Why the UK government must protect live F1 broadcasts on free-to-air television


It's essential for F1's continued popularity that it remains on free TV

It's essential for F1's continued popularity that it remains on free TV

F1’s return to the BBC in 2009 was a success story to rival that of Brawn GP. Formula 1 coverage in Britain has at long last emerged from the dark days of ad-ridden and suffocatingly populist ITV.

What a shame, then, that the British government is about to pass up on its first opportunity in a decade to guarantee the continued coverage of F1 on free-to-air television in a country which excels at the sport.

Why F1 should be a protected sporting event

Inevitably there is much discussion to be had about which sport events deserve protected status. The EU criteria is as follows:

Each Member State may take measures in accordance with Community law to ensure that broadcasters under its jurisdiction do not broadcast on an exclusive basis events which are regarded by that Member State as being of national importance for society in such a way as to deprive a sustantial proportion of the public in that Member State of the possibility of following such events by live coverage or deferred coverage on free television.
EU Audio Visual Media Services Directive

The Department for Culture, Media and Sport interprets this as follows:

  • It is a pre-eminent national or international event in the sport
  • It involves the national team or national representatives in the sport concerned
  • It is likely to command a large television audience
  • It has a history of being broadcast live of free-to-air services

“Review of Free-to-Air Listed Events” by the Independent Advisory Board to the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport

F1 satisfies all of these criteria: to begin with, it is the most eminent event in motor racing and has been broadcast free-to air for the last three decades.

Britain not only has two national representative drivers – Jenson Button and Lewis Hamilton – but they are also the two most recent drivers’ champions. The new constructors’ champions, Brawn, are also British, and the majority of F1 teams are based in Britain.

And F1 is likely to command an audience at least as large as some of the other events which have been granted protected status, such as the Ashes cricket tournament. According to the report:

The average live TV audience per session of play during the 2005 Ashes series on Channel 4 was 2.4m.

This year at least ten of the 17 F1 races had audiences in excess of 4m, and the Brazilian Grand Prix was watched by 6.6m (source: BARB).

But the report makes scant mention of any form of motor racing. The only noteworthy reference to F1 is as follows:

The BBC defends the absence of a clear commitment to listed events by saying “it must assess the value of particular sports to licence fee payers taking into account the public service value to the BBC’s portfolio.” In practical terms, this has meant in recent times that the BBC has declined to bid for cricket Test Matches (Group B Listed) but paid a substantial sum of money for the rights to Formula 1 Motor Racing (not currently listed).

Far from being criticised for snubbing a listed event in favour of a non-listed one, the BBC should be applauded for having a better understanding of which sports the British public want to watch than the IAB does.

This is probably because the board’s consultation with the public was meagre at best. They polled just 148 people (a minimum sample size of 1,000 is usually acceptable for such surveys). For what it’s worth, five wanted all F1 races protected, four asked for just the British Grand Prix, and one wanted all motor racing protected. But such a tiny sample can hardly be considered representative.

Will F1 stay free-to-air?

F1 may be on free-to-air television in Britain at the moment but we cannot take for granted that will always be the case. Bernie Ecclestone has moved F1 coverage in other countries to higher-paying pay TV companies. Pay TV is less widespread in Britain than in several other European countries – uptake is around 50% – so F1’s audience would be slashed if it moved, and F1 fans would have to pay to watch.

Car manufacturers had urged F1 to remain on free-to-air television in the interest of reaching the widest possible audience. But with Honda, BMW, Toyota and possibly Renault all leaving that may change. Ecclestone would surely love a more lucrative TV deal with Sky to help pay the CVC bill. Formula 1 Administration were among the sporting bodies who made a submission for the report but the content of it is not recorded.

Here in Britain we are lucky to have some of the best live F1 coverage in the world – perhaps the best. Britain plays a uniquely important role in Formula 1 and motor racing in general. Other countries have successful teams (Italy) or successful drivers (Brazil) but only Britain has had both in recent years.

The government’s refusal to put Formula 1 on the list of protected sporting events may jeopardise the continued popularity of a sport which Britain excels at, and an industry which employs thousands and generates millions of pounds.

Outside Britain

Among European countries Austria, Belgium, Finland, Frace, Germany, Ireland and Italy have protected sporting events. Outside the EU Australia’s equivalent – called the “anti-siphoning list” – has the largest roster of protected events with more than 25.

Do you live in any of these regions – and if so do you know if F1 or any motor racing events have protected status? Do you think F1 should have protected status in Britain or anywhere else? Have your say in the comments.

NB. The report proposed the list should contain the following events: the Olympics, World Cup and European football championship (including home nation qualifiers), Grand National (horse racing), FA Cup Final, Scottish FA Cup Final (Scotland only), Wimbledon (tennis), The Open (golf), The Ashes (cricket), Rugby Union World Cup and Welsh Six Nations Rugby matches (Wales only). The Winter Oympic Games, the Derby and the Rugby League Challenge Cup Final were all removed from the protected list.


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93 comments on Why the UK government must protect live F1 broadcasts on free-to-air television

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  1. Jay Menon said on 14th November 2009, 8:04

    Yeah, Brits are lucky to get BBC coverage for free, its brilliant!

    We in Asia have to pay money to watch a rubbish coverage! I dont think we have such a list of protected sports here in Malaysia, even if we did, it wouldn’t matter as nobody watches local sports. Having said that, the few local sports that we’re actually good at (i.e. badminton/squash) are all broadcast through pay satellite TV, so I guessing we dont have this protected list.

    Most Asians watch European/American sports anyway (F1, BPL, ATP, NBA, NFL etc.) apart from India of course, the rest of the world watches their league (IPL).

    • Ugghhhhh… ESPN Star…

      Agree with you there, even for your southern neighbours (such as myself), sporting events are primarily pay-per-view, unless it’s important enough that free-for-air (Mediocre-corp) shows it, such as the Olympics (selected events only).

      Our local main cable TV provider lost the BPL rights recently to it’s competitor, and there was such a huge outcry that the matter was raised in Parliament…

    • Hallard said on 16th November 2009, 17:13

      As an American F1 fan, I am deeply envious that so many of you can watch F1 for free. I have to pay 40-something dollars per month to get a cable package with the Speed channel, and I basically pay it just to have live F1 coverage. That being said, Speed’s F1 coverage and commentary are surprisingly good.

      • cindi said on 18th November 2009, 4:11

        But the worst thing is when Speed shows the F1 recap and the Inside Grand Prix shows at weird times – like 1am on the west coast! The other downside is that F1 goes to Fox for 4 races in the middle of hte summer – at noon – HOURS after the race is over. If Speed delivered even 10% of their coverage to F1 rather than NASCAR it would be ok – but it’s tiring to constantly have F1 bumped for red-neck racing!

  2. As a British F1 fan who is unlikely to ever subscribe to Sky, I would like coverage to remain on free-to-air TV and on the BBC, but if you look at the list of sports they have included and the ones they have left out I think the best we could hope for would be the that the British Grand Prix was included and the rest of the races put on the list of sports where highlights have to be shown on free-to-air TV.

    As well as the teams and their sponsors wanting F1 to remain on free-to-air TV for more exposure, I wasn’t sure if in the past Ecclestone had said the same thing. However considering we have lost the US and other Grand Prix, when the manufacturers wanted to keep them, and with Ecclestone needing to get as much money for CVC as possible, I wouldn’t be surprised if in the future F1 did move to pay TV.

  3. steph said on 14th November 2009, 9:16

    The BBC have invested so much that I think they have the commitment in place to deal with this.
    I have said.many times that I hate government involvement and they certainly should never have control over the media so the very fact they have these powers is completely wrong. Mandelson has got a cheek saying we must have the Brit GP and then ignoring this issue. It’s all show no action. Even with you don’t like the drivers or the tracks they GP show that Britain has a love of motorsport and can contribute to it. We have a few teams based here too.
    I don’t think we will lose free to view F1. But right now if we did it would be a big mistake. It would be a populist move by looking at the success of other sports and would show the government truly ignorant of Britain’s real sporting heritage.
    Finally to all fanatics that pay I’m sorry you have to, the UK is very lucky.

    • steph said on 14th November 2009, 9:18

      *free to air :p.sorry got lost in my rant and was fiddling with my freeview :p

      • Accidental Mick said on 15th November 2009, 15:16

        Sorry Steph, nitpicking again (my favourite occupation :-) )
        In Britain we DO have to pay – we pay by means of the license fee.

        Forgive my ignorance but do othrt nation have to pay to watch television regardless of what they are watching?

  4. Mussolini's Pet Cat said on 14th November 2009, 9:28

    One of the greatest aspects of the BBC’s coverage has been the ‘red button’ service. Not only have i enjoyed the practice sessions but also the showing of classic GP’s and Murray Walkers segments have been superb. It’s a shame then that the ‘red button’ service looks like it’s going to be dropped in the near future.

    • jemnery said on 15th November 2009, 8:32

      It’s a shame then that the ‘red button’ service looks like it’s going to be dropped in the near future

      Really? I’ve really enjoyed the practice sessions and would hate to lose them again. Where did you hear this?

      • Before the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix the BBC made some changes to it’s red button service. To make space for HD channels on Freeview in the future, they had to switch off two of the three interactive streams on Freeview, the News Multiscreen and I think it was channel 302, these are still available on Sky and Vigin Media and 301 is still available on Freeview.

        So after the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix the F1 Forum was not available on Freeview as the red button channel was being used for the New York Marathon.

        I haven’t read that the BBC will be stopping broadcasting practice and the forum on Freeview next season but if there is another major event on it might get priority on Freeview and you would only get the extra F1 coverage either if you have Sky or Virgin or from the BBC website.


        • jemnery said on 15th November 2009, 9:00

          Ah, OK, thanks for the info. I was watching on Virgin cable so didn’t notice that the forum wasn’t available to all.

          I guess practice sessions are unlikely to clash with other major events, and would still be on the beeb’s website. I was just a bit concerned that they were cutting coverage for budgetary, not bandwidth reasons.

  5. Xanathos said on 14th November 2009, 9:56

    I’m not sure if Formula 1 has some kind of protected status here in Germany, but free-TV broadcaster RTL had no problem to stop broadcasting the qualifying session for the brazilian GP in favour of their regular schedule. However, it is unlikely that the broadcasting rights will change any time soon, RTL (propably Germany’s equivalent to ITV) has them since the late 80s. During the 90s, Premiere (now SKY TV), a pay-TV station, is also broadcasting F1, but I have never seen one of “their” races, I only know that they are ad-free.

    One word to the BBC coverage: Everyone who is complaining about their coverage should watch one race on RTL, just to see how bad it can be, even with an experienced broadcaster. I was able to watch the Abu Dhabi GP and several pre-race shows on the BBC and in comparison to RTL it was so much better. The pre-race shows on RTL have degenerated to one-hour Vettel worshipping without any meaningful information, even before qualifying. Regardless of the actual championship standings, they were promoting a “duel” for the championship between Button and Vettel from the chinese GP onwards, Webber and Barrichello were barely mentioned, let alone their championship chances.
    And if you think Jonathan Legard is bad, wait until you hear Heiko Waßer, he is getting worse year by year. By now, he basically fails to show any excitement at the start of the race and at the end of the Italian GP he showed his deep understanding for the sport and the drivers by expecting Barrichello to “let Button through for the championship” any minute.
    The only half-decent people in their team are co-commentator Christian Danner (who is also messing up some times) and pundit Niki Lauda. But the most annoying person is their pit-lane reporter, Kai Ebel:

    So, please appreciate how lucky you are….

    • yeh, the local commentators in australia aren’t too bad but like i say below, they don’t really commentate the race, just breif summaries before and after ads.

      i was so angry at the end of the brazilian gp last year. after possibly the most exciting championship conclusion we will ever see, the coverage was pulled before we got to see any of the post race press conference!!! back then we didn’t have the One HD channel so it was just on the standard def one. (the thing is One HD is a sports exclusive channel so they will allow broadcasts to run over time (like brazil and japan qualifying this year)).

      overall, i have to say i’m pretty happy with the broadcast we get here, but some races are just inconvenient. Eg: brazil- 3am, as with US (RIP) and Canada (soon to be resurrected). the european rounds usually start at around 10pm which is quite ok. abu dhabi started at midnight.

    • Keith Collantine (@keithcollantine) said on 14th November 2009, 17:10

      So, please appreciate how lucky you are….

      I absolutely do – F1 coverage in Britain has been fantastic this year, the best it’s ever been. It would be terrible if it went off free TV.

  6. in Australia, we get all the GPs broad cast live free to air on “One HD” which just takes the bbc coverage and sticks ads in it. although we do get a locally made preview show for the hour before the race start and then the hosts have a chat to peter windsor and then they hand over to the bbc until just before and just after ad breaks. for those who do not have a high def set top box/ high def tuner of any other sought (or are like my parents and live in the ignorant world of standard definition), there is a replay, usuall super late at night/early in the morning without the preview show on ‘Channel 10″. Hopefully at some stage the ABC will pick it up to rid the ads but that’ll never happen.

    oh yeh, and we also get qualifying on One HD (not always live though). Standard def viewers miss out. and everyone thinks i’m mad when i say i’m watching practice tonight cause they have no idea what tis cause it isn’t broadcast at all. so i rely on you guys with the blog and internet feeds/ live timing. it makes me mildly depressed that i can’t do that for 4 more months. but then i’ll be in melbourne for round 2! yay. turn 1 grandstand…

    i think the f1 must be protected here for free to air. i’ve not heard any rumours that it will be shafted to fox or anything. i know A1GP was originally broadcast free to air but it never really took off so now it’s only available on a pay service from foxtel.

    • A1GP was only ever shown on FTA as a 60min highlights package weeks after the actual races happened.

      F1 isn’t on Channel 10/ONE’s high priorities list though. You just need to look at the shabby way it was treated around the Brazilian GP because of the 20/20 Champions League thing in India. They originally wanted to show the race on delay by 6hrs because they just don’t care about it … mind you, we all know how much better their coverage would be if Webber was in the title hunt.

      I hate sport on FTA in Australia. Listening to Greg Rust bleet on about “Australia’s Mark Webber” and “Australia’s Casey Stoner” – ugh.

      • Tom11 said on 6th August 2011, 10:31

        Is it just me or is OneHD throwing in far too many commercials these days? At Silverstone it was absurd! Webber was putting in very fast lap times and catching on the pack, I could see it on my timing but we were watching a Video Hits preview or some garbage.

  7. Just a small point Keith, but for the usually used statistical significance of 5%, the maximum sample size needed is only 400 (not the 1,000 that you mention). Of course, this depends on the size of the population from which one is sampling – the article at http://people.usd.edu/~mbaron/edad810/Krejcie.pdf explains it well.

    • Keith Collantine (@keithcollantine) said on 14th November 2009, 17:08

      Interesting – I used to work in PR and if we were doing anthing survey-related our rule of thumb was a minimum sample size of 1,000. Which is still small when we’re a population of, what, 60 million?

  8. Icthyes said on 14th November 2009, 10:32

    I hope F1 isn’t taken off free-to-air television. It would be an utter disgrace and a repeat of the current Silverstone situation, in which the product in questioned is threatened by the interests of greed and betrayed by a government with its priorities both wrong and hypocritical (just as the Olympics is getting huge amounts more than Silverstone is asking for, in this situation the government would be protecting the Ashes and not F1, even though more people watch the latter). Then again, this government has done so much to let our manufacturing and car industries down over the past decade that I wonder if they actually do know what damage they’re doing, and doing deliberately.

    I’m moving to Canada and if all goes well with that I won’t be enjoying the standard and quality of coverage the BBC provides, but I’d sure hate to think everyone else was being deprived of it too. We have Sky now but just two packages – even a basic sports package is in my opinion way too much. If it was £5 for a complete motor sports package then maybe I’d pay, but we just got rid of (as Keith says) the ad-ridden populism of ITV, I’d hate to see that return any time soon.

  9. Ciaran said on 14th November 2009, 10:48

    keep f1 free to air.about 4 years ago in ireland,f1 changed from the national broadcaster rte to private sattilite company setanta.and look where setanta is now.
    infact the only channel i can watch f1 on is bbc.even then i have a problem.since my house is in front of a hill,sometimes the telly goes scrambled.so i miss the gp.

  10. Nitpicker said on 14th November 2009, 10:49

    I think that first paragraph on ITV was a bit harsh. Adverts were always going to be an unavoidable problem — but in return they improved the F1 coverage enormously from the old BBC days: recruiting Martin Brundle to commentate, introducing the grid walks, hour-long build up shows…

    • What I never understand about the adverts is football never gets disrupted yet for F1 they were every 10-15minutes. Sure football has half time but F1 could have been left in peace from them for much longer.

      • With an F1 race ITV faced going about one and a half hours without an ad break whereas for Football the time is half that at 45 minutes, and then they manage to squeeze in as many ad breaks as possible when the game isn’t being played, they can usually get at least three ad breaks in during the 15 minute half time.

        During the ad breaks I would have liked to have seen the race displayed in a small window on screen while the ads played, this would keep have kept me watching as I usually change channels during ad breaks. I believe this happens in some countries, but I don’t know if ITV would have been allowed to do this.

        • Accidental Mick said on 15th November 2009, 15:23

          I watched one of the races in a bar in Valencia this year and was impressed that adverts were shown on a split screen with the race still being shown in the other half.

    • Yep …for a commercial TV company where populism and big bucks call the shots ITV Sport made a fair fist of what the put on air for F1 fans.
      The guys running the actual coverage were clearly dedicated to doing a better job than the old ( and very poor quality ) BBC tv stuff. They tried lots of new ideas that we now take for granted.

      But of course their coverage was always going to be hamstrung by ITV’s crippling need for advertising revenue. We are, in reality, damn lucky in UK to have Auntie Beeb and the dear old licence fee.

      As some of the posts here from around the world show very clearly.

  11. Rob R. said on 14th November 2009, 10:57

    I think F1 should improve the show itself, instead of begging for special protections from politicians.

    • Depends on how you define “show”…

      For us, it’s the thrill of seeing red-blooded racers running hellbent for leather against each other on the track, where driver and team ability determine the outcome.

      For Bernie, the “show” is about moving the F1 circus to organised processions in far-off and exotic locations with far more money than taste, vulgar displays of gold-plated, diamond studded wealth and lurid scandals which you’ll read about in the supermarket tabloids…

  12. I’ve just set up a petition to number 10 for this. It should go live within five working days, and if we can get 500 signatures, we can get an actual response: http://petitions.number10.gov.uk/ProtectedF1

  13. Fradetti said on 14th November 2009, 11:54

    I live in Italy and I can tell you something about our situation:

    F1 races have a really big audience (maybe less this year, but in the Schumacher-Ferrari era the audience was spectacular) and they are shown on FTA national TV (RAI 1). The coverage only includes qualifying, the race and a gp2 race on sunday morning. The worst thing is the commentary… too much Ferrari-centric and very confused.

    In 2008 and 2009 there was also a pay-tv coverage on sky (very complete coverage: all free practice, marc genè as commentator) but next year they’re dropping it.

    Being a F1 fan and a geek I installed for myself a motorized dish antenna and I always follow BBC coverage: no ads, full coverage and great gridwalks with Brundle.

  14. John H said on 14th November 2009, 12:13

    If you look at the list of sports, they are all last for 1 or 2 weeks at most, apart from the cricket.

    As much as I would detest a move to Sky and wish F1 was on a protected list, trying to be completely unbiased, F1 is not a national sport or event… like cricket and the grand ntational respectively for example.

    We just have to sit and hope the BBC can hang onto F1. If only Bernie would just go away. If only.

  15. If Britain is going to protect F1’s free-to-air coverage then it would only make sense for the British Grand Prix to be covered.

    In most cases it is only the event that is significant in Britain that is covered… for instance it is not all the golf majors, only The Open. It is not all cricket, it is just the Ashes.

  16. Sush Meerkat said on 14th November 2009, 12:45

    For what it’s worth, five wanted all F1 races protected, four asked for just the British Grand Prix, and one wanted all motor racing protected.

    Thats because all F1 fans are indoors furiously looking for F1 news updates, we haven’t got time to go out and answer surveys.

    • Sush Meerkat said on 14th November 2009, 12:49

      sorry I should elaborate on my previous comment.

      Essentially they’ve gone to a part of the UK that isn’t interested in motor sport, probably north wales… you should see the hate for Rallying over there.

  17. HounslowBusGarage said on 14th November 2009, 12:47

    Keith, I’m on your side, but I think your coparison here is flawed.

    And F1 is likely to command an audience at least as large as some of the other events which have been granted protected status, such as the Ashes cricket tournament. According to the report:

    The average live TV audience per session of play during the 2005 Ashes series on Channel 4 was 2.4m.

    This year at least ten of the 17 F1 races had audiences in excess of 4m, and the Brazilian Grand Prix was watched by 6.6m (source: BARB).

    The average audience per session of play in 2005 includes morning and afternoon sessions of weekday play when most of the target audience is at work or studying. To make a fair comparison, you’d need to compare all televised grand prix sessions (practice and qualifyig on Friday and Saturday) if they were broadcast in 2009. If they weren’t broadcast, then you can only compare 2009 F1 race audience figures with 2005 Ashes Cricket weekend sessions only. Regrettably, I think the figures would be very different.

    • Bullfrog said on 14th November 2009, 16:14

      Weekend sessions only – brilliant idea – that’s what should be on the protected list: just the F1 races (all of them), and just the saturday and sunday cricket (all the England tests, not just every 4 years…) Put the other sessions on a BBC Sport subscription channel, that would help them compete for rights.

      Is F1 on free TV under threat in any way, or are F1 fans just crying because they didn’t get a mention on the news?

  18. ConcedoNulli said on 14th November 2009, 13:07

    If I remember correctly Bernie sent the Labour Party/Tony Blair a £1M “donation” to ensure that HIS interests were protected. I know it was “returned” but I’m sure that it made it’s way back into Blair’s wallet as a consultancy fee.

    Bernie will always want to sell to the highest bidder and our British politicians and quangos will always welcome the chance to skim some sterling into their bank accounts.

    I imagine the only complaints would come from the sponsors who would like their mobile billboards viewed by as many suckers as possible.


    A Cynic

  19. John Edwards said on 14th November 2009, 13:14

    The thing is Ecclestone knows full well F1 will die if he sells it to Sky. He may get a bit more money from Sky directly, but the actual exposure i.e. getting companies brands into the world is greatly reduced.

    Sponsors leave, end of F1.

    • Exactly. Bernie went mental when ITV threatened to broadcast the Canadian GP on ITV4 a couple of years ago. He knows that for F1 to continue its massive exposure in Britain, it needs to be on free-to-air TV.

  20. Daniel said on 14th November 2009, 13:15

    I honestly don’t know if there is such a list of protected sporting events here in Brazil, but I think a rational model is the one adopted here:

    Races and Qualifying are transmitted by free television (Globo TV), but the other sessions and events (practices and press conferences) are broadcasted by Globo’s cable channel (Sportv), except when a brazilian driver wins, when they also broadcast the post-race press conference on their free television channel…

    I also wanna repeat that here in Vrazil we don’t have ad breaks during the race, but breif ads, with the sponsor’s logo on the upper right corner and five seconds of their audio announce, but preserving the live images… that’s quite clever and much better then the british model… sorry for the messed up english…

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