A brief look at BBC F1 scheduling in the mid 1990s

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.

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11 thoughts on “A brief look at BBC F1 scheduling in the mid 1990s

  1. Firstly I have followed F1 since 1993 and watched pretty much every race from 1994 onwards. However I was born in 1983 so my experience isn’t overly greater than yours. I do recall that 1995/6 felt like a huge improvement from the BBC in general. They really seemed to care about it more, pointless though they may have been. I think the public outcry over the move, and adverts (that was the worst addition ever for me) showed just how much people cared about the sport. Damon Hill’s chances of winning and the high profile incidents of 94 probably helped too. ITV’s coverage was ok but adverts in particular made watching races unbareable. I was fortunate in that the Sky system of the time also picked up RTL, who also ran adverts, but the two only sometimes clashed! It helped that I was learning German at the time as well!

  2. I may be wrong as 94 was the first season I can remember properly, but I don’t think qualifying as we kind of know it started until 1994. Even then I remember times from the friday still counting on occasion. I remember some friends had SKY and were able to watch the practice sessions (eurosport?).

    I remember that before ITV the coverage was pretty much just Murray Walker and Tony Jardine talking over pictures that I assume would have been the world feed.

    And the 1996 Japaneese GP would have been significant being the race of Damon Hill’s title victory, so not sure why the Qualifying wouldn’t have been shown live, was it shown as delayed coverage later on? Perhaps it was too early as it probably would have been 4 or 5am.

    Rambling on here, but I find it interesting recalling my early memories of the sport!

  3. It’s 18 years ago now, and may be wrong, but I’m sure they did show the 1996 Japanese Qualiyfing live, or it could just be what Matt said above they showed it delayed.

    I can remember being on tenterhooks right up to the last minutes as Damon Hill was down in 4th with Villeneuve on pole, with his last lap he moved upto 2nd to become the third – and so far last – man to qualify on the front row for every race

    It was weird how BBC increased their output AFTER they lost the contract, showing all the qualifying sessions in full

  4. Istarted following by f1 one by accident in 1989 after i recorded a film called terminator and accidently recorded the mexico grand prix before. Nigel mansel over taking berger round the fast 150mph courner on the straight and i was hooked. the mexcian grand prix is back this year with that coruner butched.

    back then bbc showed the european race live and fly away race as highlights. somethink like the brazillian grand prix they use to show highlights and then join race live when they caught up with it (i think). Murray walker and james hunt was based in studio i think as they was know to say things like i can see from commantary box windows ‘usual que that they was in studio in the uk’. the big difference back then was there was 32 cars!!!!! and they had to have pre qually to get down to 26cars. I dont remember seeing qually live but i do think eurosport use to show it .

    It got to around 1992ish and every race was live on bbc i use to tape the early ones ‘japan , oz and watch them when i woke up and the canada ,mexico and brazil was live on bbc 2 in evenings. qually was also live. this was era of 3 set super sticky tires and spare cars. I loved this . If driver crash he got back to pits and had go in spare car . Now qually bores me and is just made for tv and for lower cars to get viewers. It has not worked as im just not intrested in it. There was around half hour of build up before the race started usual murray just talking. Which he was brilliant at. I dont have sky and really dont get why people would want to watch several hours of build up . At around this time i had sunday job. There was no internet so i could come home from work watch gp and not know the result. Now if i know the result i dont tend to bother.

    I hated itv covarge . every time there was an advert come i use to walk out room on purpose. The early years they was sponsored by texico petrol. I never set foot in there petrol since . Only recently starting go back now as i take my angry on more wide range. I avoid any company if they sponsor if f1. If i cant watch free to air they cant have my custom.

    The other think i remember about itv is they complety screwed up san mario grand prix one year. Alonso was all over the leader for last few laps and they cut to the advert. Jim rosentil had to say sorry after the race. I also remember that bernie and itv and bit of set to about one qually sesion ‘spain i think’ . Bernie stopped them showing it until they paid extra.

    When Mansell left to race indy car itv tried to show the race saturday dinner time. I dont think it was sucess as uk just dont get oval racing.

    For me part of f1 sucess was they use to go school , college or work and everybody could chat about as it was on tv. ‘water cooler tv as the americans call it’ This as ended with sky and we have allready seen smaller teams with less sponsor because of less visability.

    If it was not for honda joing f1 this year i dont think i would be watching f1 next year.

  5. Fascinating article, thank you. I’m 38 and my memory is of severe disappointment about the announced move from BBC to ITV mainly because of ad breaks. However, after ITV took over I actually changed my mind because of the extra coverage and features they included. Martin Brundle’s inclusion was also a massive highlight. When coverage reverted to the BBC a few years later the coverage became even better and I attribute this in part to ITV having upped the game previously.

  6. Just for your information, qualifying is officially designated qualifying practice.
    ITV did very well in their coverage much to our relief. They recoded through the ads and replayed any bits we had missed.

    Lets not forget we still had other motor-sport on BBC as well. Rallycross from Brands was a national favourite, plus sports 2000, FF, trucks the RAC rally etc they were all popular on tv until Bernie killed them off one by one.

  7. Interesting piece.

    As a 68 year old, who’s been following the sport since the late ’50’s, I’ve been able to witness the whole change. One thing you have to remember in the days before pay-to view TV, a whole range of sports got some form of coverage on BBC and also ITV.

    Football of course was dominant, as in those days was cricket, but F1 was just another sport like wrestling, motorcycle scrambling, cross country running, rallycross etc.etc. I can clearly remember scouring the Radio Times for any possible F1 coverage. To see a race, or even highlights, was great and build ups or after race reviews were rarely given. That didn’t matter, we actually got to see a race and Motoring News on a Wednesday would then supply the detailed info.

    So, whatever we might think of him now, Mr E eventually changed everything for us and the sport. This I also think was helped with the advent of pay to view as football and cricket took the money and moved away from terrestial TV, freeing up more time for other sports.

    Whilst I’m still a big fan of F1, with the exception of a few technical features, I find all the other “padding and chit chat” an annoying waste of time. I’ll always watch the BBC over Sky because of this and overall still think they set the benchmark for production.

    How long will F1 stay on the BBC is the big question for the future. They still get big audiences, covering only half the races live, in spite of Sky’s dedicated F1 channel. So, if they did drop F1 at any time it would be a big loss to the sport. Sky would surely then want to dominate their position and demand some sort of highlights only programme like MotoGP gets on a Monday.

  8. BBC definitely had 1996 Japanese GP qualifying live – I clearly remember taping it and getting up early to watch it back.

    The BBC often left the race pretty quick after the finish to switch to something else – sometimes straight away after the champagne. Sometimes they’d stay for the press conference, sometimes that would be shown later on in Sunday Grandstand, sometimes you had to wait for the evening highlights to see any interviews, and even then they would often be restricted to the British drivers.

    Incidentally, coverage of the 1978 Canadian Grand Prix stood out – admittedly a dead rubber and the last round of the season, but all the BBC showed was highlights the following Wednesday as part of Sportsnight (alongside ice skating)!

  9. Qualifying was always live on the BBC….on Ceefax…page 361 if I recall. Pretty much the only qualifying on live TV throughout the 80s and 90s was the British GP. You would generally get snippets of other sessions in Grandstand but inevitably they would leave after a few minutes to go to the 2:30 at Kempton

  10. all the f1 fans i knew at the time hated the move to itv and ad breaks. this was amplified at the hungarian gp in 97 when they were at commercial when hill overtook schumacher and the hate remained until they lost the contract. thankfully the bbc didn’t feel the need to feature every driver cooking during their buildup.

    for me personally, 25 minutes of buildup is plenty, recap quali and any other relevant info then into the race. gridwalk is nice but not necessary, it has become less and less entertaining down the years. after the race the same amount of time will do, show the press conference, recap the incidents, interview some relevant people and then end the show.

    sky’s coverage bores me to tears and, as stated above i always choose bbc when they are live as overall they have the better talent in front and behind the cameras. they also don’t have 32 driver pundits all giving variations on the same opinion

  11. I seem to remember Eurosport showing all the practise and qualifying in 96. All their coverage ended when ITV took over in 97 which prevented channel hopping during the ad breaks. I used to put Radio 5 on during these which was handy when Schumacher put it in the wall in Canada.

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