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

In the first two parts of my five part mid-season series looking at BBC F1’s and Sky Sports F1’s output, I looked at both of their current line-ups and their strengths and weaknesses. In this part, I intend to look at the weekend output from Sky Sports F1, 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 led to an increase in ratings, or a decrease in ratings.

As I noted back in April, I will not be doing a part on how BBC can improve, simply because I feel that they have reached ‘the rooftop’. There is not much at all in my opinion that BBC could do to expand their current output beyond their budget constraints. My only suggestion is that from October, is for them to put practice sessions on BBC Two now that all children’s programming is leaving BBC Two. Aside from that, there is not much else for them to do. I did, however, look at in detail their Qualifying broadcast for this year’s German Grand Prix, for those that wish to read that, please click here. As thus, 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 Drivers’ Press Conference on a Thursday afternoon right through to the race itself. The channel also covers every session from the feeder series called GP2 as well as the Qualifying and the two races from GP3. 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 for practices one and two with Georgie Thompson for practice three. David Croft and Anthony Davidson are normally the commentators, although with Davidson’s 24 Hours of Le Mans injury and commitments prior to the injury, Jerome d’Ambrosio and more recently Allan McNish have stepped in for him. During the session Natalie Pinkham, Martin Brundle and Ted Kravitz rove up and down the pitlane; Brundle also with Lazenby before and after the sessions. The amount of time dedicated in the build-up to practice is fine, as is the length dedicated after practices one and two. However, “running off air” three minutes after practice three is quite embarrassing for the sake of seven minutes of advertising, given that the advertised off air time is given as 11:10. The reason I say embarrassing is because of what happened at the Monaco Grand Prix. A quite hectic end to practice three thanks to Sergio Perez and Pastor Maldonaldo, and Sky decide to rush off air before the world feed ends with Thompson, Johnny Herbert and Damon Hill looking a bit clueless in a boat. 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. It does grind though as there are one or two cuts that are too long, it is as if the director has fallen asleep for a few seconds to me. 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. Another thing is how Sky treat the practice sessions. I don’t mean in terms of air-time, I mean how they approach the commentary. Back in the 5 Live F1 days from 2009 to 2011 with Croft and Davidson, the editorial decision was that the session were mostly interactive with a lot of discussion encouraged via Twitter and text. That in my view was the perfect way of doing it, the pictures were essentially an addition to the commentary, as it should be for practice. Unfortunately, with Sky the editorial stance appears to have changed in that a lot less tweets are read out and more of a focus is put on what is happening on the track. I mean, there is nothing wrong with that, but I don’t really agree with it. I prefered the discussion nature of things that Croft and Davidson did with 5 Live back from 2009 to 2011 in all honesty.

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.

The above paragraph I wrote in April, and to be quite frank (pardon the pun seeing as I was talking about Williams above!), I don’t feel the need to change one word.

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 Jerome d’Ambrosio. 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. It doesn’t look like Sky are going to change this for the remainder of this year, so I hope to see the GP2 and GP3 coverage advanced up a level for the 2013 season.

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.

Now that we are halfway through the season, however, a pattern has emerged. During the races where BBC are live, Sky run what they like to call “limited” adverts. However, when BBC are not live, Sky run adverts every 15 minutes during the build-up and after the race. Apart from the fact that, in my view, this is extremely petty, it also makes the programme a dozen times worser because of it. Having adverts disrupts the flow, it means the director is constantly shouting at the presenter “5 minutes to adverts” and it means the viewer gets pointless VT’s that add nothing. I really don’t like it, to be honest and I don’t get why they do it, or why they find the need to do it. Aside from that though, they have produced some stunningly good features this season. The Brundle goes to Ferrari features have been well done with super access to Maranello, but the feature at the top of the pile for me unquestionably has to be the Nigel Roebuck series as he looks into his archive. For a Formula 1 fan, this makes for fascinating viewing as Roebuck listens to his past recordings of legends such as Gilles Villeneuve. I hope we get to see more of Roebuck’s archive as the pre-race shows continue on Sky Sports F1.

The post-race shows need to be tidied up a little still and perfected, but I appreciate that the barriers move every race depending on the nature of the race. I noted with the practice session section earlier about interactivity and the same point applies here with the post-race show, I don’t think I have seen any of the Sky members ask for questions on Twitter to ask any driver, which is a contrast to seeing Jake Humphrey on Twitter constantly scrolling down the iPad looking for questions to ask drivers’ or team bosses. On the brighter side, I was extremely pleased to see Ted Kravitz’s Notebook become part of the post-race show. Alongside The F1 Show, this is one of the highlights of the race weekend as Kravitz wanders up and down the pitlane with the technical gossip and pitstop mishaps.

How to improve for the future is quite simple, in my opinion:

– limit the amount of adverts for every race programme, irrespective of whether its rival broadcaster is live or not
– increase interactivity in practice sessions and post-race
– continue high quality features such as the Nigel Roebuck features
– introduce a proper GP2 and GP3 programme
– ditch the pointless pre-race VT’s that add little

If I was a scheduler and had a say on decisions, this would be my perfect weekend schedule. It is an expansion of what I put in April, along with some adjustments based on shows that are now in Sky’s schedule:

08:15 – Drivers’ Press Conference
08:45 – Live Practice 1
10:55 – Live GP2 Practice
11:35 – Classic F1 (35 minutes)
12:10 – Classic F1 (35 minutes)
12:45 – Live Practice 2
14:50 – Live GP2 Qualifying
– session on from 15:00 to 15:30, giving small build-up and reaction from paddock
15:45 – Team Pricipals’ Press Conference
16:15 – Classic F1 (35 minutes in 45 minute slot)
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 – Classic F1 (35 minutes in 45 minute slot)
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
10:30 – F1 Legends
– what is normally shown after the race, but instead shown between GP2 and the main F1 programme
11:30 – Live Race

See on Friday’s, by adding things worth watching between the sessions, it gives me a reason to keep watching the channel. Instead they schedule repeat number 218 for no particular reason and with no relevance to that particular race. There is 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 my piece a few months ago, 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. Nevertheless, it is not unprecedented.

As with my verdict series in April, part four will focus on Sky’s Formula 1 coverage outside of race weekends, while part five will look at the ratings picture as Formula 1 enters the second half of the season. My verdict has been outlined above, but your verdict is equally as important. How do you feel about Sky’s weekend coverage at the moment? I look forward to your comments.

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