The 2016 Formula One season comes to an end this weekend in Abu Dhabi, marking the end of Channel 4’s first season of covering Formula 1. But, the outlook could have been so much different. Here, this site looks at the alternatives that might have materialised.
BBC TV stay covering Formula 1
An unlikely alternative. BBC’s television coverage of Formula 1 had always been well received and applauded, but the problem was that it cost the corporation too much money. The licence fee settlement resulted in another round of budget cuts at BBC Sport, and Formula 1 was in the firing line. On December 21st, 2015, the BBC announced their television exit from Formula 1.
Had the BBC continued to cover Formula 1, I suspect production costs would have been slashed and the quality of the show would have decreased. Yes, viewing figures would be higher on the BBC than what they are currently on Channel 4, but viewing figures matter less to the BBC. Their obligation to Formula One Management (FOM) was to cover half the races live and half in highlights form, but they were not obliged to have high-quality build-up coverage, so could have cut the extras if they so desired.
It wouldn’t have been a popular move with the viewers, but if it kept F1 on the BBC, there might have been supported. As it turned out, the BBC did the right thing. In March, it was announced that Sky would be taking the exclusive live rights from 2019 onwards.
ITV take over Formula 1 from BBC
The major surprise was that ITV did not grab Formula 1 from the BBC and instead took horse racing from Channel 4. Horse racing provides ITV and ITV4 with a lot more hours than Formula 1 and is cheaper to produce. ITV were unwilling to broadcast Formula 1 without adverts, which is what swung the deal in Channel 4’s favour.
A return to ITV would have meant a return to Formula 1 being interrupted by commercial breaks. Beyond that, it is likely ITV’s coverage would have again been produced by North One Television as it was in 2008. Remember that Whisper Films and North One were the leading two contenders for Channel 4’s production contract. As we know, Whisper won that battle but had the two been battling over at ITV, chances are that North One would have grabbed the deal.
On the personnel side, ITV would have still faced the same hurdles as Channel 4: they would still need to fill their line-up within a very short two-month period. The talent pool wouldn’t change meaning that the ITV line-up would have been quite close to what we saw at Channel 4 with ex BBC faces moving over, alongside some new faces.
Channel 5, Eurosport or BT Sport
The three broadcasters listed above are unrealistic in an alternative reality. Channel 5 could have stepped in, except taking on Formula 1 for around £20 million a year would have hurt their overall budget significantly. Demographically, it would be a fantastic fit for the channel but the price range makes this an unlikely venture.
Eurosport and BT Sport were unlikely as a shared deal between them and Sky would take Formula 1 off free-to-air television, although BT could have committed to showing Formula 1 on their BT Sport Showcase channel on Freeview. Had Liberty Media’s acquisition of Formula 1 happened a year earlier, it would have made the landscape even more interesting: would Eurosport (owned by Discovery, who are in turn owned by Liberty) have splashed the cash to take Formula 1 exclusively from 2019 onwards? We’ll never know.
Sky’s exclusivity blocked by teams
Of course, Sky wanted to step in for the BBC as early as this year. Once Sky got wind that the BBC were planning to exit their TV contract at the end of 2015, the broadcaster made moves to try to secure Formula 1 exclusively from 2016 onwards. The contract featured a clause stating that, should the BBC exit, then Sky pick up the rights exclusively. As referenced in March:
When it became apparent in the run up to the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix last November that the BBC were set to terminate their contract, Formula 1’s teams are understood to have requested that Formula 1 remains on free to air terrestrial television in the UK in some capacity until at least the end of 2018. The concern for teams was that they would have difficulty persuading sponsors to stay on board with F1 behind a pay wall in the UK. This led to the sequence of events that saw Channel 4 step in and take over BBC TV’s rights from 2016 to 2018 inclusive.
Sky’s new deal from 2019 onwards was signed early after an onslaught from BT Sport, who attempted to take the rights away from Sky.
The only way the destination would change is if Channel 4 or ITV committed to a longer time frame when the signed the contract with FOM last December. However, that would have required Sky’s involvement, and given the amount of money they were prepared to lay on the table, I think the same conclusion would have been reached.
No matter what, the destination post 2018 remains the same: a deal with Sky showing every race exclusively live.