Having been rumoured a while back, that the BBC was looking to break its F1 coverage contract and save between £20m and £60m (according to whom you listen), news surfaced that ITV were on it and it seemed that, bar some unforeseen circumstances, the UK F1 coverage was back in the land of 15 to 20 minutely ads; almost guaranteed to appear just as the move of the race was about to happen.
Well, unforeseen circumstances did pop out of the woodwork (“shouldn’t that be carbon fibre?” Ed) and it is confirmed that Channel 4 will be showing F1 from 2016, for at least the next three seasons.
Whilst the whole “will they/wont they” mystery has unravelled in public fairly quickly – after all the Abu Dhabi GP was only a few weeks ago and no-one there knew that would be the last BBC broadcast – the fact is that the affair has its roots much further back in time………
The BBC was the traditional home of F1 for what seemed like an eternity until the broadcast rights were bought by ITV in 1997. F1 then stayed with ITV until 2009 when it returned to the BBC. ITV having exercised a break clause to ditch the sport with two years of its deal remaining to free up cash; for Champions League football rights.
Very soon however, the BBC discovered that F1 had become expensive; very expensive and not just for the competitors. In another cost saving move, Auntie Beeb has been sharing the broadcast rights with Sky since 2012. The price of this cost saving was to drop the number of live races down to 10 with the balance of the season being highlights events, whilst Sky went overboard with its coverage of all events live, with multiple extra features as well.
At the time of these changes an interloper appeared and put a very credible, costed and thorough proposal on the table to secure the contract; Channel 4.
Source: The F1 Broadcasting Blog
Photos of the documents produced by Graphical House show that Channel 4 were definitely taking a bid seriously with a very slick overview of what they were planning.
This bid did not win, possibly because it was seen that a combined BBC/Sky offering gave the best of all worlds and kept terrestrial coverage at the same time.
Move forward and the scandals that have enveloped the BBC plus its funding review have shone the spotlight on every area of the licence fee spend. The result has been a £150m annual budget black hole from 2016 that must be plugged. The Sport offering is taking the brunt of the cuts with only the sacred cows of Wimbledon, The Olympics and the World Cup being ring fenced.
When it became obvious that the BBC wanted out and after they had visited Bernie Ecclestone in London to plead their case, it was assumed by all that ITV would step into the breach.
But NO! A lone voice; DJ, Top Gear presenter, TFI Friday front man and all round petrolhead Chris Evans predicted on his 24th November radio show that the contract was headed in a different direction, namely Channel 4.
What was it that gave them the edge and ultimately the contract? We may never know but you might want to consider that the cornerstone of their gushing press releases has been that they will be the “first free-to-air commercial broadcaster to show the races ad free.”
You may remember that ITV took a mountain of complaint for airing commercials in the dying few minutes of a race to the flag between Alonso and Schumacher, ruining the entire coverage? What goes around, comes around.
Or could it be that Bernie, a well-known exponent of “divide and conquer” strategies was impressed with the newish producer that may well be taking on production of the coverage for Channel 4. Having had a cash boost after some of the business was sold to Channel 4, Whisper Films, part owned by none other than David Coulthard (he of the BBC job but now somewhat under employed) and ex BBC F1 front man, Jake Humphrey, is firmly in the driving seat (“stop the bad puns please!” Ed) for the role of production company. It could be said that the timing is perfect and also that the two of them know exactly what is required for the viewer.
This quote might give us a clue. David Abraham, the chief executive of Channel 4, said: “Sport at the moment is an area of very big players. We want to encourage new players and a bit more competition. Whisper Films are strong in the corporate market but given an injection of capital they have the network and capability to scale rapidly to begin to compete to produce major live events.”
Don’t however think that Sky are laughing all the way to the digital bank; they have their own cash issues. Having paid WAAAAY too much for the English Premier League they are looking to cut costs with F1 being a prime target. Indeed their 2015 corporate results stated that a merger of three sets of production teams in F1, from the UK, Italy and Germany/Austria had already yielded £8m. Expect the bean counters to want more!
So what of the future? This contract lasts until the end of 2018 but any new terms or changes must be in place well before then – possibly as early as the start of 2017 or as little as 12 or 13 months away.
Who is in the running then? What will they have to offer and what will the viewer get – live or highlights? How much will the viewer have to pay or will it come as part of a package deal?
As soon as “package deal” is mentioned then BT, otherwise known as “Bundle Television” has got to be in the frame. Your and my telephone line rental seems to buy a lot of television these days…………………………………
Enjoy the F1 coverage for 2016, it may never be the same again.
Roger Grimshaw - NMA Tutor.