I have written many times about how utterly fabulous I think the BBC’s Formula One coverage has been over the past two and a half years. The passion of presenter Jake Humphrey, the precision of Ted Kravitz, the empathy of Lee McKenzie, the delighfully hilarious commentary of Martin Brundle, the top quality bitching between Eddie Jordan and David Coulthard. They maybe focus on McLaren, Red Bull and Ferrari a tad too much, but I’m nitpicking. As soon as you hear “The Chain” come on, you know fine you’re going to enjoy pretty much every minute. The way Jake has interacted with fans on Twitter has been so appreciated. Every race has been a delight.
Any attempt to move F1 away from this fabulous team would have had me outraged and distraught. So, you can imagine how I felt to discover on Friday morning that the primary rights to F1 had not only been given away by the BBC, but were going to the Infernal Wickedness of Sky. Next year only half the races, qualifying and practice sessions will be shown live on the BBC and there’ll be a highlights programme for the races they don’t show live. All the races will be shown on the Wickedness, without adverts. And for this, I would have to pay an extra £20 a month on top of my basic Wickedness package. It’s the only thing I would watch, so that seems like a hell of a lot to fork out.
Basically what happened was that the BBC simply decided that it had better things to spend its money on than F1 in the current financial climate. When the BBC was strapped for cash, saving £30 million a year by sharing the rights with Sky must have seemed an obvious saving. I’ve seen it suggested that the Coalition’s freezing of the licence fee deal was all done to get the F1 rights into Murdoch’s hands, but I’m fairly certain it wasn’t quite that blatant. The Tories have never been keen on the BBC and would happily undermine it.
But if the BBC was looking to get rid of its rights, what options did Bernie Ecclestone have? Let’s not kid ourselves that the wishes of the fans would even touch the outer realms of his sub-conscious. For him it’s all about maximising the dosh. I am as likely to be taken out for dinner by Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy and the Easter Bunny as Bernie is to care about fans.
Now, ITV had already got rid of the rights to F1 to concentrate on polluting the schedules with ever more football, so they were unlikely to want them back. And we maybe have to be grateful about that because other than Murray Walker and Brundle, their coverage was horrifically bad.
Channel 4 doesn’t have the money or the desire for F1 and we should probably be grateful that Richard Desmond didn’t snap it up for Channel 5. Heaven knows what he’d have done with it, but it surely wouldn’t have been respectful to women. Actually, I need to correct this after Neil Monnery told me on Twitter that C4 had valiantly done the decent thing and offered £45 million, but this wasn’t enough for Bernie.
An exclusive deal with Sky would have left F1’s sponsors grumbling as audience figures would plummet. What Bernie has managed to do is get for himself the best of both worlds – the lucrative income from a subscription channel combined with the audience from a limited deal with our public service broadcaster.
For fans, it’s a nightmare – and how are new people going to become interested in the sport if the only way they can follow it properly is via a £40 a month subscription? Sure, they can go down the nearest pub, if they’re over 18 – but if there’s a clash with a football match, guess what’s going to win out? Also pubs don’t tend to be open at the crack of dawn when the races in Australia, Japan, China, Korea, India and Malaysia, more than a quarter of the year’s races, take place.
The BBC team themselves have had mixed public reactions. Commentator Martin Brundle is not a happy bunny.
Jake Humphrey’s glass was more than half full.
I think it’s fairly safe to say that fans on Facebook and Twitter are really annoyed about this. A Scottish Liberal, Andrew Page, summed it all up on my Facebook wall:
I’m not the world’s bigest F1 fan but I like the BBC coverage…more importantly I like the fact that curently watching the world’s best racing drivers in action is something avalable to everyone. Pretty soon the only sports we’re going to have on the BBC or TV are showjumping and World Series snail racing.
So will I sell my soul to the Devil? I don’t know. I love F1, but I loathe and detest subscription sports channels. I could say definitely not on principle, but I may well weaken. I am only human after all. I certainly won’t even think about if unless they have Brundle. He has become so integral to my enjoyment of this sport over 14 years that he’s a deal breaker. Hiring DC and EJ would also help. I am fairly certain Jake will stay with the BBC, but we’ll see him loads anyway. I always have the option of watching the races not shown on the BBC on their website. Whatever my ISP charges me for the extra hit on data is bound to be less than a Sky subscription. And I’m sure it’ll be lovely on the iPad.
This whole thing really sucks, though. There’s a strong argument that sports with such a massive following should be shown on free to air channels.
We’ll just have to relish every single moment of the BBC ‘s superlative coverage for the rest of the season. That last race under the current system in Brazil is going to be so sad. It’ll be worse than David Tennant leaving Doctor Who, Take That splitting up the first time and Dobby’s demise in Harry Potter. Better stock up on the tissues, then.