/Sky compromise deal is a classic BBC attempt at a solution to please everyone and answer all the critics, which will instead do exactly the opposite – leave them under attack from all sides and satisfy precisely no one. The F1 fans will be outraged and outspoken and pour scorn and vitriol on the Corporation; while the anti-F1 brigade will remain incensed that the Beeb is still squandering any money at all on a rich man’s plaything. Eventually the BBC will give up and walk away from F1 completely. Until then, the BBC has neatly positioned itself in the middle of No Man’s Land where both sides have equal opportunity to shoot and shell it to pieces – a familiar story for the Corporation.
It’s amazing that this decision should be announced when it has been, shortly after the BBC F1 coverage won a Bafta (ironically, ITV’s final F1 race coverage also won a Bafta before they walked away in 2009 …) and the recent Canadian race came close to a 50 share at times (that is, half the total number of people watching the TV were watching the BBC – unheard of domination in this day and age of fractured media.) So much for dismissing F1 as a “niche sport” it seems, but that argument has simply been muscled aside.
Probably the most depressing thought it what the BBC coverage will look like from 2012 onwards. They will hardly be able to afford the sort of quality of broadcast line-up when they’ll only be covering ten races live; will Martin Brundle and David Coulthard want to be involved in a half-arsed season coverage? Will Jake Humphrey want to continue fronting a show that is now overshadowed by Sky and little more than a shop window for the satellite channel’s fare?
Indeed, the BBC will probably want to cut costs still further – cut the preshow, and grid walks, the interviews and just fly over a commentator to do the job, leave the fancy stuff to Sky. Think of the cost savings on top of the licensing money they’ll save by no longer having to have dedicated camera crews and multiple presenters. In fact, surely the commentary can be done from a studio in London … ? (Actually, if it comes to that level, I hope they have the good sense to have 5live’s commentators David Croft and Anthony Davidson simply take over, since the 5live coverage continues under the new deal and hopefully they will be broadly unchanged and unaffected.)
What about Brundle, Coulthard, Eddie Irvine, Ted Kravitz and even Jake Humphrey? They now found themselves in the same situation as Murray Walker in 1996 or James Allen (and indeed Brundle himself) in 2008 when the decisions of their networks cast their own professional futures into sudden doubt. In Murray Walker’s case, ITV commendably realised very quickly that he was essential to the success of their new investment: while Murray had immediately thought he was out of a job and on the scrapheap, instead he suddenly found he was perhaps the most important and sought-after man in sporting journalism.
Martin Brundle, despite having been associated with F1 coverage since 1997, has only just stepped up to the role of main commentator and has no similar Murray-esque claims to be the “voice of F1” so he’s not going to have the same prospects of job security. Indeed he’s already tweeted that he’s out of contract at the end of 2011 and is “not impressed” by the news announced today so it seems he’s not keen either with the part-time season on the BBC or moving to Sky. But who knows – Sky may be as canny as ITV were 14 years ago and decide that some Brundle continuity is vital to securing the transition of the fans to the satellite broadcaster, and start to woo the former F1 driver with an offer he can’t refuse. Or maybe they’ll simply go with their in-house staff, some of whom are excellent (Keith Huewen for example has been outstanding hosting IndyCar and NASCAR on Sky Sport) but many of whom are really quite mediocre.
There’s no doubt that among the biggest losers in all this are the committed fans of Formula 1, or at least those who are unwilling or unable to take up Sky Sports subscriptions next season. But I fear the biggest loser of all is the sport of F1 itself, which has just crossed a rubicon of sorts that takes it on a one-way trip to the margins. In time, F1 fans will decrease, new generations of fans will not be exposed to the sport. It will weaken, and – driven by the costs of the sport – will then collapse under its own hubris, unable to fund its continuance as a minor niche interest on the sidelines.
Bernie Ecclestone may not be around by that time – not even he is immortal, we believe. But come that final Grand Prix, few will forget that it was his hand that set the stage and made the final demise of F1 possible and – indeed – inevitable.