Its been in the pipeline for some months now, but the BBC have finally terminated their contract to broadcast Formula one with three years left to run. In a surprise announcement today, Channel 4 and not ITV will be the free to air broadcaster in the UK until the end of 2018. They will show 10 live races and a programme of highlights for the other events on the 2016 calendar.
Barbara Slater, BBC director of sport, said today: “The current financial position of the BBC means some tough and unwanted choices have to be made. A significant chunk of BBC Sport’s savings target will be delivered through the immediate termination of our TV rights agreement for Formula 1.
“Any decision to have to stop broadcasting a particular sport or sporting event is hugely disappointing and taken reluctantly. There are no easy solutions; all of the options available would be unpopular with audiences.”
The BBC has been forced to cut its annual spend significantly, following a license renewal agreement which saw it now responsible for subsidising the license fees of the elderly. The Open golf championship was handed over to Sky a year before the contract was set to conclude and the BDO Darts competition and the world snooker championships are still under threat.
Ecclestone tried to play hardball with the BBC, refusing to give them a cut price deal similar to the one free to air RTL had been awarded in Germany. The BBC then threatened to pull out of Formula One and Ecclestone retorted claiming he could enforce the contract for three more years if he pleased.
However, the BBC fought back and implied if their hand was forced, they would meet their obligations to by merely broadcasting the F1 world feed as contracted, but with minimal presentation and production. Not flying the current team around the world and paying for satellite time would still have seen millions a year wiped out of the BBC’s spend on Formula One.
It is probable that the Channel 4 deal will see the FOM hosting fee subsidised by the BBC until 2018, which for many will appear bizarre. Whilst it may sound ridiculous having to pay for something and not getting anything in return, when that means an overall reduction in spend, this kind of decision is not unusual. Retail chains regularly close unprofitable stores though they have to pay the lease on the property for years to come.
The BBC has won the fight with Ecclestone and simply cut its losses on Formula One, which at present is a sport in decline with their viewers.
Bernie Ecclestone said today: “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.”
Sounds a touch like sour grapes from Bernie – but its only to be expected.
There is good news for F1 fans in the UK as Jay Hunt, Channel 4 Chief Creative Officer explains: “Channel 4 and Formula One are the perfect partnership. We’ve the same appetite for innovation and we’ll be demonstrating that to fans by becoming the first free-to-air commercial broadcaster to show the races ad free.”
The broadcaster says it will name its line up of presenters and reveal its plans fully in the new year. Channel 4 made a competing bid against the BBC in 2011 to broadcast Formula One. Their 10 point plan was then as follows.
Clearly, the subsequent deal with Sky precludes some of the possibilities Channel 4 hoped to realise in 2011, yet the broadcaster is charged by statute to offer innovation ‘in the form and content’ of its programmes as part of its public service responsibilities.
C4 won almost universal praise for it’s refreshing and lively approach when it wrestled some cricket content from the BBC so maybe Formula One fans can take heart from this, particularly as cricket is a game that’s hardly a laugh a minute. They also have invested in growing grass roots cricket in conjunction with the EWCB, utilising their brand image as a ‘cool channel’ for kids. having secured the cricket deal, Channel 4 distributed cricket resource packs to every primary and secondary school in the country.
This commercial public broadcaster reinvests its profits back into programming and is also synonymous with Horse Racing broadcasting in the UK, another sport not well known for its youthful audience. Yet in the latest annual report, C4 revealed that viewers of Horse Racing between the ages 16-34 had leapt by 34% in one year. It will be fascinating to see the plans Channel 4 have for improving F1’s visibility with the younger generation, something the sport is in desperate need of. This will begin with the commercial partner they chose for branding their broadcasts.