How the BBC / Sky deal changed F1 broadcasting in the UK

Sebastian Vettel dominated the 2011 Formula One season, clinching his second Drivers’ Championship with four races to spare in Japan.

Although dominant up front, the 2011 season was competitive behind Vettel. One of the major talking points on-track was the frequent clashes between Lewis Hamilton and Felipe Massa, in what would turn out to be Hamilton’s penultimate season with McLaren.

Off-track, as the teams headed into the Hungarian Grand Prix weekend before the summer break, storm clouds began to emerge.

Hamilton may have topped a mundane first practice session in Hungary, but closer to home, a bombshell press release that landed just hours earlier sent shockwaves through the paddock and F1’s UK fanbase…

Here, Motorsport Broadcasting looks at the events that have unfolded since, and whether F1 is in a better place in the UK than what it was a decade ago.

The split

Ten years ago today, the BBC and Sky Sports confirmed that, from 2012, Formula 1 would air across both free-to-air and pay television as part of a new agreement between two of the biggest broadcasters in the UK.

2011 was the last season covered exclusively live, free-to-air by the BBC, the season becoming the highest watched in the UK on television.

BBC TV and Sky Sports have been awarded the live rights to Formula 1 ™ between 2012 and 2018.

The move will bring increased choice, innovation, and breadth of coverage to UK and Irish motor racing fans.

Press Release: BBC and Sky partner for live Formula 1 rights – Friday 29th July 2011

Since 2012, Sky Sports has aired every race live. The BBC’s programming supplemented Sky’s comprehensive offer, the free-to-air broadcaster airing half the races live and the other half in highlights form.

The previous Autumn, in October 2010, the government confirmed a licence fee freeze for six years which, in real terms, was a 16% cut to the BBC’s budget.

Cutbacks were necessary in some areas, and F1 was in the firing line.

The BBC’s original contract was set to expire at the end of 2013 and, writing at the time on the BBC website, their Head of F1 Ben Gallop said that the deal with Sky “extends the BBC’s commitment to F1 by a further five years.”

“Given the financial circumstances in which we find ourselves, we believe this new deal offers the best outcome for licence-fee payers,” Gallop said.

Some of the headlines following the announcement of the BBC and Sky Sports F1 deal in 2011. Headlines from The Guardian, BBC, RaceFans.net, Crash.net, Adam Cooper’s blog, Motorsport.com and Autosport.

At the time, the deal generated a lot of response from fans. The likes of Autosport described the deal as ‘controversial’ on their magazine cover, and it is easy to see why considering the magnitude of the change.

With the benefit of hindsight, it is possible to look at the 2011 deal through a different lens.

What has happened since?

The BBC’s commitment to F1, which was meant to last until the end of the 2018 season, was short lived.

Another round of cuts was to come, and this time, BBC’s television coverage of Formula 1 was to disappear altogether.

Channel 4 succeeded the BBC as Sky’s free-to-air partner, retaining largely the same team both in front and behind the camera, as their coverage began in 2016.

We are absolutely delighted that F1 will remain on the BBC. The sport has never been more popular with TV audiences at a 10-year high and the BBC has always stated its commitment to the big national sporting moments. With this new deal not only have we delivered significant savings but we have also ensured that through our live and extended highlights coverage all the action continues to be available to licence fee payers.

Barbara Slater, BBC’s Director of Sport, speaking in 2011

If the 2011 bombshell was not big enough, a further bombshell was to follow.

Just one race into Channel 4’s new Formula 1 deal, Sky announced that they had secured the rights to air F1 exclusively live from 2019 to 2024 in a six-year deal.

Channel 4 would later secure free-to-air highlights, plus live coverage of the British Grand Prix from Sky.

By securing the pay-TV rights early, Sky fended off potential competition from rivals BT Sport, who were rumoured to be interested in F1 at the time.

The current Sky deal, mooted to be around £1 billion across the duration of the contract, or around £160 million per season, is significantly higher than what any free-to-air broadcaster could bid for the rights.

Let us rewind back to the 2011 deal and think about alternative scenarios. Had the BBC pulled out altogether, F1 may have moved on a full-time basis to Channel 4 or ITV.

With Sky lurking in the background though, it is difficult to imagine how many years such a deal would have lasted without Sky intervention.

The only alternative that could have had a material impact, even today, would be a joint BBC and ITV deal, like the current Six Nations rugby arrangements. On a 22-race basis, the BBC could air 7 races live, with ITV airing the remaining 15 races.

The two free-to-air broadcasters pay around £100 million per year for the Six Nations. The rugby tournament is a more attractive proposition to broadcasters than F1, with higher viewing figures and a higher proportion of action in primetime.

Any combined bid therefore would likely be under £100 million, even if you swap the BBC with Channel 4.

While it is a nice idea, the finances do not stack up when compared with the amount of money Sky have invested in F1.

The first BBC F1 forum at the 2009 Australian Grand Prix. Jake Humphrey (l), Ted Kravitz and Lee McKenzie (top r), David Coulthard, Eddie Jordan and Martin Brundle (bottom r).
The first BBC F1 forum at the 2009 Australian Grand Prix. Jake Humphrey (l), Ted Kravitz and Lee McKenzie (top r), David Coulthard, Eddie Jordan, and Martin Brundle (bottom r).

Did Sky walk through an open door when the BBC approached them in 2011? Absolutely. But the destination, and where we are currently in 2021, was always going to be the same irrespective of the journey taken.

The BBC’s deal with Sky in 2011 delayed the inevitable. It was not a question of if, it was a question of when.

The transfer of rights from free-to-air to pay in the UK has been gradual, in stark contrast to Germany where audiences have slumped by around 70% because of the ‘big bang’ rights change imposed on audiences.

The pros and cons of the UK F1 broadcasting arrangement

On and off-air, the UK F1 broadcasting arrangements over the past decade have helped talent step into the motor sport arena, who may never have had a chance had F1 remained solely on BBC television.

The likes of Rachel Brookes, Jack Nicholls, and Steve Jones to name a few have benefited over the past decade.

Brookes joined Sky’s F1 setup when their coverage started, while both Nicholls and Jones joined the F1 paddock on a permanent basis later.

Nicholls became BBC’s lead radio commentator in 2016, a role once held by David Croft; while Jones became Channel 4’s F1 presenter having never presented an F1 race!

This is fantastic news for F1 fans and Sky Sports will be the only place to follow every race live and in HD. We will give F1 the full Sky Sports treatment with a commitment to each race never seen before on UK television. As well as unrivalled build up to each race on Sky Sports News, we will broadcast in-depth live coverage of every session. Sky customers with Sky Sports will also be able to enjoy F1 across multiple platforms and devices, including Sky Go.

Barney Francis, Managing Director of Sky Sports, speaking in 2011

Having several broadcasters in the mix presenting their own bespoke output not only gives emerging talent more opportunities to break into the sport, but it gives viewers access to a broader roster of pundits.

From the BBC’s Jolyon Palmer, through to Channel 4’s Mark Webber and onto Sky’s Anthony Davidson, there should be something for everyone across the talent pool, across live and highlights.

The broadcasting arrangements since 2012 have resulted in every F1 session airing live, as well as the vast majority of Formula Two and Formula Three sessions.

Having multiple broadcasters air live F1 from 2012 to 2018 meant that the two could push each other to produce better content, with the fans watching at home benefiting overall.

I think it is important to emphasis at this point that Sky have an excellent team: Davidson, Jenson Button, Martin Brundle and Karun Chandhok to name a few, a rotating talent set helping to keep their coverage fresh race-by-race.

While Sky do produce excellent features (and I suspect the upcoming feature with Mick Schumacher in the Jordan 191 will fit into this category), including high-quality Sky Pad analysis, these sometimes feel isolated in amongst their lengthy pre-shows.

George Russell and Fernando Alonso analyse their practice laps from the 2021 Styrian Grand Prix with Anthony Davidson on the Sky Pad.

COVID has restricted what Sky can do, as Brookes outlined to this writer earlier this year. That combined with the number of races on the calendar now, dilutes the quality of programming on offer to the viewer.

Broadcasters want more races, as races attract viewers, but it means that their supplementary programming takes a hit.

Formula Two and Formula Three feel like an afterthought (not helped by the changes beyond Sky’s control), while Sky have failed to replicate the attraction of BBC’s post-race show, F1 Forum, in my view, where the team used to perch themselves in a motor home.

Despite the criticism, since Sky moved to the podium set up in the paddock, their post-race shows have improved, and is heading in the right direction.

Worryingly for Channel 4, their free-to-air highlights audience has slumped over the past two years, to the point where Sky is moving into a position whereby it has the lion’s share of the F1 audience, an unthinkable statement even two years ago.

The good news in totality for F1 is that Sky’s audiences are increasing rapidly, and are at their highest level yet (more to follow on this front over the forthcoming weeks).

Yes, television audiences have decreased compared with a decade ago, but fans have a much wider range of viewing options now.

Back in 2011, F1 did not upload highlights to YouTube, podcasts did not exist, and the F1 social media community was insignificant. Oh, and that thing called Drive to Survive was still eight years away.

Sky may have Bernie to thank for the initial deal signed in 2016, but they absolutely have Liberty Media to thank for maximising F1’s potential across the digital platforms.

If F1 is going to continue to sign exclusive pay TV deals, then they need an action plan on how they aim to reach fans that do not have pay TV. Otherwise, F1 will haemorrhage fans.

A Formula 1 only accessible behind a pay wall is not a fruitful Formula 1.

A Formula 1 that exploits social media, is available to fans at a reasonable price, and finds new, innovative ways to harness their audience, is a fruitful Formula 1.

Motorsport Broadcasting, writing in 2016 [pleasingly I think F1 currently aligns more into the second category. Not fully, but the second category resonates more with me].

A survey by The Race Media, which operates both The Race and WTF1, shows that most fans on both platforms watch F1 via pay-TV, with less than a quarter watching via free-to-air television.

It is plausible that F1 in the UK has lost older viewers over the past decade (‘lapsed fans’), thanks to the move away from the BBC, but gained some younger fans through the likes of Drive to Survive, thanks to Netflix and Liberty Media. It may still result in a net loss, but the picture is not as black and white as the headline suggests.

A major gripe for UK fans is that fans do not have access to F1’s premium tier over-the-top service, meaning that the only way fans can watch live F1 is through Sky Sports.

How open Sky are to this position changing is unclear. Suggestions last summer that Sky would offer F1 TV Pro through their TV platform have yet to come to fruition.

Nevertheless, for everything that has changed over the past decade, F1 remains king and is by far the leading series when it comes to motor sport in the UK, with no other form of motor sport eroding its dominant market position.

What is next?

While Hamilton may retire in 2024, the prospects of both Lando Norris and George Russell look bright, which should keep interest in the sport high, which is great news for Sky Sports moving forward.

We can reminisce about every F1 race airing live on free-to-air television all we want, but the chances of F1 returning to that position in the UK after 2024, when Sky’s current deal expires, is close to zero.

In a sense this partnership with Sky is another example of how the landscape of sports broadcasting has been transformed in recent years. There was a time when the BBC and other public service broadcasters could expect to televise all the big sports themselves. Now though we have a ‘mixed economy’, with some events on satellite while others are on terrestrial.

Ben Gallop, BBC’s Head of Formula 1, speaking in 2011

In my view, I expect Sky to renew beyond 2024, with confirmation to come within the next 12 to 18 months.

Such a renewal may seem far too early, but remember that Sky sealed the 2019 deal three years in advance. F1 is Sky’s second biggest sport, only behind football, and the earlier they can renew on a like-to-like basis, the better for them.

Furthermore, the economic climate post-COVID means that F1 is unlikely to see an increase in rights fees from the UK market. As thus, extending the current agreement with Sky may be in F1’s best interests too. Stability is in the interests of both parties.

When I outlined the above to someone close to the situation recently, what was their response? “I think you’re on the money, Dave…”

How have your viewing habits of Formula 1 changed in the past decade? Have your say in the comments below.

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14 thoughts on “How the BBC / Sky deal changed F1 broadcasting in the UK

  1. Thanks for writing this. Very interesting.

    I was dreading the move to Sky, and i’m not a big fan of their coverage, mainly due to some members of their team who I personally don’t think do a great job. I love the approach that C4 & Whisper have brought, not just the usual formula for presenting sport. It’s dynamic, funny and much more entertaining that what sky produce (IMO).

    I’d be interested to know if there’s any data at all out there to estimate how many people are watching through streams? I personally share a ‘community’ now tv login, so if i’m late to the party I can find an ‘alternative’ stream option within 60 seconds, and the quality is as good as now tv, and often better! Do we know how many people watch this way?

    I’ve been watching F1 religiously since ’92, and would follow the sport wherever it’s being shown, but I do miss FTA. 👍🏻

  2. Personally, I think much will depend on how long Liberty choose to award the next rights for, bearing in mind they have already said they aren’t happy with the current Sky arrangements.
    It’s clear 10 years on that the reputation of FTA has been damaged in the UK, which is why most international sports now go with pay TV, and hence why we fully expect Formula E to disappear from the BBC. As an aside, do we have figures yet for Channel 4’s showing of the London E-Prix weekend? If they’re anything like youtube, formula E in the UK is probably going pay tv from next season, as the youtube figures were very low

  3. The ‘opening up’ move by FOM to put race highlights on YouTube was one of the most simple but important steps over the last decade in keeping the sport immediately accessible.

    The new stream of fresh content and behind-the-scenes insights on other social media platforms is also arguably the real saving grace for the younger generations, particularly in this new Lando Norris-esque era of greater fan interaction and engagement.

    I’d also agree the BBC coverage during that initial three-tear period was a real high point which absolutely transformed and vastly elevated the entire approach to covering the sport after years of partisan ITV coverage, where f1 was routinely second best to Coronation Street…

  4. I haven’t watched Formula One since 2011. Mainly because of cost but silly rules, boring cars and poor racing have influenced my decision. I now prefer to attend HSCC meetings in person, much more fun and no more costly.

  5. As a pensioner on a fixed income obviously I do not have Sky. The long delayed C4 highlights were well produced, but I gave up after a while as all the results and race incidents are all over the media hours before the highlights are shown. So after a long absence, the Silverstone GP being live should have been a treat. I was very disappointed to find the standard of camera production/direction had fallen so much while the audience has been captive. While the Whisper produced parts were excellent as always, it seemed that the official F1 camera crews had been told not to show the leaders for more than 5 seconds. While aiming for a younger audience it seems that the ADHD group must be the target.
    The W series barely showed the leaders at all instead mostly concentrating almost entirely on one midfield runner.
    The F1 race was similarly badly directed with the leaders ignored for much of the time. Ok often there is more action down the field, but the spotters should have kept the director on the ball. It seemed that perhaps they did not even have spotters, a bad mistake when it was expected that the leaders would at some point provide the highlight of the race.

    1. What’s the point in showing the leaders when there is action further down the field? The leaders were shown at the appropriate time and we could see from the graphics that, for example, Hamilton was catching Leclerc towards the end of the race. They then showed the battle for the lead when necessary. With respect, I think you’ve got a case of Stockholm Syndrome from watching too many highlights programmes on C4 where they cut the bits like the example above.

  6. Thanks for the excellent article.

    I’ve never been able to justify the cost of sky + the F1 sports package, or the Now TV options.

    I’m not ashamed to admit it but if I’m in on race day I will use “alternative” streams from the corners of the internet. So far it’s proven better quality than the the double delayed 4OD streams.

    I do like Channel 4’s excellent highlights if I’m out and about during the day and record them but the huge delays often mean results are ruined and as mentioned before the huge delay from C4 broadcast to 4OD appearance is an extra frustration.

    I’d happily pay for F1 if it was direct and didn’t require the baggage of Sky.

    I signed up for F1 TV at the start of 2020 using a VPN to get around the geo restrictions but covid and terrible app performance meant I cancelled by the time the first race of 2020 happened. I might give it another go to see if things have improved.

    In short, I want to pay for F1. I want to support what I enjoy. But the existing Pay TV deals and limited FTA options really make doing that hard.

  7. While I agree it was inevitable F1 would be snapped up by Sky eventually given so many other sports had already (football, cricket, golf etc), I still think the BBC coverage for those years they had it exclusively was the high point in F1 on TV.
    As was said by another poster, it was so fresh after ITV’s efforts and Coulthard and Jordan in my opinion were brilliant (despite Eddie’s many tangents!) and Humphrey was excellent until maybe towards the end when he got a bit matey and jokey.
    Now to attract subscribers and attempt to justify a whole F1 channel, Sky’s coverage is bloated. Gone are the Beeb’s 45-minute build-ups with great features and 45 minutes at the end.
    Instead we have 90 minutes beforehand, much of it filler, and the same again afterwards.
    Five hours or so of raceday coverage is too much and, again as was said higher up, dilutes the quality.
    There’s a lot to be said for telling a story concisely. I certainly miss the BBC’s coverage.

  8. I have been fan since 1988. i do not have any sky tv and i just cant justify the cost so it as had major effect on viewing habits. I use to know the date of every race and would plan around it . sometimes i dont even know its on and very rarely watch qually. 2019 i had basically given up and walked away and found other things to do. Covid world actual saved it because of the restriction on going out meant i had to find things to do at home.

    I have also started watch other motor sport , forumla e , btcc (always did) and now sport car racing on youtube. The sports car racing as 40 cars and the result are never all over social media so i can watch it when i like as live. the other major change is people lack of talking about it at work now.

    The biggest threat to f1 now is not sky tv deal. Its financial crisis that will happen in few years after covid. i understand there is budget cap coming in but i can see teams relying on sky f1 money and not sponsors and people willing and able to pay to watch in future might be awful lot less

  9. Weirdly, I actually prefer the new set-up.

    In 2011, I was beginning to tire of F1. Hours of live race coverage only for the usual suspects to come in the usual places, combined with a number of ‘procession’ races led me to feel like it was a drag on my weekend. When the shared set-up began, I realised I preferred the shorter highlights weekends to the live ones.

    Given the last few years with the Merc/Hamilton dominance I’m almost certain I would have given up on F1 had it all been live on FTA. I’m not a Hamilton fan and given he’s been largely unchallenged until recently, I can’t imagine my patience would have held. F1 works best when it’s close and it just wasn’t for a long, long time. Most weekends were about who would come 2nd rather than who would win.

    As it is, the C4 set-up has kept me interested in the sport. Yes it’s frustrating to see the winners in advance, even when you try not to, but unless you seek out the news, you might only know the winner/top 3 and (in cases like the 2021 Hungarian GP) there’s often surprises to enjoy. The highights cut out some of the drier action on dull weekends and spinning through the coverage fast forwarding adverts means you can do a whole race and build up in a couple of hours. I must confess to feeling the British GP coverage went on a bit (possibly not helped by the extra racing) when it aired last month.

    Maybe that means I’m not an F1 purist, but I’d be disinclined to have every race live on FTA again now – so long as we get nothing less than what we get now I’d say it’s not a bad deal. If, by some miracle, it all landed live on C4/BBC/ITV I think they’d probably end up losing me as a viewer.

  10. Our Family are avid followers of F1 and really do like to watch races live. However we resent massively having to pay for Sky’s 11 channels of sport when we only watch f1. That is after getting over the fact that it’s Sky who I would avoid like the plague if there was any alternative – but that’s another story for another day.

    We would happily pay for the direct F1TV Plus in the Uk if it were available.

    We still rate the BBC 5 live commentary as the best, but it’s really hard to sync with the Sky video feed

  11. The future is in streaming. Amazon Prime, Netflix etc.. Formula 1 will become more popular worldwide, especially in the USA… I don’t see anyone outbidding Netflix… F1’s revenue will explode and access will be open to everyone for a nominal monthly subscription. F1 drivers will become Superstar Athletes worldwide, not just in the confines of the UK and Europe.

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