In a discussion with someone last week, it was remarked that Murray Walker spoke well about the BBC giving up its rights to broadcast all Formula One Grands Prix live at the end of this season. Walker is right to say that it is with ‘enormous sadness that this has come to pass’. Even with Sky’s involvement in the sport guaranteed, few fans and team bosses want Formula One on pay-per-view television in the United Kingdom. Walker then went on to say that he was ‘not disgusted with the BBC’ because ‘the nation is in a financial mess’ and ‘the money [to solve this problem] has got to come from somewhere’. This, too, is also correct. The British government has ordered the BBC to save twenty per cent of its total operating costs by 2014. Annually, the BBC spends £300 million on sport, meaning that the corporation will need to save £60 million per year in its sports department alone. But Walker looks only at the immediate causes for the BBC’s inability to continue broadcasting the full Formula One schedule. If the last four years of Formula One’s broadcasting history is examined, it can be seen that the BBC were part of the reason for what looks likes the beginning of the end of Formula One being broadcast free-to-air in the UK.
To return Formula One to the BBC for 2009, the corporation negotiated poorly, paid more than it was likely to be able to afford and possibly over the odds. When ITV first secured the rights to broadcast Formula One in the UK in 1996, it paid £16 million per year over the course of five-year contract. When the broadcasting rights were up for renegotiation for the 2002 Formula One season, ITV paid £20 million for each year of another five-year agreement. This was a slight increase, but not a bad deal when one factors in inflation and the BBC’s attempts to regain the coverage it lost five years previously. ITV paid more when the broadcasting rights were up for renegotiation again for 2006, paying £30 million per season. Admittedly, this increase is steeper, but, at the time, the global economy was doing well, Formula One was more popular than ever and the teams were demanding more money from commercial rights holder Bernie Ecclestone.
When negotiating the rights for the 2009 season, the BBC upped the ante yet more to £40 million per year for a five-year period. This sum was made all the more huge given that the world was in recession and that the UK had been hit particularly badly. Moreover, around the time, the BBC was plugging a £2 billion financial deficit, cutting programming and 1800 staff. In 2008, all polls in the UK were indicating that the country’s next government would be led by the Conservative party, who had made no secret of their view that the BBC was still a bloated organisation that needed to cut costs further.
The £40-million price tag also ensured that ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5 could never mount singular or joint bids to broadcast Formula One between them or with the BBC. Indeed, it seems likely that this was the BBC’s goal, as the corporation was not interested in coming to a joint agreement with any other channel to broadcast the sport. At the time, the BBC’s sport portfolio was considered to be dull, but the corporation reckoned that by broadcasting a glamorous, high-octane sport like Formula One they could change that impression. The BBC was, basically, desperate to get the rights at all costs, without considering the medium-term ramifications for either the corporation and its viewers, and Formula One itself. As GP Focus suggested in June, the BBC’s actions hastened free-to-air broadcasting reaching the limits of its ability to televise Formula One. Perhaps if the corporation had bid more wisely and certainly if it had come to an arrangement with another terrestrial channel, Formula One would still be being broadcast free-to-air next season. Due to the BBC’s £40-million offer, it looked inevitable that either Ecclestone would have to accept less money or, as is now the case, the BBC would have to share its coverage with a commercial channel like Sky.
Now that the BBC’s coverage of Formula One will be coming to an end, it is a good time to look back at whether the corporation’s programming was any good and compare it with that of its immediate predecessor, ITV. Having read various message boards and comment sections on newspaper websites, the BBC’s coverage of Formula One is generally well regarded, particularly against the derisory reviews of ITV’s programming. In many aspects, the BBC’s coverage is rightly praised. If the opinions of those who have taken time to engage in the blogosphere are remotely accurate, the most appealing factor for fans is BBC’s uninterrupted coverage. Practice sessions being shown live and the Grand Prix Forum are also welcome extras for more-committed fans.
Jake Humphrey is viewed as a solid anchorman by many, but this seems inexplicable. What Humphrey writes and says often comes across as condescending, and his relationship with team bosses and drivers seems awkward. When he was chosen by the BBC to host its Formula One coverage in 2009, Humphrey was open about the fact he had no interest in the sport. This was not a problem. After all, Humphrey is a television presenter, not the president of a Formula One supporters club. What grates, rather, are Humphrey’s patronising and unnecessary attempts at pretending to be a fan. ITV’s critics should remember Jim Rosenthal. He openly admitted that he was not a fan of the sport, but won two BAFTAs for his fantastic job fronting ITV’s coverage of Formula One from 1997 to 2005. Rosenthal gained respect not by currying favour with fans, but by authoritatively asking tough and meaningful questions to those involved in at the top of Formula One.
Even among those who have high regard for the BBC’s coverage, Eddie Jordan is criticised almost universally. As a former team boss of some distinction, the Irishman approaches talking points at a different angle from that of a driver, which provides a refreshing and unique insight. But his on-screen arguments with David Coulthard are unprofessional and ensure that the intelligent remarks he makes are made to look silly or are simply forgotten. Jordan’s exuberance gets the better of him in other ways, too, such as in his “interview” with Dietrich Mateschitz, during which the Irishman did not even ask the Red Bull owner a single question. At its peak, ITV’s coverage had none of these faults. From 1997 to 2005, Tony Jardine provided the channel’s Formula One punditry. As a racing fan, former rally driver and co-driver, tyre technician, team manager and marketing agent, he had plenty of experiences; and, as an ex-teacher, he could share them in an articulate and understandable manner.
Although Jonathan Legard seems likeable – he took a lot of time to chat with fans on Twitter, for example – his commentary was below par. He was unable to read the on-track action, meaning that he increased the intensity of his voice for events that were of no significance. His staccato speech also seemed more suited to horse racing than Formula One. Striking a rapport with his co-commentator, Martin Brundle, was another area in which Legard found it difficult. To their credit, the BBC listened to the concerns of Formula One fans and sought the experienced Coulthard as a replacement. As an ex-Formula One and current DTM driver, the Scot is knowledgeable and his friendship with Brundle means that the two complement one another’s commentary. Admittedly, even before ITV ran into financial hardship, James Allen was few people’s commentator of choice. Again, though, at the pinnacle of its Formula One coverage, ITV’s lead commentary was provided by the legendary Murray Walker. Remember as well that it was ITV who employed Brundle in the first place for 1997, unearthing one of the best sports commentators there is and who works for the BBC today.
Those who criticise ITV’s coverage of Formula One would do well to consider how poor the BBC’s coverage of the sport was before 1997. The corporation did little to advance their Grand Prix programme in terms of punditry or the extent of their coverage, even though they were at an advantage to their rival channels because of they received most of Television Licence free and protective UK broadcasting legislation. In fact, the BBC would regularly cut from or delay the screening of Formula One sessions, and there was virtually no pre- and post-race discussion. In 2008, the BBC promised Bernie Ecclestone that it had ‘innovative new ideas’ to improve Formula One coverage. But the advances in the BBC’s coverage over that of ITV, such as all practice sessions being televised live, are really only the effect of technological developments, not because the corporation worked to improve Formula One broadcasting. The reason ITV did not cover practice until mid-2008, when it streamed sessions on its website, was because red-button technology was still developing. If ITV held the rights Formula One now, it would most likely be televising practice sessions live via the red button or on ITV4.
When ITV won the broadcasting right, its Formula One programming was both innovative and unique. ITV was the first channel to regularly screen features and the now famous Grid Walk, giving fans an insight into the engineering, driving skill and Grand Prix strategies found in Formula One. The BBC was correct to carry on with these. Indeed, it highlights just good ITV’s Formula One coverage used to be that the BBC simply carried on many of its predecessor’s ideas, not to mention re-employing many of its staff. But the corporation has not shown the willingness to build on what their rival initiated fourteen years ago. A recent example of this is the BBC’s feature during the build-up to the Hungarian Grand Prix, which suggested that Sebastian Vettel is poor at dealing with traffic in races. While this a valid theory, the BBC’s editorial team allowed Jordan to use as evidence footage of Vettel going off the track at Silverstone in 2010 because of a puncture after touching Mark Webber’s RB6. At best, this is shoddy journalism and careless editing; at worst, it is deceitful and unfair to Red Bull, particularly Vettel.
Possibly proving that the BBC either lacked the will or the ideas to further develop Formula One coverage is that the corporation considered putting its Formula One production up for tender for the 2010 season. It looks as though the BBC either felt as though it needed others to do what it could not or, simply, that it was happy to allow somebody else to do the necessary grafting to boost the quality of its programming.
ITV had the confidence in the quality of its programming and Formula One itself to broadcast the sport live and in full, and, previously unheard of, to screen F1 Specials. These were presented by Walker and Brundle at important points in the season. For the finale at Jerez in 1997, ITV broadcast a Finale Preview at prime time on the Saturday evening before the Grand Prix. In the middle of seasons, ITV would televise other Specials that discussed the key moments of the year-to-date, and reviewed the performance of both teams and drivers. While red-button technology means the BBC can cater for all of its viewers more easily than ITV could a decade ago, when ITV was at the peak of its ability no broadcaster before or since had as much faith in its own product and in Formula One’s ability to entertain.
Similar to what Sky did for sports like football, ITV did for Formula One. ITV showed in the late 1990s that commercial television can produce better coverage than the BBC, and that the corporation had no divine right cover premier sporting events such as Formula One. Until the 2008 Credit Crunch slashed ITV’s revenue, its coverage of Formula One was second to none. Having seen what commercial television companies have done for sports programming, Ecclestone, while being slightly cheeky, is correct to say that ‘together with Sky we will get even better coverage. Look at what Sky do with other sports, they have very good ideas. It will grow the audience, I am sure of it’.
 Murray Walker’s view on new F1 TV rights deal <http://news.bbc.co.uk/sport1/hi/formula_one/14367183.stm> [accessed 8 August 2011]
 Maggie Brown and John Plunkett, ‘Wimbledon and Formula One at risk as BBC seeks sports cuts’, The Guardian, 11 March 2010, p.10.
 Stephanie Bentley, ‘ITV Renew Formula One coverage in £80 million deal’ <http://marketingweek.co.uk/home/itv-renew-formula-one- coverage-in-acirc/6380-deal/2028549.article> [accessed 8 August 2011]
 Nick Harris, ‘BBC wins Formula One TV rights’, The Independent, 21 March 2008.
 Owen Gibson, ‘F1 returns to BBC but ITV wins Champions League rights’, The Guardian, 21 March 2008, p.5.
 Ewan Marshall, ‘Pondering over the BBC/Sky Deal’ <http://gpfocus.com/f1-news/pondering-over-the-bbcsky-deal/> [accessed 10 August 2011]
 ‘BBC land F1 rights’ <http://www.metro.co.uk/sport/123019-bbc-land-f1-rights> [accessed 9 August 2011]
 Eddie Jordan examines Vettel’s flaws <http://news.bbc.co.uk/sport1/hi/formula_one/14354079.stm> [accessed 9 August 2011]
 Dan Cross, ‘Here comes Legard…’ <http://www.motorsportmusings.co.uk/2010/04/here-comes-legard/> [accessed 9 August 2011]
 ‘Ecclestone: BBC/Sky Sports deal not just about money’ <http://www.crash.net/f1/news/171761/1/ecclestone_bbcsky_sports_deal_not_just_about_money.html> [accessed 9 August 2011]