Reach for the Sky: Dissecting the Sky Sports/BBC Sport F1 Partnership

On Friday, the Formula 1 world was rocked by news that UK Television Broadcasts of the sport would be fundamentally changing starting from 2012. The state-supported and industry-leading BBC had originally been expected to hold exclusive rights to Formula 1 through the end of the 2012 season, after securing the rights from rivals ITV, who ditched them as a result of their almost perpetual cash-strapped nature.

More incredible was the new primary rights holder: technically, Sky Sports. This despite the fact it was generally accepted the rights had to be in the hands of a free-to-air broadcaster. How did FOM get around this? The rights actually went to a Sky Sports/BBC Sport Co-Operative deal. A deal which will give the BBC 10 races, or 50% of the season (Though in the event of 21 races, the extra race would be Sky exclusive). The two broadcasters will share commentary and some other resources, but use different presentation packages.

For the 10+ races the BBC is not showing live, they are showing…Well, what exactly? Bernie Ecclestone has apparently led the members of FOTA (Formula One Teams’ Association) to believe that they will be showing the full race on a time delay. The BBC, however, has seemed to play down these reports – they indicate an extended highlights show, clocking in at around 75 minutes. Either way, the show or taped race would air in prime time on Sunday – AKA the least valuable kind of prime time.

Still, the BBC package will air the day of the race, whatever the minutiae are.

This bizarre setup with the BBC acting as some kind of “Sky Sports Preview” is unique. No other sport, Motorsport or otherwise, operates this way, and the BBC agreeing to play second fiddle to Sky has made some observers distinctly uneasy.

Setting aside the practical and TV industry implications for a moment, let’s consider the financial impact of the deal. The Sky Sports/BBC Sport Partnership is paying out a combined £55 Million, up on the £40 Million the BBC had been paying out for the exclusive rights. The teams have been told this will factor out to about £1 Million per season extra paid from FOM to each team.

In F1 terms, £1 Million a season is…Not a huge deal. Even the back markers reportedly blow throw more than £30 Million to just show up and not completely embarrass themselves. For frontrunners McLaren, this is chump change. So one could reasonably wonder why they are going along with this so readily?

Consider also, McLaren (In particular) are majority funded by sponsorship revenue. This means they in particular should be concerned about any potential decrease in viewership. It seems like hubris to claim (As FOM, amongst others, have) that this deal might grow the F1 audience in the UK. The idea seems to be that being in BBC1 Prime TIme will inherently draw more people to the sport.

That…Sounds like a huge assumption. The argument seems to be casual fans will be more interested in a prime time highlights reel than in watching the race at midday (or odd hours for fly-aways). There is some merit to that idea, but it still seems like there is room to question it. We’re talking about a delay of six to, potentially, 12+ hours. It seems…Unlikely – to say the least – casual fans will go out of their way to avoid spoilers, but counterintuitively one could also reasonably question whether they’d bother watching the highlights reel once they knew the result?

Smaller teams also look set to get screwed – hard – by this. They get their best exposure for sponsors during qualifying and the exact kinds of “boring” bits the BBC’s editors are likely to cut for the highlights reel (For example, the leaders putting a lap on them). These losses will not in any way be mitigated by Sky Sports viewerships. Consider…

Sky Sports 1 enjoys a whopping 0.9% Audience share. This is HALF the audience share of BBC Three. It’s barely 0.2 more than the anaemic share held by BBC Four, which this deal is widely believed to have been orchestrated to save. Sky Sports 2, which will share Sky Sports 1’s duties as F1 broadcaster, has an eye-watering-ly small 0.4% share.

For comparison, the BBC’s F1 audience has averaged 4-5 million viewers, with peaks in excess of 6 Million – which is 10% of the UK Population, never mind UK TV Audience. And there is very little demographic overlap between existing F1 fans and Sky Sports subscribers – who are typically more interested in ball games like Association Football and Cricket.

So then, there is a strong argument that this deal will massively reduce the audience for Formula 1 in the UK. And it raises big questions about the financial impact of the deal on teams. There is one other area this deal could potentially have a massive impact, as suggested by Ewan Marshall at GP Focus: the prestige of the Championships.

By making only ten races live on free-to-air television, this deal implicitly adds prestige to the already prestigious Monaco and British Grands Prix. It will possibly have a similar effect on other events (Potentially including, regrettably, poor Grands Prix like the Singapore Night Race if they are included amongst the ten). What can’t be known at this stage is what impact this shift in emphasis to fewer, “marquee” races will have on the public’s perception of the Championships.

In American Motorsport, there are several Championships in various categories. What’s interesting, though, is that unlike in Europe (Where even casual fans tend to idolise championship winners like Jenson Button or Fernando Alonso), a lot of casual fans are more interested in which drivers win certain marquee events – like the Indy 500. Is it possible that, at least amongst casual British fans, this deal will decrease the importance of championships?

Are we looking at a future where casual viewership for most of the Grands Prix (Even most of the free-to-air Grands Prix) decreases because winning the big-name events like Monaco and Silverstone are seen as more important than winning the championship? Such a shift would take us back to the pre-fifties era of rand Prix racing, before the inception of the World Drivers’ Championship.

It’s a big if, but do we really want to go back there?

So there’s just a few points of interest from the Sky Sports/BBC Sport Joint F1 Broadcast deal. The crazy thing is, this is such uncharted territory, we have little to no way of knowing what the potential ramifications are. It could affect things we’ve not even considered.

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