Opinion: Will Channel 4 shake the UK F1 TV tree, or copy the BBC?

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Last month’s shock deal to grab the rights deal from the BBC to show Formula 1 racing continues to be the talk of the UK until the new cars are launched, says Charles Bradley.

Unless there’s a thunderbolt from the blue, Formula 1 isn’t going to be radically different in 2016 – but for UK fans, there is one huge change: Channel 4 snapping up the UK broadcast rights from the BBC.

With cost-saving state broadcaster the BBC unable to continue with its deal for live terrestrial coverage of half the races (and highlights of the rest), Channel 4 stepped up to the plate to took over the contract, beating ITV to the punch.

This ensures that Joe UK-Public retains access to F1 through free-to-air TV without having to pay for Sky Sports – Britain’s pay-TV option that will show all the races live.

What we know about the C4 deal

Publicly-owned – but commercially-financed – Channel 4’s first step was to promise that its race coverage will be advertising break-free.

A stalwart of the BBC coverage, 13-time Grand Prix winner David Coulthard, revealed he would be part of Channel 4’s team – no surprise given his co-founding role with Whisper Films, which will produce the output.

Step two has been to take part in the ‘pick’ process to define which races Channel 4 will show live, and which Sky will have exclusively. 

The process is an alternate pick system: Channel 4 would get first pick of its three favourites (including the must-have British GP), Sky would then pick three of its headline exclusives (including Monaco). Then they each pick one at a time until the calendar is full.

What we don’t yet know

Now the unknowns: Coulthard’s previous BBC role was not only as an expert pundit, but also in the co-commentator seat alongside Ben Edwards. To continue this comm-box partnership would be a sensible course of action, as Edwards is up there with Sky’s Martin Brundle as the most universally-admired British racing commentator you can find.

I very much doubt they’ll go back to the future with James Allen (ex-ITV) or Jonathan Legard (ex-BBC), while fresher options of the likes of David Addison or Jack Nicholls are unlikely to be in the frame this time around.

If there’s one thing C4 and Whisper must realize is that when it comes to action on-track, it needs commentators you can believe in – so I’d expect continuity here.

Conversely to the excellent chemistry of the DC/Edwards commentary team, the dynamic of the BBC’s line-up of pundits – Coulthard and Eddie Jordan – was one both loved or hated, understandably so as Jordan’s constant flip-flop of opinions was a contrast to Coulthard’s level-headed analysis.

Former team boss Jordan is a bizarre mixture of genius and gibberish, prone to changing his opinion as often as his garish shirts, yet the dynamic between he and Coulthard has certainly been… entertaining. And who wants a dull TV show?

Others in the mix? One assumes that Sky will have tightened up its contracts on the likes of Damon Hill, Johnny Herbert, Anthony Davidson et al. BBC irregular Allan McNish certainly fits the C4 bill, but has lucrative Audi ambassadorial commitments on his table.

Channel 4 might like to change up this part of the output, but another option would be to sign a new player in the anchor role – if BBC mainstay Suzi Perry doesn’t make the switch.

Ditto presenter/reporter Lee McKenzie; if she stays put at the BBC, this could open the door to Radio 5 Live’s Jennie Gow, who has also been anchoring ITV’s Formula E studio shows and knows the F1 paddock like the back of her hand.

And where might pitlane reporter Tom Clarkson, another BBC man, fit into all this? Or former Jordan technical director Gary Anderson, whose technical expertise the BBC jettisoned after a couple of seasons.

How technical will C4 want to be? Are they going to focus solely on the top teams and big names, or delve a little deeper? It’s easy to say “we’ll have a new approach to F1 output” – but what might that actually entail?

And do they go for broke in a fresh face in the anchor role? BT Sport showed the perils of this with Melanie Sykes in its MotoGP coverage a couple of years ago, which ended in a hail of criticism.

These are all major unknowns right now.

Conclusion

As a Brit myself, it’s a truism of the past that sport is somehow superior when shown on the BBC, as opposed to watching it on a mere ‘commercial’ channel.

ITV’s previous tenure of the rights demonstrated that the bar can be raised outside the Beeb, and Sky Sports has proved that a step further.

Channel 4 mustn’t be ‘BBC-lite’; it must carry on the commitment and expertise the Beeb’s shows possessed. In fact, the channel has a public-service element as part of its remit, and under the British Government’s Communications Act of 2003 it must boast programming of an ‘educational nature which exhibit a distinctive character’.

And I don’t see why it wouldn’t do that, as there’s plenty of quality people involved already – not least Mark Wilkin, who has long been a mainstay of producing quality F1 content for UK consumption.

The big question for me is: how different can C4 dare to be to set it apart from the BBC and, perhaps more pertinently, commercial rival Sky?

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About this article
Series Formula 1
Drivers David Coulthard , Ben Edwards
Article type Commentary
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