This past week, the BBC have made their Radio Time archive project public. Entitled ‘Genome‘, the facility allows users to search BBC schedules from between 1923 and 2009. Any date, any BBC channel, any time. Obviously the archive is full of goldmine material, the majority of which (including this piece!) is before my time, but definitely worth writing about as it is absolutely fascinating.
I also want to do some myth busting as it were, and with the help of the archive paint some facts. The first subject I want to tackle is the demise of BBC’s Formula 1 coverage in the 1990s. In December 1995, it was announced that ITV would be broadcasting Formula 1 from 1997 onwards, at a cost six times higher than what the BBC were paying. Of course, we all know Bernie Ecclestone’s tactics, and in this instance it is unsurprising that he decided to take the money instead of familiarity. Now, I was not an F1 fan in 1995 (I was three) so I can’t put my feet in someone else’s shoes as to their feelings at hearing that deal. Was the idea of advert breaks interrupting Formula 1 outrageous in 1995? Or did the audience just take it for granted, as they did with BBC’s lacklustre coverage in the years previously?
Ah, lacklustre. Of course, I can look back in hindsight and say that, but in reality Formula 1 during the mid 1990s had similar coverage to any other sport during Grandstand as it was back then. But what did BBC screen? Genome for the first time gives us the complete picture. Firstly, two amusing anecdotes. In the Radio Times listings, qualifying was regularly billed as the final practice session. This is the case in particular for 1994 and 1995. Take this from the 1994 Japanese Grand Prix: “A report by Murray Walker from the final practice session for tomorrow’s Japanese Grand Prix from Suzuka, which can be seen at 3.45am on Sunday on BBC2.” The next tidbit is that not every race back then started at 14:00 local time. The 1995 Italian Grand Prix began at 15:00 local time, whilst the 1995 Monaco Grand Prix began at 15:30 local time. It was not until several years later that a standard start-time of 13:00 UK time / 14:00 for the rest of Western Europe came into effect.
Broadly, BBC’s coverage did increase from 1994 to 1996. These are the statistics:
– 1994: 14 of 16 races live + last half of Britain, Germany qualifying live
– 1995: 17 of 17 races live + Britain, Europe qualifying live
– 1996: 16 of 16 races live + every qualifying live (except Japan)
Weirdly, in 1996, BBC showed every qualifying session live, with the exception of Japan. This might be a Geonome oversight, but seems odd how they chose not to broadcast their final ever qualifying session, as it was at the time, live. It is fascinating to see how much their output increased for 1996, however it should be remembered that the qualifying format changed for 1996 which perhaps gave greater impetus for the likes of BBC to screen it live. It is also a reason why a two-day qualifying format will never happen again, as many broadcasters would simply opt-out of screening the Friday session. Stating a total amount of hours per year is perhaps misleading given that BBC did screen highlights on Sunday night and then again in a Monday or Tuesday afternoon. Excluding those, however, and the 1994 average is around 2.5 hours per weekend, this increasing to 3.5 hours per weekend for 1996.
Your typical European race between 1994 and 1996 had roughly 15 to 25 minutes of build-up on BBC Two (this at a time when sport was on BBC One on Saturdays and Two on Sundays), with Steve Rider on location the majority of the time. Post-race, the BBC showed the post-race press conference but beyond, that, not very much. An interesting point was that the broadcaster gave the British Grand Prix race weekend significantly more coverage than any other race. In 1994, the British round had a whopping 90 minutes of build-up, according to FORIX, the Porsche Supercup was at Silverstone during that weekend so presumably that was included in the build-up. In 1995, the race programme was a similar length, whilst BBC Two covered both qualifying sessions live, the Friday session billed as a ‘Grand Prix Special‘
If you were hoping for extensive coverage of any non-European race, you would probably be better of venturing towards another broadcaster. Live coverage of the 1995 Pacific Grand Prix had a 15 minute build-up with little analysis afterwards, this being Michael Schumacher’s championship winning race. Because of BBC’s varied output, did people care at the time? Or was this during an era where people appreciated every little bit of coverage that they were given? I don’t know the answer to that, but we can be certain that the amount of coverage Formula 1 has increased massively in the past twenty years. The picture is similar for other sports, albeit some have moved to pay-TV as a result (no doubt I’ll look at those motor sport series which have defected to pay-TV since 1995).
So when ITV went to Ecclestone at the end of 1995 saying that they would give Formula 1 all this ‘new’ exposure, with new programming at the centrepiece of the schedule, it is no surprise that Ecclestone said yes, irrespective of how much more ITV were willing to pay.