Britain’s BBC network has released plans for its a renewed round of cost cutting, and a hefty sports budget reduction raises questions over Formula 1’s remaining free-to-air television coverage in the UK, one of the sport’s key markets.
The broadcaster wants to save £150 million [$228m] due to a funding shortfall arising from a drop in the number of people owning a television and a loophole, which the British government has committed to close, allowing viewers to watch its online iPlayer without a license.
F1 ON THE BBC
The current shared agreement with the Sky satellite network, which runs until the end of 2018, means the BBC screens half of the grands prix live and the remainder as highlights. In its current financial position, it would not be a surprise if the BBC sought to renegotiate the terms of the contract, especially as it did so with its last deal back in 2011.
On that occasion, the BBC had been the UK’s exclusive F1 broadcaster since 2009 and was set to continue until the end of ’13, but amid a previous cost-cutting push it requested to end that deal two years early in favor of the collaboration with Sky.
THE CHALLENGE FACING THE BBC
The BBC simply has less money to play with in a world where the cost of TV sports rights is going through the roof. Understandably, it is finding it difficult to compete.
Earlier this year, BT Sport paid close to $1.5 billion to secure rights to the UEFA Champions League soccer and Europa League. The BBC says £35 million [$53m] needs to be saved from the TV sports rights budget and it has already wielded the axe.
Having lost the Grand National, shortly followed by its entire horse racing portfolio, and the Masters golf as live events in recent years, the BBC was this year forced to relinquish exclusivity on rugby’s Six Nations and golf’s Open Championship.
It is believed the BBC pays in the region of $18-21 million per year for F1 under the terms of its current deal.
THE FUTURE OF F1 ON THE BBC
F1 is very important to the BBC and it fought hard to find a way to keep the championship in some form in the last round of negotiations. The BBC is in constant talks with F1’s rights holder, as is the case with all the sports it is involved in. It is understood discussions about the next deal were set to accelerate next year, given the end of the contract is approaching.
Along with its TV rights, there are the radio and online rights to consider, too, with BBC Radio 5 Live broadcasting every race live.
Earlier this year, F1 chief executive Bernie Ecclestone said he hopes the BBC does not walk away from the championship. He even suggested keeping F1 on free-to-air TV in an era of dropping viewing figures took precedence over financial considerations.
“I hope they continue,” he said in August. “We’re not interested in the money. We’re interested in entertaining the public and doing a service. That’s what we are there for.
“The continuation of the Sky/BBC deal would be good. It works at the moment so there is no reason why we should change. Sky has done a super job. They have lifted the level, and they have lifted the BBC.”
It is plausible that the BBC could save a substantial amount of money and keep F1 by moving to a highlights-only package. That could mean a return to the days of a small production team on the ground, which included a pitlane reporter, and the main show presented from a studio back at base.
That is the model NBC uses here in the U.S., with bigger production teams drafted in for its home event and three other races it shows free-to-air on NBC rather than NBCSN. The BBC already broadcasts a number of sports, including tennis and cycling, using this format.
Such a move would leave Sky as the exclusive live broadcaster in the UK, although it is understood F1 has been the subject of consideration for BT Sport.
WHAT THE BBC SAYS
“We have been working through the implications of delivering these additional savings for a number of months, in conjunction with our response to the super-inflation that is prevalent across the sports rights sector,” a spokesperson told Autosport. “We have made some difficult decisions such as amending our contract for the Open Championship one year early and also looked at alternative rights models to help us achieve these savings – for example, sharing the Six Nations with ITV.
“We will continue to look at where further savings can be made.”