Written by Media, Sport, TV

F1 to Follow Cricket Into Obscurity

Here’s how F1 and Bernie Ecclestone do business:

21 December 2015Channel 4 wins terrestrial rights to Formula 1, after the BBC hands them back. There was rumoured to be a fight with ITV for them.

Bernie Ecclestone, Chief Executive Officer of the Formula One group said: “I am sorry that the BBC could not comply with their contract but I am happy that we now have a broadcaster that can broadcast Formula 1® events without commercial intervals during the race.

“I am confident that Channel 4 will achieve not only how the BBC carried out the broadcast in the past but also with a new approach as the World and Formula 1® have moved on.”

(No – that second line really doesn’t really make any sense, but I swear I cut and paste that from the press release!)

20 January 2016 – Channel 4, having announced a new presenting and commentary team, broadcasts its first race in Australia as the new F1 season gets underway.

23 January 2016 AM – The Grand Prix Drivers’ Association (GDPA) publishes an open letter to stakeholders, followers and fans expressing concerns about their sport. This includes an implied concern about the changing TV environment as the sport has shifted from free-to-air to pay TV, leading to a decline in overall audiences.

23 January 2016 PMSky Sports announces an exclusive deal for all F1 rights from the 2019 season. Only the British Grand Prix and highlights will be made available free-to-air – presumably somewhere like Pick TV.

In essence the sport will disappear from most UK viewers’ screens despite a multitude of manufacturers and suppliers being British based, employing many people.

I’m very much a laissez-faire F1 watcher – or at least I used to be. If I was around and it was on, I might watch. But over the years, it has become duller. Tracks have turn numbers and not names; over-taking is so rare we get it from multiple angles; racing is manufactured through forced pit-stops; each season there are seemingly less than a handful of drivers who can win a race while the rest make up has beens. And that’s before we get to the dubious political aspects of F1 which sees the carnival pitching up in whichever country will give Bernie Eccelestone and his cronies the most cash.

Earlier this year I was appalled when I saw that Silverstone was recruiting for volunteers to help out at the British Grand Prix a la Olympic volunteers. This is a multi-billion pound industry. Would you expect, say, a commercial music festival to be manned by volunteers? Nope. They’re nearly all paid. It may be minimum wage, but that’s still cash in hand rather than a T-shirt.

I’ve got to feel sorry for Channel 4 in all of this. They’ve not been given a chance by F1. They’ve only broadcast a single race before losing the rights, and there’s been no time to see what innovations in coverage they can bring to the sport before the tablecloth has been whipped from underneath them. They have no chance to prove their metal or attempt to make a viable business case for continuing their coverage beyond the first three years. What kind of “partner” does that to you? I think that even if this deal has been in the making for many months, it’s extraordinarily bad grace of F1/Sky to announce it so soon.

It’s as though F1 is sticking two fingers up at C4 and saying – carry on paying us for the next three seasons, but we don’t care, because we have a new best friend.

Yes – Sky wants F1 exclusively. The fans are probably considered upmarket, and often don’t follow other sports. But expect ratings and interest in F1 to wane as it has done for cricket and golf before them.

Out of sight – out of mind.

I understand that this makes sense to Sky, because Sky has profits to achieve each year. But you’d be foolish to think that Sky actually has the long-term interests of the sport in mind. Instead they have spreadsheets detailing what proportion (and it will only be a proportion) of free-to-air F1 viewers they can sell subscriptions to.

I’ve no doubt their coverage will be technically superb. UHD is fine in principle, but in practice I’ll wait for standards to fully finalise themselves before I even think about upgrading. And you do have to listen to the world’s dreariest commentator in Martin Brundle – the man who on learning in 2011 that Sky would share rights with the BBC, instantly Tweeted a “come and get me” message.

But popularity will diminish as it has done with cricket, and is doing with golf. That’s what happens when your sport is owned by an investment company. They want the highest returns over the shortest period.