Earlier this year, I attended Channel 4’s pre-season media morning, where their team for the 2016 Formula One season was announced. There were promising sound bites on the day, but how much of it has come to reality? And is this the “dream team” that Channel 4’s Chief Creative Officer Jay Hunt suggested it would be?
On-air team, led by Jones, excels
The biggest question mark heading into the season was Steve Jones, who is Channel 4’s new Formula 1 presenter. An unknown in presenting live sport prior to this year, Jones has grown in stature race-by-race. I’m enjoying his presenting style, with the energy and warmth that comes with it.
It is clear that Jones is not attempting to be like Suzi Perry or Jake Humphrey before him. Jones is being himself. As a viewer, I appreciate that, it comes across as natural which helps the broadcast immensely. Half way through the season, Jones gets a thumbs up from me. If you’re not keen on Jones, the good news is that David Coulthard leads some of the discussion segments, meaning that there is no dominant figure leading the agenda.
The decision by Whisper Films to have “rotating pundits” is paying off thus far. Mark Webber, Alain Prost, Susie Wolff and Eddie Jordan have been used sporadically throughout Channel 4’s live races meaning that opinions are not repeated by the same faces, nor is the team bloated on-screen. Channel 4 struck gold in Spain, as Prost give his opinion on the Mercedes collision between Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg whilst reminiscing about his own experiences with McLaren.
The chemistry is clear to see: Coulthard and Webber work extremely well together as do Wolff and Jordan when paired together on-screen. A natural team results in a successful team. We should applaud Whisper Films for putting together the team that they have, others before them have either tried and failed, or chose not to bother approaching the likes of Prost, Webber and Karun Chandhok.
Channel 4’s line-up contains a former World Champion (Prost), a former team boss (Jordan), two former Red Bull drivers, one of which challenged for the title (Webber and Coulthard) amongst others. It is the perfect recipe, bringing together a diverse group of people from a variety of backgrounds within motor sport.
The missing link before the start of 2016 was the role of “technical expert”, which disappointed readers including myself. Chandhok was hired to take up the role of pit lane reporter alongside Lee McKenzie. Nevertheless, Chandhok’s wealth of knowledge both past and present, amongst his paddock connections means that we are not missing as much information as I anticipated we would. Chandhok is a fantastic asset for Channel 4, and I’m glad that he is on board for their coverage. With McKenzie away for Wimbledon and the Olympics, it has been good to hear Holly Samos again, Samos used to be a member of BBC’s radio team until her departure at the end of 2010.
Overall, I do think Channel 4’s team is stronger than Sky Sports. Yes, Sky have the likes of Anthony Davidson, Martin Brundle and Ted Kravitz, but I feel that Channel 4 have given a wider range of opinions so far instead of the same two or three voices.
Reinventing the wheel
Sometimes, the little tweaks beyond the naked eye go a long way. Whilst Channel 4 have not ripped apart the BBC’s previous format, they have made some subtle, positive changes to their coverage.
Graphically, Channel 4’s output is top-notch. Modern, forward thinking is the term that I would use. Their Formula 1 branding, which was designed by Mammoth Graphics, feel like something I expect to see in 2016 as opposed to a relic from the past. If you compare the typical constructor and grid graphics of years gone by with Channel 4’s current graphics set, you will notice a stark difference: Channel 4’s graphics feel ‘simplistic’, yet attention to detail has been paid.
Added to this is the integration of social media in the graphics. As I mentioned in my review of their Australian Grand Prix coverage back in March, I love the fact that #C4F1 is integrated in the graphics package alongside relevant tweets, Instagram posts or Facebook statuses. The package has clearly been designed with social media elements in mind (hence ‘forward thinking’). In my opinion, the social media layer does not detract from the programme, but instead adds an additional level that previously was not there.
One introduction in Channel 4’s British Grand Prix coverage was the return of the three-person commentary team. Led as usual Ben Edwards, in the box alongside him was both Coulthard and Webber. This is not new: ITV briefly had a three-person commentary team in 2005 with Jenson Button in the box when Honda were banned, whilst the BBC have had three-person teams in both the mid-1990s and as recently as this season on BBC Radio 5 Live.
But for Formula 1 television coverage in the UK, it is a different step. Again ‘hearing different voices’ is good. Hearing Webber in the commentary box was great as he was able to give his first hand opinion on events having raced some of the drivers that were racing on track. In my opinion, it gives Channel 4 a further advantage over Sky Sports F1. The commentary line-up of Edwards and Coulthard was already good, but Webber raises the bar further. I am hopeful we see this set-up again in the latter half of 2016, three-person commentary teams do work if each person is given adequate input.
Whisper Films have excelled in the editing department with some fantastic VTs, notably Murray Walker’s interviews with Jenson Button and Freddie Hunt so far this season. This should not be a surprise considering most of the Whisper team used to work on BBC’s Formula 1 programme, but nevertheless it is good to see that the quality of the VT editing and shooting has remained high.
Room for improvement in some areas
As always with both Channel 4 and Sky, there is some room for improvement, in both cases only some of these are within the production teams control. The main improvement for me is on the cross-promotion front. Besides a pre-season programme special with Guy Martin, the cross-promotion has been lacklustre. There has been a Sunday Brunch special, but aside from that there has not been crossover with Channel 4’s biggest brands such as Gogglebox or Come Dine with Me.
The Sunday Brunch special was not promoted until the last-minute, and I feel it was a lost opportunity not broadcasting the magazine show live from Silverstone. I suspect the lack of crossover is simply down to the filming schedule: it should be remembered that Channel 4’s team was put together incredibly quickly just six to eight weeks before the 2016 season began, meaning there was little time to organise and produce cross over specials. I think these will probably come for 2017 if there is appetite for it.
Out of the personnel announced before the start of 2016, three faces have yet to appear during Channel 4’s main coverage: Nicolas Hamilton, Bruno Senna and Alessandro Zanardi. I imagine Hamilton and Zanardi will appear in Paralympics related features in September, I would be surprised if either are on-screen after that. As for Senna, I thought we would have seen him on-screen now, so his absence is surprising. No on-air references have been made to Senna appearing, my gut instinct is that we will see him in Mexico given that Mexico takes place two weeks before the Brazilian Grand Prix.
As Channel 4’s live programming has developed it has become clear, unintentionally or not, that their Saturday build-up shows are geared towards the dedicated viewer whereas the Sunday show is geared towards hooking more casual viewers up. This was evident in their British Grand Prix build-up where a significant portion of Sunday’s pre show centred around Lewis Hamilton. It did feel slightly overload towards him, as what could have been one interview segment was split into several segments interspersed through the build-up. As a one-off, this was okay but just something to note going forward. There have been a few celebrity segments, but these have been used to lead into a commercial break as opposed to a central feature.
The commercial television aspect of Channel 4 meant that their post-race coverage has suffered. But, if you look back over time, both BBC and Sky struggled at first to perfect their post-race element so this is something Channel 4 will only improve on in the live programming as time progresses. The lack of an extended post-race programme in the shape of a forum style show is disappointing, but I don’t feel like it is being missed, either. The social media boom may mean that fans use Facebook and Twitter more for post-race analysis as opposed to sticking around for the television post show. Viewing figures would probably not justify staying live on Channel 4 until 16:00 or 16:15 regularly. I think Channel 4 should do what the BBC did in their early post-2012 days and upload a 20 to 30-minute online forum / wrap up show online, similar to NBC’s Paddock Pass show.
Elsewhere, All 4 is a gripe where slow uploads are concerned after each race but I appreciate that this is something that is out of the control of the F1 production team. Overall, Channel 4 gets a deserved thumbs up. In my opinion, their coverage has been better than what I expected. Their strong start makes it all the more disappointing that, as it stands, we will only have Channel 4’s live coverage for the next two and a half seasons.