Sky Sports F1’s weekend output: The Verdict so Far

In the first two parts of my first five part series in this Formula 1 broadcasting blog, I looked at the BBC F1 and Sky Sports F1 teams for the 2012 season after the changes in broadcasting rights that came into effect at the beginning of this season. In this part, I intend to look at the current output from Sky Sports F1 at a race weekend, including suggestions of how to improve it. In the fourth part of this series, I shall look at Sky’s programming outside of weekends, again, with suggestions on how it could be expanded upon; while the final part of the series shall look at the television ratings, and whether the new broadcasting deal has lead to an increase in ratings, or a decrease in ratings.

You may be wondering at this point why I won’t be doing a part on how BBC could improve. The reason for this is quite simple. The BBC have been broadcasting F1 since 2009, and I feel that in those three years they have reached ‘the rooftop’, in that it would be extremely difficult for them, in my opinion, to improve upon their current output. Of course, its always possible, but I think it would be difficult to do so given their budget constraints. Therefore, I won’t spend a part of this series giving suggestions that are never realistically going to happen.

The Sky Sports F1 channel covers every session of the 2012 Formula 1 season live, from the first practice session on a Friday morning, right through to the race itself. The channel also covers every session from the feeder series called GP2. From the Spanish Grand Prix in May, the channel will also be covering the GP3 Series, which is a feeder series to GP2. The stars of GP3 typically move up to GP2, with their end goal to reach Formula 1.

Practice Sessions
Each practice session on Sky Sports F1 is covered with 15-minutes build-up and 10 minutes post-session analysis fronted by Simon Lazenby. David Croft and Anthony Davidson are the commentators, with Natalie Pinkham, Martin Brundle and Ted Kravitz roving up and down the pitlane; Brundle also with Lazenby before and after the sessions. The structure of these sessions is fine, the build-up length and post-session analysis is of a perfect length, although in what may be a recurring theme in this blog, Sky should not rush off air 7 minutes before their allocated slot time ends ‘just to fill it with adverts’. This is not too much of an issue with practice, but it is later. For the practice sessions, the way they cover the sessions is fine, and there is nothing to change. The commercials I can accept, in fact, commercials in the practice sessions are a good thing as they allow me to hop onto the Red Button (or Sky Race Control in Sky’s language) and access the onboard feeds, which is a good watch while the commercials are on the main channel.

Occasionally they also cut away from the World Feed to show Brundle or Kravitz demonstrating something in pit lane, I don’t mind if they do this, as long as there is a reason for doing it. I don’t like them doing it if cars are on track, they should only cut away if absolutely necessary in those scenarios. At this point, I would suggest the Picture-in-Picture (PiP) option for the channel, but I’m not sure whether the broadcasting rights allow them to go PiP during an actual session, so I’m unsure if that is a valid suggestion. In any case, the practice sessions are fine as they are, in my opinion.

The F1 Show
The first of its kind in the UK, The F1 Show airs on Friday’s presented by Ted Kravitz and Georgie Thompson, either on location or in the studio. This paragraph is going to be short, because for me it is by far the best and most enjoyable hour of the content that Sky produce. As I said in Part 1, the combination of Kravitz and Thompson is one that has gelled quickly, the two are clearly relaxed working with each other, and it makes for a better programme as a result. The programme also airs outside of race weekends, for instance on the March 30th edition of the show we were treated to Patrick Head as a guest on the show. The limited commercial format (only 2 ad-breaks on the show) allowed Head to talk in detail about his time at Williams without the need to cut away quickly to the next feature. The show also has cars past and present in the studio, such as this year’s Mercedes or the 1993 Williams car. I don’t think there is anything I would do to change The F1 Show, because it is already a brilliant hour of television, arguably the best piece of television that Sky Sports F1 produces. And long may that continue.

Support races
As I noted above, Sky Sports F1 is broadcasting the two feeder series’ to Formula 1: the GP2 Series and the GP3 Series. I’m glad that Sky have taken GP2 and GP3, I was confused when BBC Sport decided not to pick up GP2 in 2009, it seemed they had let it slip through their fingers, and was a bizarre decision in my opinion. That’s for an issue for another blog, though. For all of the coverage, Sky takes the World Feed coverage for every session, with commentary from Will Buxton and another person, typically a former driver from the GP2 Series. However, their coverage only starts 5 minutes before the race, and finishes 5 minutes after the race. This applies for every session. For practice, that’s fine, I wouldn’t expect any other coverage outside of the World Feed. For the Qualifying and the Races, though, I think Sky should consider adding a pre and post-race show. For the pre-race show, I would suggest 10 minutes build-up with Georgie Thompson presenting and interviewing one or two drivers’ on the grid alongside Johnny Herbert. Just to bring some flavour and voices to the coverage, while after the race they can grab one or two of the finishers and get their analysis on the race. It doesn’t need a lot, but just something to add to the bones to the coverage so the drivers’ can be introduced to the public.

This isn’t without precedence, I’m not suggesting something which has never been attempted before. Back in 2008, ITV4 won the rights to screen GP2 live on their channel. Instead of just taking the World Feed coverage, ITV4 opted to have a pre-race and post-race section to their coverage, presented by Charlie Webster. Ignoring how good (or bad!) the presenter was, it showed for me a commitment to bring GP2 coverage up to a higher level compared to how Eurosport covered it previously. I hope Sky opt to bring in a ‘mini’ pre and post-race show to their coverage, to bring some needed bones to the coverage.

Pre-Show, Post-Show and the dreaded commercials…
Whilst I believe Sky’s Friday coverage is a fine piece of work, and there is really not much to change about it (unless I was to nitpick!), Saturday’s and Sunday’s main coverage leaves a lot to desire. I could have split this blog into two or three sections, with each section focussing on a different area, but I don’t think that is necessary and it would soon become repetitive, as we get back to the same problem: commercials. Commercials plagued the ITV F1 shows, and they appear to be doing the same for the Sky Sports F1 shows, the only difference this time is that Sky took the wise move to run the Qualifying and Race sessions during the race with adverts before and after the race. This has been the situation for three of the four races so far this season. The only race they didn’t run as many adverts (in their linguistic terms limited adverts) was China, possibly because a certain BBC was also live on air? The problem with adverts is that it disrupts the flow of the programme and it comes across on screen as unnatural. During the pre-show for the Bahrain Grand Prix last Sunday, the structure of the show was like this:

– feature 1
– 30 second VT
– commercials
– 30 second VT
– feature 2
– 30 second VT
– commercials

Repeat and rinse. It comes across on screen as unnatural, with no natural change of discussion, like on BBC. The other thing you will notice in the above is the ’30 second VT’ that I’ve labelled three times. These consist of a few interesting facts, or a few pictures. Not really needed, and a waste of 30 seconds that could be used for some more discussion once you tot up all the other 30 seconds wasted in the pre-show. So I’m afraid these need to be dumped as they do nothing for me. Admittedly the commercials in the post-show were not too bad in Bahrain, they went an hour without commercials which is fair enough.

I don’t mind the odd commercial every half an hour/40 minutes, but a commercial every 15 minutes as it was for the Bahrain pre-show ruins the flow for me. It also makes the presenter Simon Lazenby on edge as the director/producer is telling him to hurry because a break is coming up or to hurry to end the show. It is a dedicated channel, there should not be the constant rush to get to another break or to another feature. I would expect that (somewhat) on ITV1, they are not a dedicated F1 channel and have to cater to all audiences, hence why they didn’t stay on air for too long after races sometimes. But for a dedicated channel, having them go to commercials every 15 minutes is not really necessary in my eyes.

In terms of material, the features are fine, while the post-race show in Bahrain was fairly well done. Focusing in on China though (I understand due to the circumstances that judging the Bahrain post-race show is probably not a good idea), their post-race show was focused in the right places, they spent a quite a bit of time whipping up the atmosphere in the Mercedes garage straight after the race and seemed to be at ease before going to some of the other stories in the paddock.

For me, the China programme was just as good if not better than the BBC’s output from 2009 to 2011. In the China programme they also brought Anthony Davidson out of the Sky Pad in the latter parts of the post-race programme to join the main team, which I thought was a nice touch. It was pretty evident straight away there that him and Johnny Herbert have good on screen chemistry, which was a stark contrast to Damon Hill in the post-race segments at Australia and Malaysia. One thing that I’m glad about is that they extended the post-race show to 2 hours, so that they are on air until 16:30 instead of 16:00 having listened to viewer feedback, showing that they are taking all feedback on board.

In parts 1 and 3 of this blog I have looked at Sky Sports F1’s presenting team and their output at a race weekend. I think in conclusion there are a few simple, but effective steps that Sky could take to improve their weekend output even more:

– bring in a pre-show and post-show to the feeder series’ to make them more prominent
– reduce Damon Hill’s role
– limit the commercials to one every 30/40 minutes in pre-show and post-show (ie at 12:05 and 12:50 in pre-show and then 15:00, 15:35 to 16:05 in the post-show)
– increase Anthony Davidson’s and Johnny Herbert’s role

I think implementing those four steps would help make their coverage even better than what it already is. Martin Turner in a Q&A session on the Sky Sports F1 website said “that there’s a limit to how much can be generated – we’re already pushing the boundaries”, which is fair enough, but I don’t think implementing any of the above ‘push the boundaries’, it simply merely makes the product better. You could argue bringing in pre-show and post-shows for GP2 and GP3 would ‘push the boundaries’, but ITV did a proper GP2 show in 2008, so it is not without precedence. If I was a scheduler and had a say on decisions, this would be my perfect weekend schedule:

08:30 – Press Conference
– F1’s Thursday press conference
08:45 – Live Practice 1
10:55 – Live GP2 Practice
11:35 – filler
12:45 – Live Practice 2
14:45 – Live GP2 Qualifying
– session on from 15:00 to 15:30, giving small build-up and reaction from paddock
15:45 – Press Conference
– F1’s Friday press conference, Thursday’s was put up on Sky website for China and Bahrain, so I assume they can put up Friday’s on the website or broadcast it on the channel if they wanted to
16:15 – filler
17:00 to 18:00 – Live The F1 Show

08:35 – Live GP3 Qualifying
– session on from 08:45 to 09:15, giving small build-up and reaction from paddock
09:30 – Live Practice 3
– length increased to prevent ‘awkward’ filler
11:15 – filler
12:00 – Live Qualifying
14:25 – Live GP2: Race 1
– race starts at 14:40, so gives Sky time to go onto the grid and interview a few people, with reaction afterwards
15:55 – Live Qualifying Roundup
– Ted Kravitz in the paddock with a live (or as live) Notebook getting a roundup of Qualifying events, with a few interviews/Sky Pad analysis which could not be fitted in the main show
16:10 to 17:10 – Live GP3: Race 1
– race starts at 16:20, so gives Sky time to go onto the grid and interview a few people, with reaction afterwards

(although I’ve labelled it as different programmes, on screen it will be a seamless hand-over at 14:25 from Simon to Georgie, a seamless hand-over from Georgie to Ted at 15:55 and so on)

08:15 – Live GP3: Race 2
– race starts at 08:25, so gives Sky time to go onto the grid and interview a few people, with reaction afterwards
09:15 – Live GP2: Race 2
– race starts at 09:35, giving Sky time for a feature and grid interviews, extended as it is the main day of racing
10:45 – filler
11:30 – Live Race

Not a lot of change compared to now, but subtle differences compared to the real schedule to make GP2 and GP3 more prominent which as I’ve outlined above is necessary in my opinion. I’d argue that would bring more viewers to GP2 and GP3 as there is a seamless transition between races instead of fiddly 5-minute fillers which are more likely to make viewers tune out, maybe not realising that another race is coming up. There may be an argue that showing support races may be of detriment to the rest of the product with extra resources needed for pre-show and post-show, I disagree.

I suggested earlier in part 1 that Georgie Thompson could be host for the support races, a suggestion I stick to. On Saturday’s and Sunday’s, let’s be honest, she doesn’t do much apart from throw questions to Anthony Davidson in the Sky Pad. Therefore, having her as host for the support races would be a perfect way to utilise her. Comparing the above to F1 Digital+ in 2002, see here for their typical European race schedule and here – F1 Digital+ stayed on air longer before and after sessions, half an hour for the practice sessions, although it probably should be noted that the coverage, pre-show and post-show was produced by FOM and not Sky Sports.

In parts 4 and 5 of this series I will look at Sky’s programming outside of race weekend and why it is currently focusing on the wrong areas, while the final part of the series will look on the ratings picture with this ‘new deal’. Any thoughts, comments, criticism and further suggestions welcome!

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