News Wrap, Week 21

It’s always the way, isn’t it? You go the entire week with only the barest of interesting news stories to consider, then BAM – a bombshell drops that has the entire world (approximately) talking, speculating and complaining. Especially complaining.
This is no carbon tax debate, nor does it concern the debt ceiling of a certain popular troubled republic. Some may say that it’s significantly more serious a matter – the peoples’ Sunday afternoons are at stake here. Of course, I am referring to what will inevitably be known as Skygate – the day the BBC announced it would shed much of its Formula One broadcasting responsibilities and have the slack picked up by Sky Sport.
The best part, as far as I’m concerned, is how much thought and attention a number of Australian Formula One patrons are giving to the matter, since it will have little to no affect on our Formula One coverage whatsoever. Officially, anyway. And so this week’s shortened news wrap will be dedicated largely to this matter. The coverage, not Australia.
The 2012 Calendar
There are rumours that Bernie Ecclestone is about to release a revised version of his calendar for the 2012 Formula One season. Unusually, he’s taken into account some of the sensitivities of the various places we travel to, which is nice.
The most important change is the shifting of the Bahrain Grand Prix from round one down towards the end of the season, taking a back-to-back slot with Abu Dhabi, some eight months after the season starts. The Indian Grand Prix will be switched from featuring in the second leg of fly-away rounds to the first, becoming 2012’s fourth destination.
The inaugural Grand Prix in Austin will also be pushed back to become the penultimate round of the championship, preceding the Grand Prix DO BRASIL. The people over in Texas wanted it moved because of the higher temperatures during their original allocated weekend, as well as it being during their ‘Ozone Action’ period, during which residents are strongly encouraged not to drive their cars and to generally reduce their carbon emissions. Thus, a Formula One race on one of these days would seem awfully hypocritical.
Other minor changes include Australia inheriting the first round of the season and doubling up with the Malaysia Grand Prix, and Monaco having a two week break on either side, thus making it easier for the teams to get in and out of the principality.
Skygate and the tale of two broadcasters
But now, back to business.
The BBC last night announced that, from 2012 – some two years before its original broadcasting contract was due to expire – they would reduce their level of Formula One coverage significantly as a part of the savage cost cutting going on within Britain’s public broadcaster. Starting next year, Sky Sport will broadcast each round of the championship live, including all practice and qualifying sessions, while the BBC will broadcast ten of the twenty rounds live, with the remainder being condensed into 75-minute highlight packages, shown on delay during prime time.
We covered why a switch to Sky is such a big deal earlier this year – and, indeed, the issue is certainly finding some serious coverage right now as the British public GO OFF THEIR NUT in outrage.

BBC yank the chain (Pun: Rob James)

First of all, I do need to declare – as I did already say briefly – that this matter has little affect on me. I do enjoy the BBC pre- and post-race coverage from time to time, and do think that it is wonderful television. It truly is above and beyond anything Australian sport coverage has ever produced, and we generally throw a fair bit of money towards sport here. On that level, I am a little disappointed. However, I do also recognise that Sky Sport’s contribution, with their subscription money, certainly has the potential to do just as much, if not more. And they’re hardly going to have negotiated such a broadcasting deal to squander this chance.
That said, there are some misconceptions about the effect this is going to have on Formula One’s reception in the UK.
Let’s start with the best part of the entire saga, though – the line delivered by Bernie Ecclestone only a few weeks ago about the viability of Formula One on subscription television:
‘Sky is doing an incredible job, but if you look at their audience they are nowhere. With these figures it would be almost impossible for teams to find sponsors. That would be suicidal.’
Ecclestone has/(had?) a point – subscription television uptake int he UK is at roughly 40%, which not only means a smaller audience pool to draw from, but also a smaller pool of casual viewers to attract. But the coverage deal isn’t subscription-only, is it?
What needs to be kept in mind is that, firstly, every Formula One race will still be available on free to air. ‘But wait!’, I hear you shouting. Yes, I know – a delayed highlights package isn’t quite the same. Martin Whitmarsh, however, is confident that this part of the deal may be negotiated so that the BBC show the full race, still on delay. After all, it would only end up being around an extra thirty minutes of airtime.
Secondly – and this is particularly important from the point of view of the teams – this deal may indeed see overall viewership increase. The advantage for the BBC here is that they’re able to show as much (or as little) Formula One as they like in prime time, when television viewership is at its highest.
These things would have been key for Ecclestone as he negotiated a deal. He undoubtedly wouldn’t have wanted to see Formula One leave the BBC – even in this way – which does confirm that the broadcaster has been looking for a way out of their obligations for most of the year. It also suggests that none of the other free-to-air broadcasters had enough money for Bernie to compensate the broken contract.

Ecclesonte protects his sport

By allowing Sky in on the action – but not exclusively so – Bernie has ensured that the sport is still accessible to the casual and dedicated viewer alike through the BBC, while also keeping the world-class coverage via Sky Sport. Immediate viewing figures may well drop as a result, but his logic undoubtedly points towards an increase in overall viewers – prime time ensures that the Sunday afternoon live coverage is compensated for by delayed prime time coverage for the sponsors, which should keep them happy.
That’s the money side of it, but what about the fans? Aren’t they missing out here?
Well, yes. But only the British ones. Sure, Britain’s a key market, and Bernie also happens to be British, but he’s not a representative for the United Kingdom. Don’t forget, he was awfully close to scrapping the British Grand Prix at one point in 2009 when neither Silverstone nor Donnignton could pull themselves together to meet his demands.
Bernie’s only looking after his sport, and, given the circumstances he’s come out on top with the best possible deal for Formula One. It’s his job, and we have to trust that he’s doing it well.
Not me, though. I’m Australian, so like I said, I doesn’t really make any difference to me. Oh well.
I should also apologise to our handful-or-so readers for being so late and/or uninformative with this week’s news. I’ve been having all manner of technological issues to work through, but all is well now. I think.

 You can follow me on Twitter, if you have nothing better to do: @MichaelLamonato 

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