The BBC: are they ready for the switch?

Twelve years after it lost out to ITV, the BBC has won back the contract to screen F1. That was the easy part – now it has to win over GP fans and casual observers alike…
By Adam Sweeting

In 1976, the BBC was so enthralled by the drama of the championship decider between James Hunt and Niki Lauda at Fuji that it showed edited highlights of the race lasting an entire 20 minutes. Both ITV and the BBC had refused to cover earlier Grands Prix in the season because they were so appalled by the level of tobacco sponsorship which had infected Formula 1. Back in this age of the Sex Pistols and Jim Callaghan, TV companies were not yet in the business of paying for TV rights.

What a difference three decades make. In the years following Hunt’s storm-lashed drive to the title in Japan, broadcasters began to sense the potential of fuller, and perhaps even live, F1 coverage. But they didn’t sense it as swiftly or keenly as Bernie Ecclestone, who grasped that regular mainstream television exposure could establish F1 as a major international attraction, while simultaneously attracting commercial sponsors who could be persuaded to fund Bernie’s ever-expanding, increasingly well-organised circus. No more oily blokes with spanners under the railway arches. Henceforth, Formula 1 would set a course towards becoming the wealthiest and most glamorous sport on earth, blown onwards by a billowing wind of advertising revenue.

Our brief history of time spins forward to 2009, to find the BBC making a comeback to F1 following a dozen years of ITV coverage. The Corporation has been laying its plans since March 2008, when it unexpectedly struck a five-year deal with Ecclestone believed to be worth upwards of £30 million a season. Coyness and secrecy have been the Beeb’s watchwords, and by the time it belatedly named its team of presenters, pundits and reporters in late November, most F1 fans and everybody in the paddock had known the details for months.

Some uncertainty still shrouds the proposed coverage, but in this era of digital, multi-platform programming, the Corporation is said to be planning a techno smorgasbord of on-demand multi-channel viewing via its celebrated Red Button, streams of assorted race data and telemetry on the net, a service for mobile devices, and the prospect of the indestructible Murray Walker conducting interactive chats with fans on the BBC Sport website. All this is in addition to full live broadcasts of the main racing action on the major BBC channels, of course. Geek nirvana and petrol-head paradise beckon. You can almost hear choruses of “F1’s coming home” ringing round BBC Sport HQ in White City.

However, sober commentators have been keeping their excitement in check as they weigh up the changing of the TV guard. Murray Walker himself even ventured so far as to suggest that the BBC “will have a hard furrow to plough to even match the ITV coverage”.

I press him further. ITV, Murray. How good?

“ITV has done an absolutely fantastic job for Formula 1,” he says, emphatically. “When the BBC had it previously, they increasingly realised the importance and the audience-generating capabilities of F1, but in my opinion they never gave it the support in terms of facilities, personnel and money that it deserved. ITV spent a whole hour before each race going into detail about what had happened since the last Grand Prix, which was a notable improvement on what the BBC had done. They assembled an excellent team, all of whom are F1 enthusiasts and all of whom are knowledgeable. The only adverse comment you can make is that you had the bloody commercials, but the money has to come from somewhere.”

James Allen, who was ITV’s pitlane reporter until he inherited Walker’s lead commentating role in 2001, explained the channel’s philosophy.

“People probably don’t remember this, but the BBC coverage was in Grandstand, they didn’t have a self-standing F1 programme. ITV’s view was let’s make it a stand-alone programme, let’s promote it heavily, let’s make it the jewel in the crown of our sports broadcasting portfolio. The intention from the outset was to ‘take the helmet off the sport’ as we put it – let’s attract a much broader audience, let’s do features with the drivers away from the race track, let viewers understand the team principals and even the engineers.”

Allen’s quick-fire style and fanboy-ish manner didn’t endear him to everyone – certainly not to the satirists of the Sniff Petrol website, who launched an anti-Allen ‘Stop The Cock’ campaign – but he’s a walking Wikipedia of F1 facts and he can think on his feet. Amid the hysteria of the final lap of the 2008 Brazilian Grand Prix, for instance, Allen confidently declared Lewis Hamilton the new World Champion even while the Ferrari garage was erroneously celebrating the coronation of Felipe Massa.

“My philosophy was always very much to be in the moment, and you couldn’t get a better example of that than the final two laps of the last race in Brazil. It was a massive moment for us, with an audience of 13 million desperate to see if Lewis Hamilton would win the championship, and he did. I’m in the business of celebrating F1, not criticising it, and I want to tell the story.”

But if there was another criticism of ITV’s coverage, it was that it celebrated the rise of Hamilton a little too much, to the point where viewers might have thought it had inadvertently stumbled across the Lewis Hamilton Network. But you can bet any UK broadcaster would have done the same, and newspapers and racing magazines had no hesitation in following suit.

“We went through the Michael Schumacher era, which for a British audience perhaps wasn’t the ideal scenario,” says Neil Duncanson, CEO of North One Television which produced ITV’s F1 coverage. “We did many years of heavy lifting with the Red Baron, so the last couple of years of riding the Lewis Hamilton wave have been fantastic. We’re a strange country – we pine about our lack of sporting heroes, and then when we get one all we do is whinge about them. The kid is a genius driver and you only see one or two of those per generation, and he should be celebrated. Frankly, for a British audience he was pretty much the biggest story.”

Indeed, it’s almost a given that it was Lewis’s ratings-boosting powers which convinced the BBC to pick up the F1 rights when the opportunity arose. Since ITV snatched F1 from the Corporation in 1996, with Ecclestone announcing the done deal to stunned BBC Sport supremo Jonathan Martin half an hour before making the news public, the BBC has retreated steadily from coverage of four-wheeled motor sport. When Ecclestone came back to them in 2008, having learned that ITV wanted to pull out of F1 so it could use the savings to pay for more football rights (notably the Champions League), the Corporation was conspicuously lacking in personnel with any recent motor sport experience.

In the view of Steve Rider, ITV’s F1 anchorman for the past three years, “the decision was taken because of the presence of one performer, Lewis Hamilton, so in that respect it’s a big gamble. The success of the thing depends on Lewis keeping going at the same level he has for the last two years.” The Hamilton Effect has multiplied viewership by a factor of three or four for some races, but if he suffers a drop in form or if the McLaren boffins find themselves flummoxed by F1’s new technical regulations, the BBC may face more questions about its judgement and its spending decisions, in the wake of the Jonathan Ross/Russell Brand debacle and the bizarre John Sergeant furore at Strictly Come Dancing.

The BBC hasn’t made its life any easier by rejecting the idea of using North One’s technical expertise to ease itself into its new role at the sharp end of motor racing, and has recruited a largely inexperienced team. Although Martin Brundle will pick up where he left off at ITV, co-commentator Jonathan Legard is a seasoned Radio 5 Live reporter but a newcomer to TV, youthful anchorman Jake Humphrey has experience of football and the Olympics but none of F1, and pitlane reporter Lee McKenzie has presented A1GP on Sky. Of course, the best way to learn the job is by doing it, but in the paranoid, politically-charged minefield of the F1 paddock, teams and drivers are notoriously sensitive, and the BBC squad will need their networking and diplomacy skills finely tuned from the off. Even after 12 years, for instance, ITV was struggling to gain any meaningful access to Ferrari. “The BBC might be in for a very demanding first part of the season,” Rider suspects.

The landscape might have looked significantly different if Ecclestone had managed to make a commercial success of his own digital pay-per-view TV service, which was briefly available in the UK on Sky as F1 Digital +. Bernie scrapped the service (which operated under the banner of his Formula One Management company) at the end of 2002, believing that his broadcasting partners had failed to promote it properly, and had left viewers insufficiently informed about the full dazzling array of multi-channel interactivity on offer. Its data streams, pitlane access, on-car cameras and multi-angle views of the racing action were unprecedented, but viewers weren’t willing to pay £12 for a race weekend when they could get decent coverage free on ITV.

“Sky did precisely nothing in terms of promotion,” agrees Bruce Jones, who worked as a reporter on so-called ‘Bernievision’ in 2001-02. “What they should have done was hire some venues, like cinemas, and display it to people and show how you could become your own director. The access we had was extraordinary – we would be allowed anywhere in the pitlane or on the pitwall during the race, while ITV had to stay behind the white line at the front of the garage. I’d hear people who had only watched the normal coverage saying ‘F1 is boring, Schumacher always wins blah blah’, but I’d come back from a race thinking ‘how could anyone say that was a boring Grand Prix?’”

But perhaps the prescient Ecclestone had looked too far ahead, and was expecting punters to digest too much too soon.

“His pay-per-view operation was very good and technically very smart, but it was a little bit ahead of its time,” suggests Duncanson. “I don’t think even now you can offer a pay-per-view platform for a sport that’s still on offer free to air. The economics of F1 is predicated on significant sponsors bringing huge amounts of money to the sport, then wanting to be seen on free-to-air because they want bums on seats. So the FOM operation didn’t fulfil its promise commercially.”

Though Ecclestone’s commercial priorities have shifted away from television towards developing new Grands Prix and their infrastructure in emerging markets, FOM’s service continues to survive and evolve, and indeed supplies the main TV feed to international broadcasters from nearly every GP (it covered 16 of the 18 races during 2008). This has put an end to broadcasters being dependent on coverage supplied by the host nation of each race, which often meant long, turgid sequences of drivers in their home GP even when they were hopelessly adrift from any point-scoring action. Also some of FOM’s technical innovations have begun to leak into mainstream coverage, such as digital graphics showing g-forces or the track positions of the cars, while it has an arsenal of High Definition cameras in place for any broadcaster willing to take the plunge into HD. The BBC may be one of them.

Issues of cost aside, the failure of FOM’s pay-per-view service also highlights a central issue in any TV coverage, which is how to balance the requirements of knowledgeable F1 fanatics against the preferences of the broad, general audience which commercial broadcasters and sponsors demand. ITV handled it by including more technical detail in the preamble for Saturday qualifying, then skewing more towards the drama and the personalities for the Sunday race. The BBC will have more multimedia options at its disposal, but the question of emphasis remains to be solved. Ecclestone was apparently impressed by the Corporation’s diverse and flexible coverage of the Beijing Olympics, but while multiple screens and online options are ideal for viewers trying to keep up with the numerous simultaneous events which are the unique characteristic of the Olympics, how much demand is there for endlessly sliced and diced perspectives on a single Grand Prix?

Rider, a broadcaster of the old school, knows what he likes. “The BBC plans to do a lot of interactive Red Button stuff, but I’m pushing 60 and that doesn’t excite me,” he says, heretically. “It’s a lot of hard work for some fairly intense characters who, if they weren’t pushing the red button, would be swearing at you on their websites. The red button is for the nerds; you’re not going to build a reputation on that stuff. A lot of F1 is about trying to bring the sport to an audience that isn’t convinced by it – you’re either going to press the red button or you’re not.”

A more reliable bet, Rider suggests, would be “an aggressively scheduled highlights programme. It’s an old fashioned concept, but it was what the BBC’s F1 reputation was built on, and what the theme music was built on – The Chain always played ahead of the highlights. If it was full of fresh footage and strong editorial, they could achieve a lot.”

Another Bernievision veteran is John Watson, who currently commentates on A1GP with Ben Edwards. The duo used to cover F1 at Eurosport, whose coverage was axed after ITV bought the rights, then were reunited at Sky Digital +. Watson believes F1 as a whole needs to step outside its hermetically-sealed bubble and offer the viewing public much more.

“When Bernie abandoned pay-per-view he shut the lid and said ‘no, you can’t have that’,” says Watson. “That argument used to have some validity, but I think now F1 has to give the public something they haven’t been getting on a regular basis. We’re not giving the audience a fraction of what’s available, technically. I also believe teams and drivers should be pressured to be more open and available – drivers have it drilled into them that there are only certain subjects they can speak on, so they say very little and all sound the same. If you watch football on TV, there’s a studio discussion hosted by Gary Lineker, and you have Alan Hansen, who’s pithy and a typical Scot with a bag of chips on his shoulder. But I want that! What I dislike is having this company line parroted by the F1 teams, and if you ask them tricky questions they won’t answer you.”

A splendid idea in principle, but denizens of the F1 paddock walk on eggshells for fear of reprisals from the FIA, which has effectively kept snooping hacks on the back foot. When Brundle criticised the FIA in his Sunday Times column for allegedly conducting a “witch hunt” against McLaren during the Spygate scandal, he and the newspaper were rewarded with a libel writ. It was later claimed that the FIA tried to dissuade the BBC from employing Brundle because it was so unhappy about his comments. As a cautionary tale for would-be investigative journalists, it was hard to beat.

“We were running an F1 show, not doing the Six O’Clock News or running the News Of The World,” argues Duncanson on the topic of whether such prickly issues as the Max Mosley scandal or dubious race stewarding are the proper province of TV’s F1 coverage. “I stand up for the journalism on our show, which was top class. We upset a few people now and again, but we maintained you have to take the rough with the smooth, and it was mostly smooth.”

It’s rumoured that the BBC is proposing to adopt a harder, more inquisitorial tone. Naturally we wish them well, and hope they’re still on the air in 2010.