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Walker laments 'free to air' loss

31 July 2011

Veteran F1 commentator Murray Walker has added his voice to the debate over the sport's decision to award the UK television contract to Sky Sports, claiming that it can only be bad news for hardcore fans.

Writing in the Daily Mail newspaper, Walker added that he also feared for the sport itself, with the expected drop in viewing figures likely to have a knock-on effect on the teams.

The announcement that subscription-based Sky Sports would carry live coverage of every round from 2012 came on the opening day of the Hungarian Grand Prix in Budapest, leaving fans - and some members of the current BBC team - stunned and angry. The 'free to air' station will continue to show F1 next season, but will only have half the races live, with the rest forming a highlights package.

Fans have reacted angrily on internet forums, with more than one campaign targeting both the BBC and F1 ringmaster Bernie Ecclestone in an effort to get the decision reversed, and Walker admits to sharing their concerns.

"The tragedy of it is that the BBC, on a free-to-air basis, are doing an absolutely fabulous job and are not only providing the best F1 coverage that Britain has ever had, but are also providing the best coverage in the world in my view," he wrote, "My overriding reaction is one of great sympathy for the people who can't afford Sky or don't have Sky for whatever reason, because they are going to be denied 50 per cent of the races."

Walker said that he feared for the quality of the 'free to air' coverage once the new deals come into play, especially with the cost of the BBC's programming having been at the root of the problem in the first place.

"It all comes down to money," the octogenarian admitted, "The BBC has lost F1 before. They lost it in my time and it went to ITV and they did a better job for F1 then than the BBC had been doing. But, now, the BBC is doing a better job than ITV did.

"There is a problem in that the BBC are only going to be doing half the races now and they will inevitably spend less money on them. Hypothetically, their coverage will not be as good, which is a great pity."

It is not only the fans and his fellow broadcasters at the BBC that Walker is worried about, however, with the sport in general also in danger of suffering from the deal to allow a 'pay per view' channel to gain a foothold.

"I have concerns that, if the television audience goes down, F1 itself is going to suffer," Walker, who has commentated for both BBC and ITV in his time, continued, "There is also the question of how the teams and the sponsors will react because teams always want, and Bernie Ecclestone has always instead on getting, the maximum audience in order motivate sponsors to get as much money in.

"It is typical Bernie. When the BBC lost [the coverage] to ITV in 1995/96, he 'phoned the head of sport, Jonathan Martin, and said 'I am afraid to tell you that you have lost the contract and we are making the announcement in half-an-hour'. When Jonathan picked himself up of the floor and said 'gosh Bernie, you might have given us a chance', Bernie replied 'unless you have been cheating me all these years, you can't pay what they can and there was no point in talking to you'.

"I would imagine that is what happened now. Somebody said once 'follow the money', and that is what it is all about. Bernie has got to maximise income for CVC, who own the commercial rights, and the BBC have got to make savings. Obviously that necessitated, from Bernie's point of view, making a change and Sky were prepared to take it over and pay for it."

However, having been through a similar experience, and come out smiling after being picked up by ITV, Walker is optimistic that, not only will Sky provide a continuation of the current level of coverage, but may also employ those that have helped provide it - even if he cautiously ruled himself out of the mix.

"Media is changing a hell of a lot, [and] maybe something like this was inevitable," he noted, "I have no doubt at that Sky will do a very good job. I don't watch cricket or football on Sky, but my belief is they do a very good job - and, now that they have spent a hell of a lot of money to get F1, they will want to get the maximum audience for it. I am sure they will do an excellent production job.

"If Sky came calling, well you never say never, but I've had my time and done jolly well. It is early days to take about anything yet, but I would certainly be expecting Sky to go after the people who are doing it so well now. It is also inevitable that the BBC team is going to be broken up because I am quite sure that people like Martin Brundle, David Coulthard and others will be in touch with Sky, or Sky will be in touch with them."


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