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Saturday, July 30, 2011

Open letter to BBC Sport

The strength of feeling expressed in public forums by Formula One fans about the broadcast rights deal with Sky from 2012 indicates just how betrayed they feel by what is a significant reduction in the free to air coverage of the sport in the UK.

In summary, broadcast will be shared between Sky and BBC, with all weekend sessions on Sky and half the races and associated practice and qualifying sessions on the BBC. Those races not broadcast live on the BBC will be presented as a highlights package later on, in the way Match of the Day summarises Premier League football.

To watch a full season of live Formula One, a fan will have to take a subscription to Sky Sports at around £500 a year.

Maybe I'm not typical, but this has a profound effect on three generations of my family. I am a long time Formula One fan - not fanatical but I haven't missed a race unless under duress for nearly 20 years. The ITV coverage, while interrupted (German commercial tv, incidentally, carries the race in an onscreen window during ad breaks), was good but I welcomed the move back to BBC and the professionalism I hoped the Corporation could bring to the coverage. I was not disappointed. Race weekends have been special, particularly for the flyaway races. getting up at unreasonable hours, putting my McLaren merchandise on and enjoying the coverage has been an important part of my enjoyment of the sport. I cannot afford to attend races, I feel resentful that the implication is that 'true fans' would go to races or pay the Sky subscription. I am a fan, my status as fan is not for others to decide. My daughter, at 21, is in the middle of her studies at university. Her aim is to find employment in Formula One and all her studies and extra-curricular work is geared to this end. She writes free practice, qualifying and race reviews for her own website and race reports for a respected Formula One website. All of this relies on free access to the action as it happens, something she will no longer be able to afford from 2012. My mother, at 86, enjoys Formula One as much as we do. While not fanatical, she sits with us and has an engaged and knowledgeable enjoyment of the sport.

Not one of the three of us can afford the Sky subscription. As a fan, I would find it difficult to watch half the the races live and would have no intention of skulking around on the weekends that the BBC did not broadcast live hoping to avoid overhearing any results and spoiling my enjoyment of the spectacle.

So that's three committed viewers less, straight away.

Some questions:
  1. Why did BBC knowingly enter into a contract with the rights holders originally, knowing how much it would cost, only to withdraw from it with a year and a half to go on a 'cost savings' excuse?
  2. What, if any, consultation was there with any interested parties, viewer groups or fan fora about the proposed changes to the contract and any resulting broadcast proposals?
  3. From a viewer/licence payer's perspective, how on earth can the resulting mix of live coverage and highlights be considered an acceptable solution?
Questions the BBC will not be able to answer is to what extent did the rights holders engage with other free to air broadcasters? Did the BBC hold onto an clearly inferior offering in order to prevent another free to air broadcaster entering a contract?

The only winners here are Formula One Management and their investors. Sky will not inherit the BBC audience (100% non-uptake in this household), however professional their coverage.

Finally, the parallel with Premier League football is irrelevant and a distraction. I support Newcastle United but with a pay tv subscription I could not guarantee seeing my team play every Saturday, as there would be many matches competing for screen time. With Formula One my team is onscreen every race.

Formula One was an award-winning jewel in BBC Sports portfolio. The proposed output for fans - and the way it has been handled and reported, with none of the team (bar one quip) empowered to voice an opinion on air - has been a slap in the face for fans who are licence payers. The official response on the BBC complaints blog has been that 'some' fans have expressed opinions. Not from where I have been sitting. I have seen a high and sustained level of anger and disappointment which the BBC choose to ignore. If Barbara Slater is 'delighted' by this outcome, how come the good news wasn't even mentioned in the Hungary qualifying coverage? That's a rhetorical question, as it is clear the BBC did not anticipate the depth and sustained nature of the backlash and are now embarrassed by the outcome of their negotiations.

Shame on you BBC. Shame on you.

Peter Hough