There had been murmurs in recent weeks and months of potential changes to F1’s UK TV rights, as everyone knows the BBC is trying to save money and it paid a heck of a lot for the Formula 1 rights, but with the need to cut back across the board nobody really knew if they’d stick to the contract. The names of Channel 4 and Five were mooted as taking over, and I think many fans expected a wholesale switch to one of those channels.
Last weekend it was revealed to be Sky Sports and that it would be a partnership agreement, not a complete switch. Sky will air all 20 races on their dedicated sports channels with additional pre- and post-race coverage on Sky Sports News. The BBC will continue to cover 10 races live and in full, including the British GP, Monaco GP and the final race of the season which next year is scheduled to be the Brazilian GP. Highlights of the other 10 races will be aired later that day.
For the benefit of those outside the UK, you pay a monthly fee for the Sky package and then a premium for Sky Sports. Sky Sports News comes as part of the main package not the premium package. Sky Sports is also available as an add-on with a variety of other competing services such as cable. BBC channels are free to all*.
* the term ‘free-to-air’ does not include the TV License because that is non-optional, everybody has to pay it so it is usually ignored in any comparison.
Whilst this sort of sharing arrangement is common over in the US, although maybe without airing on two channels at once, this is a Big Deal for UK rights. Formula 1 TV coverage in this country has always been free-to-air for as long as races have been available on TV – since the 1970s in highlights form with sporadic live races, and every race of the season covered live since the early/mid 1990s.
Quite a lot of discussion has occurred online in the last week or so, with a great many opinion pieces from insiders and fans alike putting forth their arguments for and against the deal.
For me it isn’t the death knell of the sport in the UK, but that is very much contingent on the BBC honouring their promise to produce an ‘extended’ highlights show or even air the entire race on a tape delay. If it is a heavily edited version the interest will wane and audience figures will drop off. The reason for that is I think only the die hard fans will take the option to watch live on Sky, and there aren’t as many of those fans as some like to suggest.
There are an awful lot more of what most of us more diehard fans call ‘casual fans’, especially so in Britain over the last 3 or 4 years as a result of the championship wins from Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button, hence the record viewing figures seen this year. They might not all be buying Sky especially to watch F1, and unlike football I don’t think they’ll all pile down the pub to watch it. If they have Sky Sports already they may well continue to tune in, I really hope so.
With a lot of sponsorship dependent on viewing figures and the UK representing a major market for F1 sponsors, the real question is whether a casual fan without Sky will be happy to wait for the BBC highlights show. The argument goes that they are happy to wait until 10:35pm for Match Of The Day, a highlights show covering all the Premier League action that day. Indeed many make it a weekly ritual. I don’t doubt that a similar F1 show would attract decent viewers. They might not be the nuts who want to have every F1 session live on TV with an hour of pre- and post- analysis, those who are surprisingly vocal about it on the internet, but they are interested enough in F1 to watch an hour or so about the day’s race.
Some have argued we may actually see an uplift in viewing figures as the diehard fans will stump up to watch the race live, then the less diehard fans are able to come to the race coverage at a potentially more favourable time which doesn’t take up a whole afternoon and give the highlights some decent ratings.
I don’t know if that is how it will play out but it definitely just as plausible as live ratings falling off a cliff and highlights being ignored as some others have suggested. We won’t know the answers to that until we see the broadcast time of the show, and how much is included and how much is edited out.
Winners And Losers
The teams themselves and FOM/FOWC (‘Bernie’s lot’) will making extra money so the pressure to nail the BBC at the next renewal will be off, hopefully meaning the BBC will be able to keep their rights for a few years longer than they would’ve done.
There are three sets of fans :-
– For the dedicated fan with spending money, who either already has Sky Sports or is willing to get it, they’ve got a win-win situation because for the first time in years they’ll be able to choose between two live broadcast teams for half of the races. How many countries can say that? Luxury!
– For the casual fan I am sure they can wait for the highlights show and wouldn’t complain a lot because of it, many might even prefer it.
– For me the only true losers are those dedicated fans who can’t afford to take Sky Sports. Sadly I am one of those fans. I’m sure we’ll be climbing the walls staying off the internet and away from news reports, waiting for the highlights show. Web feeds are usually awful and they can suddenly get shut down midrace, I struggle enough with IndyCar, imagine the demand there will be for F1. Luckily I do know people who have Sky Sports so rather than struggle away with a 4 inch buffering web feed I’ll go there and watch 50 inch HD. But I can’t do that forever. I think one day I’m just going to have to make savings elsewhere and stump up for Sky. That may come at the expense of attending races, including Grands Prix.
I have nothing against Sky in all of this, despite their poor quality news channel and the poor reputation of some of their owners, they do produce very good coverage of other sports. I watched the cricket coverage of England vs India last weekend and it was of a very high quality. Everybody on the panel, including the presenter, was a former international-level cricket player, yet none floundered on TV as so many do.
I’ve also seen football games which are well presented and produced, as well as golf and more. They do a lot of American-style wooshy sounds and boistorous intro music and over-hyping which is all probably a little unnecessary, this is countered with a knowledgeable staff of presenters and analysts and as many on-screen stats as you can imagine. I genuinely would love to see what they could do with F1 coverage, it could be transformed.
There are those who decry Sky Sports based on their IndyCar coverage, which is frankly awful, a few talking heads sitting in a little studio in London trying to fill time whilst their host feed is on yet another ad break. (If anything this is a good sign as it means Sky themselves won’t take too many breaks.) I hope they don’t approach F1 in the same way because it is interminably boring. I don’t have a problem with a studio, just put it at the track in the same way the football and cricket studios are at the grounds. That way the on-air talent can speak to the relevant people before the race and get a better sense of the event. I don’t think they will just plonk them in London and make them work from a feed. I think they are more sensible than that.
As an aside, perhaps they could cross-sell IndyCar to F1 fans to bump up viewership of that series, this could actually be a really good thing for IndyCar viewership figures in this country, which are currently tiny. What good timing with a brand new car being launched for IndyCar next year. Sky might even start sending people to the States to cover IndyCar more effectively rather than simply taking a feed, even just a reporter..? I’m dreaming. I’m hoping.
The main problem here is one of cost. I think people who can’t afford Sky, including me, are going to have to revise their expectations. In any case, with a record 20 races next year surely nobody can expect to watch all of them live complete with an hour of talking before and an hour of talking after. Where would you find the time? Highlights, even extended highlights, could be a blessing. Mind you, I’m holding out for a tape delay.