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

CommentPosted on | Author Keith Collantine

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. 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.

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

    1. 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.

  3. Crid [CridComment @ gmail]
    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?)

    1. 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.

      1. Crid [CridComment @ gmail]
        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.)

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

  4. Crid [CridComment @ gmail]
    14th November 2009, 16:06

    AT gunpoint etc.

  5. 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.

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

  6. 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

    1. HounslowBusGarage
      14th November 2009, 20:51

      “taxi racing”. I like that description!

  7. 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 :)

  8. 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.

  9. 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…

  10. 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.

  11. Mike "the bike" Schumacher
    14th November 2009, 22:22

    I live in Ireland.
    When Eddie Irvine retired and Jordan finally sold, and with the F1 getting dearer, R.T.E. our national broadcasting station sold the rights to TV3, who are also free but only ran highlights for a year, then it went to Setanta who are pay per view,
    Instead of watching terrible highlights I had to by a €400 satilite to get itv coverage, which was miles better than R.T.E.
    But because it is now pay per view, interest in Ireland has inevitably dropped. Only the hardcore fans still watch it. Even the only F1 shop that I know of in Ireland has closed(well maybe there are a few in Dublin but i’ve never seen them).
    Thanks Bernie.

  12. Nice 1 Keith I also agree F1 needs to be protected by Government.

  13. Not so sure about GB. But its always has been on Free to air TV in Australia.

  14. Here in Florida, I watch F1 on Speed TV, which is included in basic digital packages (not PPV) on cable or satellite. It’s not free. We do get full coverage of the race, including a half-hour pre-race with Peter Windsor walking the grid, Saturday qualifying, Friday afternoon practice, a 1-hour recap show of the previous race (F1 De-brief) and a 1/2 hour F1 news magazine show that highlights this week’s host country and other featured F1 stories (Inside F1). The commentator team of Bob Varsha (Host), David Hobbs, Steve Matchett and Peter Winsdor is fantastic; their combined insight, knowledge and experience create a fantastic show.

    In the summer, Fox broadcasts 4 or 5 races instead of Speed, and this is free, over-the air in HD (Speed is SD). It’s the same team of commentators. Only the Sunday coverage is changed, and Speed still broadcasts the practice, qualifying and other shows. But Fox tape delays the broadcasts into our afternoon, and doesn’t allow the time for the pre-race grid walk, or the after race wrap up; they give the event a 2-hour slot and that’s it.

    Of course I’d rather have the extended coverage, in HD, free over-the-air, with no worries of a rain delay or safety cars making the event run longer than the fixed time allotted by an indifferent network, but that perfect combo doesn’t exist for me right now. The coverage I get by subscribing to a dedicated racing channel seems like a great value to me, and I hope Speed keeps up the great work. I can’t wait to see who they replace Peter Windsor with.

    1. I agree Mike Speed coverage is awesome… but for some reason the quali and race are blacked out here in Canada… go figure… but the rest of the shows are exceptional…

  15. you guys have it good over there in the UK for sure… I not only have to get up at 5am for races we only get the race in standard def on TSN… We used to get it on Speed as it’s on my dish but this year to my surprise come qualifying for Australia… it was blacked out!! I freaked!.. all year for some reason the racing channel blacked it out… so at least I had TSN for quali and races… all the rest was justintv and downloads…

    I was also wondering if we will get F1 in true HD next year.. they said that Abu Dhabi was in HD? This sport needs to be in High Definition…

    Cheers all… :)

  16. I’m a firm believer in the free market system. So, no, I don’t think Formula 1 should get a decree from any country’s government saying it must be broadcast on free-to-air television. That is discriminatory against pay-cable(& satellite) networks.

    Frankly, I don’t see that any sport should have it’s whole season protected, though in some cases I can see making an exception to the rule if the country’s people as well as it’s government agree that the event is seen as “being of national importance for society in such a way as to deprive a sustantial[sic] proportion of the public in that Member State of the possibility of following such events by live coverage or deferred coverage on free television”, and this only when it’s an event that’s popularly regarded as a top-notch event in the sport. The Olympics, for example. Times are hard, and not everyone can afford cable/satellite television, and everyone should have some exposure to important sporting events in their own country, as well as worldwide events.

    Yes, this is the view of a capitalist. And it’s worked well for me, lo these many years. Usually works pretty well in business, too. And make no mistake about it, F1 broadcasting is a business. Mr. Ecclestone has seen to that, these past years.

    Here in the United states, the most popular form of auto racing is NASCAR. Why? One big reason is because it’s the most accessible. F1, Rally, and most other racing series, are all on Speed or one of the other pay channels. Sponsors get less exposure for the money when the car they sponsor is in a series shown only on cable. Less viewers than free-to-air commercial television. ( Oh, and did I mention that even on Speed, which one pays EXTRA to the cable company to get, there are commercials ?!?!?!).

    NASCAR teams have no problems at all finding sponsors. Even the little teams, or brand new ones. Always a company willing to invest, as they know their logo will be seen by millions at least once a week for 4 hours. And if it’s a winning team, they know it will get seen a lot more, in interviews, and on t-shirts the fans buy.

    (And even the mighty giant NASCAR has slipped in viewership in recent years, primarily since they started broadcasting a large portion of their season on a pay cable/satellite channel.)

    Formula 1, on the other hand, is losing sponsors at the same speed at which rats desert a sinking ship. Eventually, Ecclestone will wise up, or someone at CVC will notice the bottom line is looking a bit thin, and things will improve in terms of readiness of availability of the FOM broadcasts for free-to-air markets.

    I hope.

    In the meantime, I will continue to enjoy the fine quality internet torrents shared by some of the nicest people in the world, because I-like Crid-don’t have television. (Crid, are we related? LOL)

    1. Crid [CridComment @ gmail]
      15th November 2009, 8:23

      > are we related? LOL)

      My long-lost brother!

      But let’s give props where due: Bernie’s producing some of the finest television the medium has ever known. Youth, technology, personality, kinetics… F1 has it all.

      Every time I walk past a tv with Nascar on it, and all those little very heterosexual men are bunched up snug next to each other in a cluster, on the same lap with no hills and only left-hand curves, I wonder what went wrong with our wonderful country. We got Talladega, they got Monaco.

    2. ABC pays a lot of money for the rights to broadcast NASCAR over the air; if ESPN or SPEED were the high bidder then America might have to pay to watch it on cable or satellite. It happened with Monday Night Football, the most popular sports show on TV, and the country dealt with it. Capitalism in action!

  17. The Bernie ‘bribe’ to the Labour party has made matters much more harder than they need to be…

  18. Here in South Africa we have to pay for satellite telly to be able to watch most major sports. Everything from Premiership Football to athletics is broadcast on satellite telly. If you don’t have it, the only sport you can watch is local football, which is rubbish.

    SuperSport provides a great service in respect of so many sports, rugby, football and golf are all top notch, but our F1 team is useless. The team consists of a radio DJ who calls himself a “F1 guru” (with a horrible bias in respect of Ferrari so you get at least 3 references to “My-call Shoe-Maaah-ker” every race, a formula VW (SA’s only wings and slicks racing category) engineer who’s sole excuse for a lack of pace from Ferrari is “the others must all be running the softer tyre and low fuel loads”, and multiple SA champion driver guy who once drove Le Mans cars and who currently drives a Mini in touring cars… special.

    They host one show on the Wednesday before the race called “Absolute F1” which is poor. It seems like they just go to autosport.com for proper news and make up the rest as they go along. They provide “commentary” for Free Practice which is so boring, inaccurate and dull that you end up falling asleep or throwing your shoe at the TV. The quali and race broadcast is introduced by them and then grudgingly handed over to Brundle and the BBC on the parade lap after having wasted your time telling you useless, inaccurate predictions, and dropping every F1 cliché in the book. They are so poor. I also think that any Fanatic on this site could do a better job!

    I don’t really care if F1 stays free to air in the UK, I just hope we keep on getting good commentary from the likes of Brundle’s, because I really would die if I was left in the hands of our fools!

  19. I agree with all others who live in Asia, we have to watch F1 with expensive pay-tv and get crap coverage & commentary at the same time.

    On a side note, I’ve just written to ESPN Star about this. Not holding my breath I’ll a reply, but hope I’m speaking out for all Asian fans who suffer from Steve Slater…

  20. Here’s my letter to ESPN Star…

    That’s it, stop insulting F1 fans and fire Steve Slater

    Dear Management of ESPNStar,

    I’m sure I am not alone, please spend a few minutes and search online to see what fans think of Steve Slater. He is annoying, possess no knowledge in mortorsport & F1, do stupid chuckles, and most of the time gets things wrong in terms of drivers and race progression. His co-commentators cannot stand him (just ask Chris Goodwin, he’s a good guy btw) And oh, he gets on viewers’ nerves by his silly repetitive one-liners.

    Please Management, I invite you to watch a few races, be it F1, GP2, MotoGP, NASCAR, LeMans… Listen to their commentary, and I dare to say, none can be worse than Steve Slater. For example, your GP2 & MotoGP coverage, their commentators are no well-known superstar, but their commentaries are top class. Now, open your eyes & ears to BBC’s F1 coverage, and you’ll be amazed how badly us Asian fans are treated in terms of coverage.

    I’ve been wanting to send this to your attention for a long long time, but what pushed me to really do this is watching your F1 Classics re-run of 1994 Australian GP. It’s totally absurd for Steve & Alex to “re-commentate”. Without doubt, their commentating qualities are poor as usual. But on top of that, they try to create excitement and make believe that they’re not sure what happened just like live tv? My god! This race happened 15 years ago! Why not just buy the right to broadcast these races, and pay a few quid more to get Murray Walker’s commentary too, and don’t insult and fool us fans in the process?

    I have one simple suggestion for Star Sports to improve your F1 coverage in one master stroke….

    (Canadian & Australian broadcasters do this)

    You can still do a pre-race and post-race feature show if you want. But fans will be properly treated to top class commentary. It’s not only fans who benefit. I’m sure proper commentary will correctly educate and entertain “casual” fans, so they will watch more of your coverage. You have no idea how Steve Slater annoys and turns off casual and hardcore fans alike. Oh, did I mention you can cut your headcount to balance the books by doing this?

    Please, spend some time to see what fans say on forums about Steve Slater. I only watch Star Sports F1 Live coverage just because I HAVE to. Wait a few years and online streaming improves their quality to live TV standard, I will surely watch overseas feeds if you still keep the “self proclaimed Petro-Head Steve Slater”.

    I’m pushed to my limit to tolerate Steve Slater. I’m actually going to draft a proposal to Mr. Ecclestone to recommend proper coverage and how to attract new fans in Asia (his booming market), and unsurprisingly, the #1 action plan will be to REMOVE STEVE SLATER.

    ps. sorry for my strong and negative tone, but I’m just speaking out after years of tolerating an incompetent commentator in a sport I love.

    Thanks for your attention,
    Freeman Tang
    Hong Kong
    17 Nov 2009

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