Saturday 19th March and the 2016 Australian Grand Prix weekend will now be etched in Formula 1 folklore for all the wrong reasons. In the broadcasting world, it marked the day that Channel 4 hit the air with their first Formula 1 highlights programme.
The day had been prepared for. It has been three months in the making since it was announced in December that Channel 4 would be taking over the television rights from the BBC. Channel 4 have been interested in Formula 1 for a long time, dating back to at least 2011. Over the past weeks and months, the channel alongside production partner Whisper Films, have been assembling a team that, according to Channel 4’s Chief Creative Officer Jay Hunt, is “the greatest, extraordinary and most dynamic line-up yet for Formula 1.” What are the early impressions?
In Melbourne we have Steve Jones, David Coulthard, Mark Webber, Ben Edwards, Lee McKenzie and Karun Chandhok covering the action. You are never going to learn everything in one show, but the product that Channel 4 produced today is a sign of the direction that they plan on taking (minus the shambles in the middle).
Structurally, the 105-minute show from 12:30 to 14:15 had 30 minutes of build-up and 15 minutes of reaction. The qualifying edit was 60 minutes long, excluding adverts. Out of the 45 minutes of on-track timing, only around one minute was edited out. Normally you would have 45 minutes, plus a further four or five minutes combined after the chequered flag, necessitating the need for some edits. Because that was not the case here, it meant that Channel 4 viewers received qualifying in almost all its glory. There were five internal breaks, at around 12:40, 12:55, 13:18, 13:40 and 14:05. The show lasted 82 minutes in the 105-minute slot.
The post-qualifying round-up was okay. We got two in-depth pieces with Lewis Hamilton and then Toto Wolff and Christian Horner in one. Hamilton aside, there were no driver interviews from within the top eight: we had no reaction from the likes of Sebastian Vettel, Nico Rosberg and Max Verstappen. On a normal day, I think that would have been unacceptable, but today was not normal circumstances. Editorially, a decision would have been made on whether to cover the fiasco in the wrap-up, and Channel 4/Whisper Films made the right decision covering it, even if meant losing some driver content, in my opinion.
I thought the graphics were visually stunning throughout the show. Simple, but effective. The integration of the C4F1 hashtag works for me as well to drive conversation through to social media, which is critical if they are in turn going to draw viewers towards their programming. I’m surprised that proper graphical integration has not yet worked its way through to either Sky’s or FOM’s graphics set. MotoGP, even in their new graphics set, have done this to perfection but Formula 1 seems to struggle to integrate the social element.
Channel 4 have also integrated the social media element into their break bumpers, with different styles depending on the content that is coming up. Quirky, different, distinctive, which is what Channel 4 wants to be. The dubstep music may grate sometimes (not my cup of tea), but the differing backgrounds and hashtag integration is significantly better than your standard break bumpers with a generic background. Seeing Daniel Ricciardo try to play The Chain on a guitar falls under the quirky category, but remember: this is about showing personalities, something Channel 4 are committed on doing. It keeps the viewer engaged instead of a generic VT piece for the sake of a VT piece which does not add something to the end product.
Speaking of The Chain, Channel 4’s new opening titles are significantly different to what we have ever experienced before for Formula 1. The new titles are a collaboration between Whisper Films and Framestore. Less colourful and flashy were the first thoughts that came to my mind. First off, the titles are distinctive in that they will be radically altered for each race, with the lettering changed depending on round. They feel like a 2016 version of ITV’s first effort from 1997 to 1999. At the moment, I’m neither here or there with the titles. The first half of the sequence works really well but the latter half once The Chain properly breaks out into its element, not so well. It is one of them which needs multiple viewings, the titles may look better on the big screen and in clearer quality rather than on the laptop.
Impressions of Steve Jones on screen are good. As I’ve mentioned previously, Bahrain will always be the acid test being Channel 4’s first live Grand Prix. But today, I didn’t get the impression that Jones was floundering around. He did what you expect a presenter to do, comfortably led the show, also having a joke along the way with Coulthard and Webber, both of whom were excellent in the build-up. Jones did not look like someone who was making their Grand Prix presenting debut. Was it perfect? No, of course not. Did it look a tad stilted in places? Yes, it did. But give Jones time and I can see him transforming into a very solid Grand Prix presenter. Bahrain can “make or break” the show, but Australia is as good preparation as you are ever going to get.
Channel 4’s first main interview was Lee McKenzie grilling Fernando Alonso. This is a prime example of why McKenzie is vital for Channel 4, as her interviewing techniques are second to none, to dig below the surface and gather more information. An insightful watch. The only person Channel 4’s viewers did not hear much from was Karun Chandhok, who was probably a victim of the new qualifying format. It is probably worth noting that viewers around the world in multiple countries hear Channel 4’s commentary: Chandhok commentated with Ben Edwards on both practice two and three. I’m hopeful we will hear Chandhok more in their race day coverage as strategic decisions unfold.
Overall, for Channel 4’s first show, it was a positive starting point going forward. Now, to the race! And hopefully Channel 4 will have something more positive to chat about.