The moving picture show
JUNE 22, 2011
Talk in the UK has been about BBC Television abandoning its coverage when the F1 contract expires at the end of 2013. The story broke in The Sunday Times.
That's a bad start because this long-established broadsheet many years ago used a clever marketing catch-line: 'The Sunday Times IS the Sunday newspapers'. Clever because, with a plethora of sections and supplements and good writing, it was easy to convince readers that this was, indeed, the only Sunday paper worth having.
That said, much more worrying is that fact that the seriously down-market 'News of the World' actually sells more papers on a Sunday. The 'NoW', of course, was the paper that, er, exposed Max Mosley but then paid the price as he came after them and won a small victory in court over wholly unsubstantiated suggestions of a Nazi theme to his colourful but private activities in a Chelsea basement.
Both the 'NoW' and 'The Sunday Times' are owned by Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation; which brings me to the point. While 'The Sunday Times' may have been the paper of record, that is arguably no longer the case. Trouble is, because of the aforementioned clever advertising campaign from a couple of decades ago, many people still believe that it is gospel.
It's true that my view will be influenced by the fact that I wrote for the opposition! 'The Observer' is the oldest Sunday newspaper in the world and I spent more than 20 very enjoyable years as their motor sport correspondent. 'The Observer' is no longer what it was: nothing to do with my absence from the sports pages but because the weekly publication is now in the hands of another newspaper proprietor who appears intent on killing it off. But I'm legally obliged not to talk any further about that - which is a story in itself.
I digress. BBC insiders who should know about these things say 'The Sunday Times' report contains enough inaccuracies to place doubt over the veracity of the story's main theme. They also point out that Mr. Murdoch owns Sky, the company that recently rolled a smoking bomb under F1's door by expressing an interest in F1's commercial rights. Running a story such as this can only favour Sky TV by destabilising the BBC and the entire negotiating process.
In these times of austerity, the BBC (Britain's national broadcasting company, after all) faces stringent cuts across the board. When it comes to assessing priorities, F1 - for all its valid claims of increased viewing figures thanks to top class coverage by the BBC team - is actually not that important or vital in the wider scheme of things under consideration by the BBC chiefs.
Meanwhile, F1 opinion seems split (so what's new?). Some - Martin Whitmarsh of McLaren - says F1 should remain free-to-air, just as it is with the BBC. Others - Adam Parr of Williams - says F1 should be examining a total restructuring of the sport's coverage to line up with new media and the idea of using just one global broadcaster rather than dealing with a bunch of different networks around the world.
Immediately, we're into a debate about whether pay-per-view is the way forward. I suspect, like me, you would pay whatever fee is demanded (within reason) even though the adverts drive you mental after an hour or so of the same inane stuff every five minutes. F1 then faces the dilemma of whether cash from pay TV should be at the expense of alienating the many free-to-air casual viewers F1's business partners would prefer to have glued to their televisions for a couple of hours on a Sunday afternoon.
Last Saturday was the 18th anniversary (where does the time go?) of James Hunt's untimely death at the age of 45. F1 coverage has come a long way since then.
A few days before, James and Murray Walker had commentated on the Canadian Grand Prix (won by Alain Prost's Williams). But they did it from the BBC studio in London. No need then to have a crew of more than 30 technicians travel to the so-called flyaway races. The budget must have been a fraction of what it is today.
But it meant there was neither the entertaining 60-minute pre-race package nor the informative post-race comment on line we have now. The taste and demands of the viewers have become more sophisticated and, eventually, we have to pay the price. Or do we?
Part of the problem is that half the shed-load of money demanded by F1 ends up in the bank account of CVC Capital Partners, a faceless private equity and investment company that gives sod-all in return. Everyone has an agenda. Including, one suspects, the proprietor of 'The Sunday Times'.
Maurice Hamilton , a freelance motor sport writer and broadcaster since 1977, is the author of more than twenty books and contributes to websites and magazines worldwide.
His weekly column for Grandprix.com was Highly Commended in the 2011 Newspress New Media Awards.