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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