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

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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

  1. 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.

  2. 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?

  3. 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.

    Regards

    A Cynic

  4. 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.

  5. 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…

  6. Here in Canada we have to watch F1 on TSN (The Sports Network) and we get no pre race or post race coverage, just the race.
    I have a satelite provider by the name of Bell Express Vu.
    I wouldn’t be surprised to see TSN drop F1 coverage soon though.

  7. IqbalM said on 14th November 2009, 14:59

    Why isn’t there an agreement within the FIA/FOM/FOTA that F1 should be on FTA worldwide?

    • steph90 said on 14th November 2009, 15:14

      Should be some protection but there is probably little than can be done. It’s more down to if the stations want to air it or not and what money can they get.

  8. Crid [CridComment @ gmail] said on 14th November 2009, 16:03

    Listen, I’m here in the States, and I think this is just commie ****. There’s no reason the average taxpayer should be on the hook so that people who like to watch sports on TV can get their thrills. Taxes are taken from people and gunpoint… To spend that money on something as frivolous as auto racing on television is madness.

    Ethically speaking, commercial television is the way to go… Or pay TV. The people who want this stuff in their lives should pay for it. That’s the only way for us to know what it’s worth!

    (Hmmm? Me, personally? Well, I’ve watched the last three seasons through internet torrents… Why do you ask?)

    • steph90 said on 14th November 2009, 16:35

      We pay TV license to subsidise the BBC and help the industry in Britain which can cost a bit so we should get a say where the money goes. If we don’t like it then we don’t pay the free.
      The government should have no right to interfere or ignore it as they are now choosing to do as it isn’t really a typical government issue and the rights should go to TV industry in my opinion and they can protect it.

      • Crid [CridComment @ gmail] said on 14th November 2009, 16:50

        Oh, I thought the fees were compulsory for everyone… Apologies.

        In any case, I like the BBC team. Brundle’s excellent, Legard is a little annoying, but I felt the same way about James Allen… But I was wrong!, and I miss Allen a lot.

        Let’s face it, the real magic is from the F1 feed. Just a couple of races ago, I forget where, but we cut to a car camera just as it was leaving the track to crash… I’m certain this “take” was an automatically switched by some of the technologies that Bernie’s investment created during the pay-per-view venture a few years ago.

        Especially when watching the older races on Justin.TV , we see that the quality of the television coverage has improved stupendously in recent times. Just a few years ago, we were at the mercy of whatever local staff had come to the track on race day. The old Italian races in particular looked like ‘Spaghetti Western’ movies from the 1970s… All snap zooms and jump cuts, with no narrative courtesies at all.

        I’ve really enjoyed (stealing) the BBC coverage! At this point I’d rather see the race on even a small TV screen than in person…. (Exceptions: Monaco and Spa.)

    • Keith Collantine (@keithcollantine) said on 14th November 2009, 17:06

      The TV licence is exactly that – it’s a licence, not a tax, and it’s not compulsory.

  9. Crid [CridComment @ gmail] said on 14th November 2009, 16:06

    AT gunpoint etc.

  10. Kimster said on 14th November 2009, 16:29

    In Finland you do have to pay to watch F1, because it comes live on MTV MAX, and then a edited 1 hour replay comes at around 6:00 PM for the European Races.

    Not that it is that important but to get SPEED HD the channel F1 comes on in the US you have to pay ~$60/month so that it is included in the package. Though I do have to say that SPEED commentators especially Steve Matchett and David Hobbs are some of the best, and though the BBC pre-race/post-race coverage is better, the race commentary in my opinion is better on SPEED.

    • F1Yankee said on 14th November 2009, 17:46

      i agree completely. hopefully next year Speed will produce a top-notch program similar to BBC, but i doubt it.

  11. In Australia the only protected race is the Australian Grand Prix. Specifically:

    “Each race in the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile Formula 1 World Championship (Grand Prix) held in Australia.”

    Same applies to the Moto GP and IndyCar series’.

    All rounds of the local V8 taxi racing are protected.

    Reference: http://www.dbcde.gov.au/television/antisiphoning_and_antihoarding/sport_on_television__review_of_the_anti-siphoning_scheme_discussion_paper/sport_on_television_-_a_review_of_the_anti-siphoning_scheme_discussion_paper2/9

  12. Dakshin said on 14th November 2009, 18:21

    I agree with the comments on ESPN Star in India… Chris Goodwin (Mclaren test driver) was good, but they ditched him for some reason. Why doesnt Bernie establish some kind of webcast (paid of course) of the races? Any one know? I would be happy to pay for a quality webcast, rather than watch a grainy hacked feed or have to hunt around for free feeds at 5AM in the morning when they are taken down by Bernie’s minions. BTW I live in the US currently and dont have a TV :)

  13. I don’t know what you guys are talking about. I live in USA, we don’t have a concept of commercial free uninterrupted coverage. I think there are 3-5 free channels here. They are all worthless unless you want the local news.

    Protect what you have because the alternative sucks.

  14. Here in Portugal it was on RTP1 (kind of a portuguese BBC) for free, but since 2007 it is on SportTV, which you have too pay for!

    It isn’t cheep! I watch F1 on Justin TV ever since…

  15. Hello all.
    Being Portuguese i can really relate to this article. Here F1 used to be in the state TV (RTP) but since a years back its on a payed sports channel (payed as in as much as 50 euros per month). And that has hurt the sport’s image here, even if we have drivers in risk of entering F1 (Alvaro Parente) we still don’t here that much about F1 on public tv.In the mid 90’s there was even programs on it..the day after Senna’s accident the portuguese parliament held a minute of silence..
    I followed F1 this year through Filmon Hdi which broadcasts BBC. Although not being British, F1 on BBC has another feeling to it.Hope it stays on BBC.

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