ben treston

WRC TV's deathmarch towards ESPN


With the news now settling about the WRC’s new deal with ESPN for UK TV coverage in 2011 it is becoming apparent that this decision is going to be a huge step backwards for the viewing public in the UK.

Everyone understands that we don’t have the former glory days of the World Rally Championship in the UK, with McRae and Burns fighting each other at the last round in Wales for the world championship - sadly those days are becoming a distant memory. That time was also the glory days for TV coverage, with Channel 4 offering a highlights package on each day of the event with a ‘virtual studio’ and good a good commentary panel with Penny Mallory, Robbie Head and Jon Desborough.

With the sad premature passing of Richard Burns, and the late Colin McRae not being a front runner with the new generation of WRC machinery that came in with Sebastien Loeb - the UK’s position as a producer of world-class rally driver was fading fast and sure enough so did the TV coverage to go with it.

Off it went to ITV4 after the Channel 4 deal died, and then after that onto the freeview channel “Dave”. This was a new channel that was basically a running loop of Top Gear repeats along with some comedy panel shows squeezed in. I quite liked it - a refreshing angle on a new channel for ‘blokes’ - and this is where the WRC went next. It seemed like a good fit, but the coverage really did go downhill. The host of the AXN show, Neil Cole did his best - but the cutbacks from the glory days of Channel 4 were showing - lack of cameras on stage and a watered down package of one hour on the Sunday after the event.

Suddenly after this recent news about the 2011 coverage - it feels like that the old TV package would be just fine. Over time, the coverage on Dave, did improve with more focus on the stages and a little less focus on C-list celebs attending the event. One would assume that these improvements were leading to a renewal of this deal, but late last year, it was becoming apparent that the deal with Dave was not going to be renewed in 2011. The speculation then began which of the Freeview channels the WRC would go to - would it end up back on ITV4? Perhaps Channel 5? The BBC was a long shot - but would have been a natural fit with the Formula One coverage....

However the very depressing reality is that now the only place you can watch the WRC is on ESPN. Not only is this on a subscription service - but it is a subscription service on a subscription service (Sky TV). Someone priced up that it would cost an additional £130 per year to enjoy the WRC on TV, and that does not include the cost of the Sky Subscription itself either. This is just simply not acceptable when the WRC is struggling to gain more traction in the UK (and worldwide).

I understand that North One Sport did try to pitch the coverage to many networks - however my worry is that this deal is based on the interests of theirs, and not the fans or the sport in general. With modern technical advancements why can’t they just bypass this limitation of having a broadcaster, and broadcast it themselves - straight out on on the Sunday - using HTTP streaming and perhaps targeting devices such as the PS3 (which sits under your TV)? For commercial interests they could embed advertising of course - but this could really open up the audience much wider than just restricting this to a very small potential audience hidden away on a members-only sports channel.

With the most interesting season (exciting new World Rally Cars, a level playing field) fast approaching in two weeks - it is a pity that as a excited potential viewer with a TV - I won’t be able to see a thing.