Formula 1 broadcasting in the United Kingdom in recent years has enjoyed a rich offering, with both the BBC and Sky Sports throwing hours of air-time at the sport. For a live weekend, the BBC would dedicate ten and a half hours of air-time, with Sky Sports adding a further thirteen hours (excluding GP2 and GP3). But things have not always been that way, and a lot has happened to get to where we are now.
1995 was the first season that the BBC showed every race live, with qualifying being covered in a post-session update during BBC’s Saturday Grandstand on BBC One. It was only when BBC lost the coverage in December 1995 did they up the ante, to lay down the marker as it were, for ITV. The following year, the BBC showed 15 out of the 16 qualifying sessions live (Japan the exception) as well as sending Steve Rider out on location for the majority of the European races, setting down a marker for ITV. The average programme length for the race was 2 hours and 20 minutes, but there was limited post-race analysis, the BBC choosing to move to the next sport in the afternoon immediately after the press conference.
ITV’s coverage in 1997 resembled something closer to what we recognise now, with a proper presence at the circuit in the form of an on-site studio and an expansive pre and post-race session analysis. The studio element was dropped for the start of 2004, with ITV now allowed to broadcast live from the paddock. Over the course of their coverage, ITV’s pre-race build-up expanded from 30 minutes to an hour in length, with a greater quality of features being produced by North One Television (previously known as Chrysalis). However, ITV never fully exploited the post-race analysis block, too often quickly getting off air without exploring the race that happened before it, this was a common problem with the American-zone races.
In 2008, ITV added Friday practice to their online portfolio, which the BBC followed up on in 2009 by airing all three practice sessions behind the Red Button as well as online. BBC learnt from previous mistakes, creating an interactive Red Button forum, which aired for an hour after their main BBC One race day coverage. The forum became a fixture of BBC’s offering and was well received from the get-go. Although the forum dipped in quality in BBC’s later years, it still showed a commitment to the sport that was not there beforehand.
Last year for a live race, the BBC would be on air for around four hours: From 12:10 to 15:15 on BBC One and then 15:15 to 16:00 on the Red Button with qualifying on air from 12:10 to 14:15 give or take. So, where do Channel 4 go from here? Readers may remember I talked about possible scheduling options for Channel 4 back in 2012, but that was when looking at an alternative scenario where the corporation had full Formula 1 rights. Obviously a lot of ideas in that post are no longer relevant: Channel 4 will not have the rights to GP2 or GP3 besides the fact that they will only be airing half the Formula 1 season. With that in mind, based on the current circumstances, The F1 Broadcasting Blog examines the elements below, day by day, session by session…
Channel 4 on Friday mornings typically airs repeats such as The Simpsons, Everybody Loves Raymond and Frasier. Aside from the News Summary at 12:00, there is no new programming on the network until Deal or No Deal at 14:10. Although the slate of programming does deliver solid numbers for the network, I think Channel 4 would want to showcase Formula 1 as much as possible. Given that Channel 4 have been happy to displace the likes of Deal or No Deal and Countdown for horse racing coverage over the years, I don’t think there will be any issues in displacing repeats for Formula 1 practice. If live practice clashes with horse racing, I would expect the latter to be given priority, however it is the latter’s last year on Channel 4 so they may want to give F1 priority, with horse racing being bumped to More4.
The more interesting question for me is whether we will see any colour wrapped around practice. Sky Sports since the beginning of their coverage have added a short introduction and post-session analysis with a presenter and pundit talking for five to ten minutes, the BBC have followed on in recent years. Is there any value to be added by adding colour to practice coverage? Not really. I would be happy if Channel 4 went for the ‘World Feed only’ approach to Friday practice. There may be one time out of ten where there was a key incident which could do with extra analysis, but not enough to justify anything more. Channel 4 need to use their resources wisely. Saturday practice should be the session with all the ‘bells and whistles’ around it, the timeslot two hours before qualifying begins means that it brings in a higher audience than the previous day’s action.
Instead of pouring resource into practice, the resource should be allocated towards a magazine show, to attract the casual fan. If we look at The F1 Show on Sky Sports outside of race weekends, it originally started a chat show discussing the latest stories, with no audience in attendance. To some degree it still is, except there is now a studio audience. The problem is that the show has failed over the past four years to get any high-quality guests in – presumably Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button are above the budget that the show has. The F1 Show may attract some hard-core aficionados, but it does little to attract anyone beyond that. Of course, The F1 Show has not been the only magazine show. In the late 1990s, ITV aired Murray and Martin’s F1 Special on Saturday evenings (although that was filmed on location). At 20 to 25 minutes in length, the show reviewed qualifying and aired some features to attract a non-F1 audience.
Is it possible to design an F1 magazine show to attract a casual fan with a passing interest in the sport? I’d like to think it is, whether it is on Channel 4 or their sister channel E4. This part is dependent on whether Whisper Films win the production contract, but someone such as Jake Humphrey would be the perfect person to front a magazine show. Guests such as Hamilton and Button, alongside celebrity Formula 1 fans would make it a worthwhile watch. The problem we have had with The F1 Show is the same opinions week in, week out, it looks and feels like a ‘paint by numbers’ show. On a Friday evening, I do not want to watch what feels like a ‘heavy’ magazine show in The F1 Show. Any new magazine shows that air outside of the race weekend does not need to be live. If Channel 4 can get better quality guests in a recorded show, so be it. Sky have constrained themselves with the live studio shows, in my opinion. Recording the show also gives you flexibility with scheduling.
On the basis that weekday evenings from 18:30 to 20:00 are a no go (due to Hollyoaks and the Channel 4 News), either 17:30 to 18:30 or 20:00 to 21:00 on Fridays could be feasible, although the latter would directly clash with The F1 Show. Alternatively, a Sunday afternoon could attract the motor sport audience. I think there are several options during the weekend, but the scheduling aspect is tricky. Which slot would appeal most to a motor sport audience? One thought I did have aside from the above is that Channel 4 may want to replicate the success of The Morning Line (horse racing) and The Cricket Show by airing a magazine show on Sunday mornings live from the circuit. I’m not fully convinced because Channel 4 currently air Sunday Brunch in that slot, but I have incorporated it into the schedule further down this post…
Qualifying and Race Highlights
A first point to make. Looking at Channel 4’s website, a 30-minute programme slot has 23 minutes of content. Bear that in mind below…
This season, Channel 4 will be screening 22 highlights shows where they do not have the rights to screen live coverage. As a general rule, BBC’s qualifying highlights show have been 75 minutes in length, which would equate to 57 minutes excluding adverts. BBC’s race highlights have been 90 minutes in length, which equates to around 66 minutes excluding adverts. For the moment, let’s say both of those stay the same for 2016, with around 12 minutes of build-up and 12 minutes of reaction. That means viewers would see around 33 minutes of qualifying action and 42 minutes of race action. If you want an extensive highlights programme that is to match the quality of its predecessor, I think you would struggle to justify not extending the lengths of both shows on Channel 4.
I expect the qualifying highlights show on Channel 4 to be 90 minutes and the race highlights show to be two hours long. That gives you approximately nine minutes extra of qualifying action and around twenty minutes more of race action. It also gives Channel 4 a longer window to build an audience during the transmission slot and to time their ad-breaks strategically. I don’t anticipate the style of the highlights programmes to change significantly. One option is to keep some of the presentation team in London to keep costs down, especially for the fly-away races. I would not be opposed to this, as long as there is a benefit to it. If it brought something new to the coverage, such as getting a few new faces and opinions involved, or using the latest gadgets, I would be all for it. Would it be considered a reduction in coverage? I think it would be only considered a reduction if they presented live races fully from the studio, like ITV did on numerous occasions with the Malaysian and Japanese Grands Prix.
The timeslots I imagine will be similar to the BBC’s slots. Highlights for the fly-away races will probably air at 12:00 as there s no Channel 4 News lunchtime summary at weekends, the European races at 17:00 with the American races at 22:00. It would be interesting to know what the contract stipulates with regards the latter, Channel 4 may wish to air those shows earlier as the audience at 22:00 drops off significantly. If BBC One’s highlights around that time averaged just over two million viewers, you fear that Channel 4 may struggle to hit 1.5 million with a much lower lead-in before it compared to the BBC but time will tell.
Qualifying and Race Live
As referenced above, the BBC were typically live for 125 minutes for qualifying and live for just shy of four hours for the race when you include the Red Button forum. Unquestionably, both qualifying and the race will be live on Channel 4, irrespective of any clashes. Moving a race to E4 or More4 would not go down well with either the fans or Bernie Ecclestone. And given the amount of money Channel 4 have paid for the rights to broadcast Formula 1, it is probably not in their interests.
Before we talk about the content, again the subject of adverts should be touched upon. We already know that the actual race itself is ad-free. What we do not know is how late before a race Channel 4 can insert an ad-break or how soon after a race. I would assume the two answers are “before the 5-minute sting” and “on the slowing down lap”. That would be a similar arrangement to BT Sport’s MotoGP coverage, BT opt to go to a break virtually as soon as the race is over. The risk you run is that you lose your audience instantly which, in Channel 4’s case will equate to many thousands. A better strategy would be to place the first ad-break after the podium ceremony to keep the audience for longer, but at the same time Channel 4 will want the first ad-break post-race to be as profitable as possible. A difference of five minutes after the race can mean the difference of a million viewers watching the ad-break.
Like with the highlights programming, commercial breaks have to be placed sensibly so not to annoy the audience. Watching Sky’s current coverage, you can specifically tell when they are about to take a break. What frustrates me is that the channel feels the need to tell audiences constantly what is “coming up”, which is problematical when the channel should be using the available airtime wisely. I felt in 2015 that Sky chose to hype up features far too much by wrapping VT’s around ad-breaks for little reason whatsoever. The audience should be naturally building towards the race as it is without the need to hype the next item.
As David Elstein points out, a former executive with Sky and Channel 5, there are opportunities for Channel 4 to average out advertising across the whole event. Looking at Channel 4’s current Sunday schedule, the channel has a live chat show called Sunday Brunch which airs from 09:30 to 12:30. The programme averaged around 600k (8%) last year, a very high share by Channel 4’s standards. I certainly don’t see anything Formula 1 related displacing it. I think, for the European races, we will see this kind of schedule:
09:00 – F1: The Inside Line
09:30 – Sunday Brunch
12:00 – F1: Spanish Grand Prix
15:15 to 16:15 – F1: The Inside Line
I can’t see Channel 4 providing a 90-minute build-up, but there is scope and opportunity to entice the current Sunday Brunch audience by linking to the paddock once or twice through the course of the programme to get an update on the action and grab a live interview with a key F1 star in the hours before the race. That is a good way of providing the best of both worlds, in my opinion. In terms of the Formula 1 build-up, I would expect to largely be on-location with a similar style to BBC and Sky, although again studio coverage should be considered if it enhances the quality of the programme. If you wanted to sustain the Sunday Brunch audience preceding it (for European races), you could do a seamless transition with ad-breaks taken at 11:50 to 12:10 respectively, and opening titles at midday so that the audience does not jump ship. The Inside Line is a magazine show referenced earlier in the piece if Channel 4 wanted to do something similar to their historical cricket and horse racing coverage. In theory, The Inside Line and live updates during Sunday Brunch can be done irrespective of whether Channel 4 are broadcasting that race live. You only irritate the Sunday Brunch audience if you overdo the Formula 1 links. But two x five-minute links within a 150-minute programme is not excessive, in my opinion.
Following the race, I would expect Channel 4 to stay on air until around 16:15, so that they can re-coup on ad-breaks, a split programme like the above schedule is therefore likely. An idea would be for Channel 4’s post-race action to “slip behind live”. In other words, when we see four minutes of adverts, the team on-location only stop for around 30 seconds. So, whilst the Channel 4 programme finishes at 16:15, they have finished filming at 15:55 UK time. The Inside Line for your post-race segment could be studio content mixed with on-site content. If you can good quality guests in the studio that are unwilling to be on-site, I would again be all for it. Furthermore, you could use said guests earlier in the coverage, such as giving opinions throughout the race itself.
One thing Channel 4 may want to do is air highlights shortly after the live race at around 17:30. In my opinion, doing so would be playing is a dangerous game, simply because the audience could start drifting towards the highlights package rather than the live race itself. Highlights for the live races should be played out on More4 in the evening, and then again in a late night slot on Channel 4. The same applies to repeats of practice and qualifying.
No ‘Red Button’ hideaways
Quoting directly from Channel 4’s ten-point plan in 2011, the extra on-board cameras and Pit Lane feed would no longer be Red Button hideaways. Instead, the feeds would be ‘road blocked’ across Channel 4’s portfolio of channels: E4, More4 and 4seven as well as online. I can imagine it now: “If you want to watch the race from the view of Lewis Hamilton, head to E4, and if you want to watch the race from Sebastian Vettel’s car, jump to More4 for the duration of the race.” You could even make the process interactive by getting viewers to vote for the content that they want to see on the three other Channel 4 channels. That sounds a lot better than telling viewers to go through to the Red Button whereas all you need to press is three buttons.
Lastly, remember that if you miss any of Channel 4’s coverage, there is always the +1 options which (it is assumed) will be available for all of their Formula 1 coverage.
Okay, I’ve rambled a fair bit here, but here are some conclusions on what I would like to see:
– A Formula 1 magazine show done correctly
– A Sunday morning show from inside the paddock
– Practice with World Feed only
– Scheduling similar to BBC and Sky
– Less generic “coming up” VT’s in and out of ad-breaks
– Studio coverage is not discouraged, as long as there is a net gain
I’ve over-egged and under-egged some points above, and probably missed a few bits out, but the above is just some thoughts on how I would like Formula 1 to be scheduled on Channel 4’s portfolio of networks.