Channel 4 snaps up live F1 after BBC ditches TV coverage

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Channel 4 has bought the rights to broadcast Formula One races free-to-air in the UK after the BBC scrapped its coverage three years early to save money.

C4, which is also publicly owned, will broadcast 10 races a season between 2016 and 2018. It has agreed not to show ads during the races, a stipulation likely to have helped it beat rival interest from ITV. All 21 yearly races are broadcast live by Sky, the satellite TV company.

Sports rights have spiralled in value in recent years as big events become a key way of selling pay-TV subscriptions and generating large live audiences for advertisers.

F1’s live audience fell to an eight-year low in the UK this year, although comparisons are complicated by splits between pay-TV and free-to-air coverage.

Lewis Hamilton, the sport’s biggest star and world champion for the second year running, finished fifth in Sunday’s public vote for the BBC’s Sports Personality of the Year — behind tennis player Andy Murray, rugby league’s Kevin Sinfield, athlete Jessica Ennis-Hill and boxer Tyson Fury.

The BBC’s decision comes as its reduces spending on sports by £35m a year, as part of a £150m annual budget cut. The broadcaster has already ended its live coverage of Open Golf and agreed to share Six Nations rugby with ITV.

The termination of F1 coverage will provide a “significant chunk” of the remaining budget cuts, Barbara Slater, BBC Sport’s director, said in a statement.

The sport is likely to receive a smaller viewing share on C4, although Bernie Ecclestone, F1 chief executive, said the broadcaster would bring a “new approach”.

The government is considering proposals to privatise C4, which has a remit for innovative programme-making. Although non-profit, the broadcaster’s finances are improving thanks to the ad market, and it is likely to make a financial surplus of about £20m this year, according to Enders Analysis.

Discovery Communications and Liberty Global, which are among the potential acquirers of C4, held prolonged negotiations to acquire a stake in F1 but were unable to reach a deal.

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