This morning’s bombshell announcement that the BBC and Sky will ‘share’ the F1 rights as of next year has not gone down well with fans (including myself, just so I’m off the fence). The awkward ‘half and half’ agreement which will see the BBC broadcast 10 of the 20 F1 races for next year live, while the others will be on ‘extended highlights’, isn’t altogether desirable.

As is the norm now when something controversial happens in the world, legions flock to Twitter to post angry soundbites and whatnot, while veteran commentator Martin Brundle (15 years of commentary is enough to be called veteran, right?) said he only found about the deal while at the Hungaroring circuit, and was, in his own words, ‘not impressed‘.

British Sky Broadcasting, of course, is no stranger to televising live F1 coverage. Back in 2002, it had the F1 Digital+ channel set up to offer premium coverage of the season with ex-Eurosport commentators Ben Edwards and John Watson providing coverage on the interactive ‘super’ channel, while former GMTV presenter Matt Lorenzo, in the role of ITV’s slightly-droll Jim Rosenthal, would join guests such as Damon Hill and Perry McCarthy for the ‘master’ channel. The coverage, offered via an eight-screen interactive display offering different camera views, pitlane cam, data and an onboard channel, plus highlights, was actually excellent, and arguably still beats the choice offered by the BBC even today. But then, this was when the ‘Bernievision’ TV complex was in operation, like so:

And this was how Sky advertised it on their F1Digital+ channel in between races:


Note how it cost £12 per race. Multiply that by 17 and you have…er…£192 (thanks, computer calculator). Quite a hefty sum even then, especially considering F1 was also available (admittedly with advert breaks) on ITV. In Sky’s favour, this was the first year of the James Allen/Martin Brundle commentary partnership, where the commentary was a little…hrm… (“Are you ready? Are you ready? Are you READY? Gooooo!”), so my family forked out the fee for 16 of the 17 races that year (missing just Malaysia, which was slightly annoying as that was a) one of only two non-Ferrari wins that year and b) one of only three interesting races that year). To Sky’s credit, they also offered a £50 ‘half-season’ offer where dupes like myself could pay that sum for the season’s eight remaining events (£7.25 a race), only to see Schumacher win the title with six races remaining. Harumph.

So the production was superb (all the sessions, including Sunday warm-up, were featured, as was the Porsche Supercup event), but the races were largely rubbish. As it was, take-up of this F1Digital+ was very poor and the plug was pulled at the end of the season, not just on Sky’s involvement but on the whole ‘Bernievision’ thing too.

Clearly, times have changed. Not only is F1 much more exciting than it was in 2002 (even if it is a German winning the majority of races in the best car and has a huge championship lead and his team-mate is told not to overtake him), but NewsCorp (Sky’s owners) fancy a slice of the big fat F1 financial pie. There’s a hugely complicated deal with CVC taking a big chunk of F1’s profits as current owners, while taking no active interest in the sport, while ringmaster Bernie Ecclestone wheels and deals to get the best offers for…well, himself mostly.

So we have today’s announcement. Yes, it does mean that, for now, F1 will have all its races broadcast on free-to-air television (if you can call paying about £150 for a licence fee as ‘free-to-air’), while those seeking live coverage throughout the season will have to pay a minimum of…er…actually, let’s work this one out, shall we?

The cheapest option would be via Freeview’s Sky Sports 1 channel offering. Assuming you have a Freeview box already in the UK (and if not, you need to get one by next year as the last analogue receivers are being switched off), you then need a ‘Top Up TV’ box, priced £29.99. Oh, and the £20 connection fee. Got that? Good.

Now you can get Sky Sports. Assuming the F1 will only ever be on Sky Sports 1 (and, given that live Premiership football may well clash with that on certain Sundays, that’s a big assumption), that channel alone costs £19.99 a month. The only saving grace is, because you aren’t tied to a contract, you can start a subscription in March (in time for the F1 season) and close it in November (when the last race is November 25). That’s seven months, so that’s roughly £140. Or, y’know, about the same cost as a licence fee. Add that to the Top Up Box and that’s a first-year payment of £190, while hoping the F1 never gets bumped on to Sky Sports 2 because there’s a match between Bolton Wanderers and Tottenham Hotspurs. And it’s not in HD either.

Hmm. Still too expensive. I know- I’ll pray to the television pixies, who may see that, as Sky coincidentally unveiled profits of £1bn (amusingly, the news story still has that under the ‘phone-hacking’ banner which continues to plague NewsCorp like smallpox), maybe they’ll reduce the price of their Sky Sports channel packages (the reason I dropped Sky Sports from my digital TV selection in the first place was extortionate prices), enticing people like me on board while still making healthy profits which they can give to…oh, I dunno, phone-hacking victims. Nah, that’s not gonna happen. And you know why? Because there’s NO SUCH THING AS TELEVISION PIXIES.

Finally, the other argument being used to soften the blow is to say how Sky’s involvement transformed the English Premier League. That I certainly can’t deny, but after a few seasons of the Premiership season and the game itself ridiculously over-hyped whenever I flicked on to a sports channel – like so-

I lost interest. Plus, the game is riddled with corruption and greed, negatively impacting on season ticket prices/merchandise and the league is infested with hateful whinging characters on the pitch and in the dugouts. And anyway, the best programme Sky produces out of all of this is one where football pundits look at TV screens showing Premiership matches out of view from the Sky viewer. And until Sky realised they could squeeze more profits out of the British public, that was on the until-recently free-to-air Sky Sports News channel. Gnuk.

So, overall, I’m not happy with the news, and like many other disgruntled F1 fans who have been kicking off on Twitter, I am tempted to search for (highly illegal) live streaming of F1 from next season, while simultaneously listening to BBC Radio 5 Live’s commentary, to get my live F1 fix throughout the 2012 season. Er, that’s not to say I definitely will be, you understand, officer…

EDIT: It’s worth highlighting an opinion piece by respected former bike racer and top commentator Keith Huewen, written just before the Sky F1 TV deal was announced but oddly appropriate given the circumstances. Here it is. I don’t necessarily agree with all of it, but he makes the fine point that the F1 coverage on the BBC over the past 2.5 years has been excellent, albeit probably unsustainable. The 2009-2011 period may well end up as being the golden era for F1 on TV, simply in terms of how much was offered to the viewer for ‘free’. (Hell, back in 2009 there was even a CBBC commentary feed for the F1!).