How ironic that the BBC's coverage of the 2011 Formula 1 season ended with the above image. Viewers of the Formula 1 Forum, following the Brazilian Grand Prix, were treated to the only semblance of an apology that the BBC have offered to it's millions of Formula 1 fans for the decision to abandon any sort of serious commitment to the sport. The fact that this apology came about as a result of a Brazilian power cut rather than any sudden attack of decency from BBC bosses only serves to highlight the irony.
Formula 1 coverage, as we have known it, is no more. Despite previously committing to a five year contract to provide it's customers with live coverage of the full Formula 1 season, the BBC have bailed out of that commitment two years early. You may think that is fair enough. In these difficult economic times is it not right that the BBC should seek to make necessary cost savings just as every other public corporation is required to do? After all, when the original commitment was made nobody could have foreseen the tumultuous economic upheaval that the whole world has had to face up to. Surely Formula 1 fans should take this one on the chin and recognise that we all have sacrifices to make in these austere times?
On a personal level I have no dispute with the BBC for seeking to make such cost savings. As an avid Formula 1 fan I am disappointed that the BBC should choose to end it's full season coverage of the sport because it's coverage is very, very good. However, I recognise that savings do need to be made and I am willing to accept that this is one way that the BBC can make significant savings. What I do take issue with are the lies and smokescreens that have been proffered up by the BBC as they seek to mislead their customers regarding their motivations for the actions they have taken. The BBC has shown a complete disregard to the interests of both the sport and it's customers.
The word customers is an interesting one. We used to be viewers but now we are very much customers - or consumers. However, we are no normal customers. Normal customers make an informed decision on whether or not to purchase a product or service based upon whether or not we believe that product or service offers value for money. With the BBC we are not given that choice. For those of us living in the UK we are forced to purchase this service whether or not we think it is value for money and whether or not we have any desire to use it. The BBC has a captive customer base, and with that should come responsibility.
So what exactly is it that the BBC have done wrong? If savings need to be made then why is there such uproar among Formula 1 fans for the way that the BBC have gone about their business? What is it that is causing Formula 1 fans to claim that the BBC have shirked the responsibility that comes with their position?
In truth, there are a number of issues with the conduct of the BBC. All of these issues go to the heart of the matter of whether the BBC is providing a public service or is in fact serving it's own selfish ambitions. I believe that the overwhelming body of evidence is that the BBC shows very little regard to it's public responsibilities and is far more concerned with serving it's own interests rather than those of the people that are forced to pay for the inflated salaries of it's executives and presenters. The BBC has become a business that seeks to exploit it's customers in every way possible - not unlike the media outlet that it has decided to get into bed with for next year's Formula 1 coverage.
Next year the BBC have decided that they will be showing half of the Grand Prixs live while Sky Sports show the other half. For the races that will be shown live on Sky the BBC will be showing delayed extended highlights. The extent of these 'extended' highlights is not yet clear. The corporation is sending out extremely mixed messages that often contradict themselves. They have already shown that the statements they made immediately following the announcement of the deal were nothing more than outright lies. The promise that the BBC would be showing the races in full on a delayed transmission are already well and truly out of the window.
The first real issue that I have with the deal that the BBC have struck with Sky is simply the fact that is it with Sky. The BBC have done a very good job of attracting new fans to the sport of Formula 1 in the three years that it has had the screening rights back. Before this, the excellent work of people like Murray Walker and James Hunt converted others, including myself, to the excitement of the sport. It was a shock when the BBC first lost the screening rights for Formula 1. A shock but not a disaster. None of us lost the ability to watch the Formula 1 season. We simply had to turn over to ITV and endure those irritating adverts. However, this time the BBC have ensured that many of it's 'customers' will no longer be able to watch the full season by doing a deal with Sky.
There are two big problems with Sky. One is moral and the other is economic. Anybody who now wants to watch all of the Grand Prix live are now being forced to line the pockets of the Murdoch family. Many people will have a major moral aversion to doing business with such loathsome characters. This is the family who oversaw the News of The World hacking the phones of not just celebrities but also missing children, victims of crime and sufferers of personal tragedy. These people are the lowest of the low. The BBC may have no moral scruples about dealing with the Murdoch family but many people will find that their conscience does not allow them to do so. I don't have the luxury of making this moral choice, which leads to the second problem. Sky subscriptions are expensive. Many people cannot afford the hundreds of pounds a year required to watch Sky TV. It may well be the way of the world that the pleasures in life cost money, and if you can't afford them then it is simply tough, but the BBC should not be dressing this up as anything other than a deal that will cut off thousands (perhaps millions) of viewers from the sport they have come to love.
For many, that last statement may sound a little extreme. How can we possibly be cut off from the sport we love when the BBC will be showing extended highlights of each race that they are not showing live? For many people the thought of watching an entire Grand Prix is a dreadful one. Lap after lap of cars in procession, going around in circles with not much happening. Surely a highlights package that showed the 'interesting' bits but saved you from the tedium of uneventful laps would be an improvement? Not for the true Formula 1 fan! For those who understand the intricacies of the sport, those 'boring' laps are full of latent potential. You never know when a gearbox will explode, when a tyre will fail or when a backmarker will take off a leader for no apparent reason. We may be displaying trainspotting tendencies, but Formula 1 fans enjoy watching those cars go round in circles. It is the not knowing what will happen next that makes a full race so enjoyable.
In his end of season blog even Jake Humphrey acknowledges that "One of the things I've loved about the coverage we've provided since 2009 has been the genuine human emotion that only live sport can deliver." Live sport! Highlights simply do not offer anywhere near the same level of enjoyment. Without the full coverage you miss so much of the event and the intrigue. There is a solution however. Even on a time delayed transmission it is possible to watch the race as if it were live - provided that you get to see the race in full. Bernie Ecclestone has confirmed that this option is available to the BBC. The BBC has chosen not to take advantage of this. So much for its commitment to offering fans the very best coverage available!
Another issue with getting the most of next year's highlights on the BBC will be the ability to watch the Grand Prix without knowing the result. Will the BBC be respecting this fact by delaying showing any race results on it's website until after the highlights have been shown? I very much doubt it. The BBC has shown no signs so far of being willing to make any sacrifices on behalf of the fans. So the BBC, which says that it seeks to promote sport and it's coverage, will be giving Formula 1 fans the choice of watching the race already knowing the outcome or avoiding all other sports online on a Sunday. Its not as if a lot of sport takes place on a Sunday!
For all of the complaining, and putting aside the issue that the BBC is choosing not to show the race in full, all of the above can be justified under the banner of cost cutting. We all know that the BBC has to do everything that it reasonably can to cut costs. So bearing this in mind, why on earth is it sending a full team of presenters to every Grand Prix that it wont be showing live? There is no need and doing so is a slap in the face for everyone who is losing out on the ability to see the races. I have nothing against Jake Humphrey, David Coulthard or Eddie Jordan. Indeed I have greatly enjoyed their coverage of the sport. However, I have no desire to see my licence fee being used to pay for them to attend events that will not be made available for my full enjoyment when their is no practical need for them to do so. They could provide just as informative a discussion on the race from a studio in Manchester. The Match of the Day presenters manage it so why not the Formula 1 presenters? One or two interviewers, along with the technical crews, would be enough to provide all the footage we would need for highlights. Let us hope that the BBC see sense on that issue and do not throw that insult in our faces next year. The cost of sending them there may not be huge in terms of the overall budget, but how many Sky subscriptions for less well off viewers could be bought with that money? How many unwanted licence fees for that matter?
Perhaps I am being harsh. Perhaps it is unfair to be so critical of the BBC when there was no alternative faced with the need to save money. No alternative? That is the biggest issue of all. There was an alternative. I am not referring to the possibility of cutting costs on some of the more ridiculous projects that the BBC indulges in instead. I am biased and couldn't provide a balanced argument when it comes to that. I love Formula 1 too much. I am referring to the fact that an alternative - a much better alternative for Formula 1 fans - was available. Channel 4 offered an alternative that would have matched the package offered by Sky and would have allowed the full season to be shown on free to view television. Every race available to every viewer. Imagine that! The only difficulty? The BBC would not have been part of the deal. Channel 4 would have taken over the full coverage.
That left the BBC with a decision to make. A decision about what it exists for. Does it exist to provide the very best for it's licence fee payers or does it exist to serve itself. If the BBC was indeed interested in the welfare of both the sports it covers and the viewers of those sports it would have allowed Channel 4 to take over the coverage so that everybody could see every race. We got our answer. The BBC does not care about the viewer. If it gave up coverage rights then it wouldn't have clips to show on its website or highlights to show on the iplayer. The decision, in the end, had nothing to do with savings as the total savings would have been far greater. No crew or presenters to send to any race. They could even have invested those savings into covering another sport properly. However, they chose not to and showed us that they are happy to provide half-baked sports coverage.
There are a lot of Formula 1 fans saying that they will never forgive the BBC for this decision. Never is a long time in coming though, and sports fans are particularly fickle. The BBC can rely on the fact that our love of sport will always outweigh our dislike of how they have acted. If they ever see sense and decide to cover the sport properly then people will come back. They should not be complacent though. I, for one, will be exploring every possible alternative to watching Grand Prix on either Sky or the BBC next year. I doubt I will be the only person searching for live streaming. Perhaps of more concern though is the fact that I have always been opposed to abolishing the licence fee. I believed the BBC was worth protecting because, as a public service, it served our needs. I no longer think that. Politicians have a funny habit of taking advantage of fickle public opinion. Don't get too cosy in those fancy new Manchester offices!
Normal service will resume shortly? Normal service may never resume again!