It was a sad way for the BBC’s coverage of the 2011 Formula 1 season to end. The on-screen team had delivered over an hour of the high-quality programming for which they were known, working their way from garage to garage discussing each team’s fortunes over the season and interviewing key figures from the sport. And they had just made their way to British team McLaran, where Jenson Button was describing an overtaking manoeuvre on Fernando Alonso. “It was fun,” he opined as the picture cut to black. And that was that. Ironically, the technical problems that the BBC’s coverage was also known for had claimed the last laugh. “We apologise for the loss of coverage,” said the on-screen apology graphic. “About time too,” many probably thought in response.
For this was no ordinary end of season for the BBC. From 2012, Sky Sports will become the dominant broadcaster of the sport, with the BBC showing just 10 of the 20 races live, with the remainder in highlights form. To say that there has been an outcry about this development in sports broadcasting would be an understatement. To understand it fully, we need to go back over three-and-a-half years, to March 2008. I remember having the Today programme on that morning, and Garry Richardson began his sports bulletin with the words, “Before we continue with the sports news, I can tell you that the BBC have obtained the rights to show Formula 1 exclusively on BBC television for the next five years.”
March 2009 saw the start of the BBC’s tenure. Jake Humphrey made the step-up from CBBC to anchor the show with a superb blend of assurance, knowledge and humour, with David Coulthard and Eddie Jordan alongside him in the pitlane. Coulthard and Jordan made an excellent on-screen duo, with their arguments (and Jordan’s shirts) become legendary. Martin Brundle’s commentary with the input of Ted Kravitz and Lee McKenzie from the pits accompanied the races that were shown advert-free for the first time in twelve years.
The coverage was a huge hit with the fans, with live coverage of every session, advert-free with lengthy build-up and post-race analysis and interviews. Plus, online features such as Classic F1 and Murray Walker’s video blogs gave context to Grand Prix weekends. Unfortunately, during that first programme (qualifying for the Australian Grand Prix), the programme feed fell off air for several minutes, giving a taste of things to come in the ‘technical fault’ category!
Come 2011, with the coverage perhaps at its height (after unpopular commentator Jonathan Legard had been removed from the box), there were worrying reports about how the BBC would cope with its sports rights following a licence-fee freeze. Reports sprung up about how every broadcaster from Sky to Channel 4 were interested in taking up the BBC’s contract if they could no longer afford the sizable rights and production costs.
Then, in July, came the announcement. The BBC had done their deal with Sky. One reason for the intensely negative reaction was that Channel 4 had shown an interest in screening the sport. Their sports coverage had always been innovative and impressive (with the exception of the 2011 World Athletics Championship debacle), and they had produced a highly impressive bid document. However, they were unable to commit to screening the 2012 season, given their Paralympics commitments, and a similar problem befell ITV. So, not unnaturally, many fans questioned why the BBC could not continue their exclusive coverage in 2012 before handing over to another terrestrial channel.
Bernie Ecclestone, Formula 1’s commercial owner, reinforced this view when he told journalists that this deal was nothing to do with him. “The BBC came to us with Sky,” he said, “there was nothing we could do.” Whilst this was obviously untrue (as Bernie has previous in playing hardball with television contracts and the BBC were signed up for live coverage that they obviously could not pull out of from their own accord), it proved that Bernie did not offer Sky the rights; it was the BBC who did the deal.
It’s a subjective argument as to whether an exclusive shift to another terrestrial broadcaster is better than the deal that is about to come into play. No matter how impressive Channel 4’s package might have been, advert breaks would undoubtedly have come into play. There would also have been the matter of the various interactive options that the BBC added, and with no red button service on Channel 4, they may well have disappeared. Sky Sports will undoubtedly continue the innovation that the BBC have shown, and will show all the races advert-free. The coverage that they will show will be more comprehensive than any free-to-air commercial channel could justify, albeit coverage that you have to pay for.
As for the BBC, then their edited highlights programmes will either be 90 minutes or two hours depending on the time zone of the race or qualifying session. We still do not know how much of that programme will be the race itself, but at least the key moments will be shown – and that can’t be certain on an advert-interrupted live transmission. And, for the 10 live races, nothing will have changed.
Except for the on-air team. Martin Brundle has already announced that he is switching to Sky Sports’ team, with Radio Five Live commentator David Croft and BBC TV reporter Ted Kravitz expected to follow suit. For the BBC’s part, they have confirmed that Jake Humphrey, David Coulthard and Lee McKenzie will stay with them. It remains to be seen exactly how 2012 will pan out regarding viewing figures, the quality of the coverage and the reaction of the fans, but it will certainly be an interesting season. All that needs to be said is a final farewell to the BBC’s exclusive F1 coverage. A final farewell that, sadly, couldn’t be said on-air.