IMG will produce the BBC’s 5 Live Formula 1 coverage for the next two seasons after winning a competitive tender process, this site can exclusively reveal.
The incumbents USP Content have been involved with BBC’s F1 coverage over the airwaves since 2006, an arrangement expected to end following the 2018 season. However, with no major contracts now in their portfolio and significant cash flow problems, I understand that USP called in the administrators following the US Grand Prix.
As a result of USP’s demise, IMG have stepped into the fold earlier than anticipated. IMG will cover the final portion of the 2018 season for 5 Live, starting with last weekend’s Mexican Grand Prix.
The production contract, valued by the BBC at around £325,000 per season, covers the same output as in previous seasons, including a preview show on Thursday evening, every session live, a pre and post-season review and the post-race Chequered Flag podcast.
Of particular note, the commissioning brief released by the BBC expressed a desire to increase their podcast download figures, as well as tackling Thursday’s preview show in a different manner. The brief also implies that the current line-up of Jack Nicholls, Jennie Gow and Jolyon Palmer will remain aboard the 5 Live ship for 2019.
Speaking to this site, a BBC spokesperson said “IMG will be producing our coverage next season after a competitive process.” A request for comment directed towards USP Content has gone unanswered, whilst their website is also offline as of writing.
A shoe-string budget, but high-quality programming
Since 2006, USP Content has helped launch the Formula 1 broadcasting careers of several names via their 5 Live coverage. Current Sky Sports F1 commentator David Croft, Anthony Davidson, and reporter Natalie Pinkham all started their F1 exploits on 5 Live.
Speaking to me earlier this year, Croft said “I spent six years at 5 Live Formula 1, and it was brilliant. Holly Samos, Jason Swales, Maurice Hamilton, Ant Davidson, myself, and Natalie [Pinkham] were a small team, bringing a great sport to people on the radio, thoroughly enjoyable and hopefully the fun we had always came across on air.”
On the production side, Jason Swales led the 5 Live team from 2006 to 2012 before moving onto NBC and more recently Formula One Management alongside Will Buxton. “I always remember Jason’s adage, keep it simple, don’t try and do anything complicated, leave that to the experts,” says Croft.
Whilst their F1 coverage has been well-received across the 13 years, the problem for USP was that their portfolio consisted of F1 and very little else meaning that, as soon as the F1 contract disappeared, the writing was on the wall. 5 Live’s F1 team did the best they could under the circumstances, with tightening budget controls.
USP attempted to break into the F1 TV space in 2012, with a six-part series focusing on Britain’s next Grand Prix hopefuls. The series aired on Sky Sports F1, but no other major F1 television documentaries followed.
Who is IMG?
For readers unfamiliar, IMG is a big player in the sporting arena worldwide, with their subsidiary IMG Studios providing studio facilities in London. In the latter half of 2018, the production company grabbed hold of production rights to Quest’s Football League highlights and coverage of the US PGA Championship on Eleven Sports.
In the motor racing spectrum, the wider group is involved with World Rallycross and Virgin Australia Supercars.
Why the BBC chose this moment to not renew USP Content where 5 Live F1 is concerned is unclear, although it is possible that this is the first time USP has had serious competition for the F1 contract.
What is clear is that 2019 will be a big year for Formula 1 coverage on radio. With only one race live on free-to-air television, there will be a greater emphasis on the BBC’s radio coverage of F1 for the wider public, as more people tune in to listen.