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Just over a month ago Pitpass predicted that if F1 floats on the stock market we will see more broadcast deals like the one in the UK where all Grands Prix are shown live on the BSkyB pay-per-view network with the BBC screening half as highlights after the races have taken place. It turns out that we were ahead of the game as it was announced on Wednesday that this kind of broadcasting arrangement will come into effect next year in Italy where BSkyB's controlling shareholder, News Corp, has secured the live F1 rights for its Sky Italia channel. There may be more deals like this on the way but they don't spell the end of free-to-air F1 coverage.
In an article in today's Guardian, by Pitpass' business editor Christian Sylt, F1's boss Bernie Ecclestone confirms that the sport will never switch to being pay-per-view only. However, he adds that it gets such wide exposure in the UK from Sky, it wouldn't make much difference if the free-to-air coverage was dropped. "We will never move all countries to pay-per-view only though it wouldn't make any difference here in the UK," he says.
To be completely clear, nowhere in the article does Ecclestone say that he will drop coverage on the BBC and there is no suggestion that this will definitely happen. Likewise, nowhere in the article does Ecclestone say that he is unhappy with the job done by the BBC or that he doesn't care about its coverage now that Sky is onboard. The BBC's agreement runs for another six and a half years and, at the moment, there is no suggestion that there will be any changes before it expires as there was with the previous two UK broadcasting contracts.
So what is the logic behind Ecclestone's comment? He explains that of the 25 million households in the UK, "Sky reaches over 10 million. We don't get 10 million on the BBC, normally about 6 or 7 million." He is referring here to Sky having a total reach of 10 million households with the BBC's F1 broadcast actually being watched by six or seven million which may seem to be comparing apples and oranges but in fact it isn't. What it shows is that Sky has the potential to get just as many viewers as the BBC. However, at the moment, it certainly isn't doing this.
The Chinese Grand Prix in April was the first race broadcast live by the BBC this year and its viewing figures were reportedly down by 1 million on 2011 to a peak of 4.21 million. Sky's coverage of the race peaked at 887,000 and averaged at around 1 million over the first four races of the year. In contrast, the BBC's average audience for the first four races came to around 3 million.
It suggests that the BBC is getting three times more viewers than Sky however, it isn't as straightforward as that. This is because although the BBC is broadcasting approximately three and a half hours over each race weekend, Sky is showing around 13 hours as it has a dedicated F1 channel. So although the average audience for each race is three times higher on the BBC, Sky is broadcasting nearly four times the amount of footage.
This explains where Ecclestone is coming from and it is perfectly possible that F1's exposure through Sky alone may soon eclipse that on the BBC even if its average audience does not. Let's not forget that Sky is also understood to be paying significantly more than the BBC and may well be prepared to pay even more to be the exclusive broadcaster in 2018 when its joint contract expires.
To reiterate, this doesn't mean that the BBC will lose F1, or that Ecclestone has had enough of the broadcaster, it simply means exactly what he said: it would not make as much difference in England as it would in other parts of the world if F1 was on pay per view only. If the BBC doesn't like the idea of that then it had better get broadcasting more footage but, let's face it, the chance of it setting up a dedicated F1 channel is practically nil.
According to the reported viewing figures for the Chinese GP, splitting the coverage has already dented the BBC's audience and Ecclestone says it is also hampered by not being able to show all the races live.
"The thing that TV stations want to buy most is live sport. People don't want to watch delayed stuff because nowadays it's hard not to know the result if you don't want to," he says.
Ecclestone adds that "Sky have done a super job," and he suggests that the live rights slipped through the BBC's grasp due to its complacency. "The Beeb were sure we wouldn't be able to go anywhere else," he says. Now they know better and have six and a half years to ensure that they don't lose the live rights once again.
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