So, you have your permanent team of five on-air personnel consisting of one presenter, two commentators and two pit lane reporters to take you around the world with other people diving in and out at regular intervals.
But that is only half the story. The other half is to actually make good Formula 1 television. From the VT’s to the air-time, how well did Channel 4 and Whisper Films perform in this space during 2016?
For their live races, every practice session was aired in full live on Channel 4 or More4 with Lee McKenzie presenting alongside Karun Chandhok. Ben Edwards was lead commentator alongside either Chandhok or Tony Dodgins. The commentary was the usual story of informed discussion commenting on various news pieces along with analysis from pit lane. The style was identical to what the BBC provided, which makes sense given that the audience for practice is small. Trying to change it up to cater for another audience wouldn’t go down well (as Sky found out within 15 minutes of starting their coverage in 2012).
One change Channel 4 did make compared to their predecessors for their live European races was to extend their practice three show. Their Saturday morning schedules typically consisted of:
09:55 – F1: Practice 3 Live
11:25 – F1: Documentary Special
11:55 – F1: Qualifying
Not only is this a great example of how to schedule properly, but it also gave McKenzie and Chandhok some flexibility after Saturday practice had ended. We were treated to paddock walks after the session, which was nice to see (even if it did result in an on-air interview with Flavio Briatore at one point). Chandhok’s knowledge meant that he can easily ad-lib without any issues and quickly change from one conversation to another when new guests arrive in shot. I’m hopeful Channel 4 will use more of Chandhok in 2017, with this format continuing.
In 2016, Channel 4 aired several specials surrounding Formula 1. The first was with Guy Martin as he put the F1 car in a series of tests against his Tyco BMW Superbike. Alongside that, there have been three ‘F1 Conversation’ programmes. This is similar to Sky’s F1 Legends programming with one of Channel 4’s presenters interviewing the stars. During 2016, Murray Walker interviewed Jenson Button, David Coulthard met Christian Horner and Lee McKenzie spoke to Mark Webber. It was nice to see some supplementary material appear.
The programmes were enjoyable to watch with Channel 4 producing more content than Sky in this space, the latter airing no new episodes of F1 Legends this year. The thing also with Channel 4’s documentaries is that a lot of editing work clearly went into the package, containing contextual archive footage whereas Sky’s documentaries this year of a similar nature (most recently The Brabham Boys) were difficult to follow as there were no obvious breathing points.
What Channel 4 didn’t do, besides the Guy Martin special was promote Formula 1 in any of their other programming. There are fewer opportunities for Channel 4 admittedly compared to the BBC’s opportunities across TV, radio and online. Nevertheless, it was disappointing to see no more buildup than usual to the British Grand Prix, for example with an on-location Sunday Brunch.
I can give the benefit of the doubt to Channel 4 here because of how quickly things came together at the start of the year, but the channel, Whisper and North One Television need to work out a strategy for tapping into Channel 4’s core 16 to 34 demographic more. Motor racing and sport does not traditionally skew young, which is problematical for the channel.
Qualifying and Pre-Race
Anyone who was familiar with the BBC’s scheduling of Formula 1 in recent years will have been pleased when they saw Channel 4’s Bahrain Grand Prix schedule and beyond. Channel 4’s live qualifying shows in 2016 was usually around two and a half hours long, with their race broadcast around three and a half hours long. The exceptions were Mexico (three hours in length) and Abu Dhabi (four hours and 40 minutes long).
The main difference from the outset were commercial breaks. With Channel 4 choosing to broadcast the race advert free, it meant that the qualifying and race broadcasts were littered with adverts during the pre and post-session segments. Personally, I don’t think this resulted in a disjointed format, because Channel 4 utilised the breaks to their advantage. They did not play a long promo into or out of ad-breaks. They utilised their air time in the best way possible. Every minute counted.
Steve Jones fronted the qualifying and race broadcasts, and as noted previously he did a good job in his debut season covering the sport. The build-ups were mainly of high quality, although the quality did dip in the second half of the season. For me, there were no real memorable features. That doesn’t mean that I didn’t enjoy the programming, it just means that there was no immediate ‘wow’ factor.
In previous years, the BBC produced some amazing features (such as Lee McKenzie with the Verstappen’s last season), but I didn’t quite get that feeling with Channel 4 this season. The BBC encountered issues in their first season of Formula 1 where the best features were front loaded at the start of the season, resulting in some lower key broadcasts at the back-end of the year which Channel 4 also had this year.
Whilst Jones was the lead presenter, it didn’t mean that he anchored every segment in the show. Channel 4 used David Coulthard or Mark Webber to anchor some parts of the build-up as the team split off into two parts. Most of the team, Jones would be alongside Susie Wolff or Eddie Jordan in pit lane with Coulthard and Webber interviewing someone in the paddock. The format worked well, because it meant that everyone was used adequately during the build-up.
The graphics complimented the pre-race conversation perfectly with some nice supplementary infographics alongside the usual championship standings. I loved the overall vibe of the programming, and I felt the graphics reflected Channel 4’s target audience more than anything else: it wasn’t the usual ‘safe’ bumpers that you would come to expect from a sporting broadcast but instead something designed for the new media generation. The #TitleDeciders break bumpers used throughout the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix weekend were cleverly done, I felt.
Sometimes ten months of brilliant work can be undone with one mistake. Whilst Channel 4 had a great first season, the scheduling for the Mexican Grand Prix was a huge own goal. When the schedules for the Mexican Grand Prix came out, I was surprised to see that there was no overrun scheduled for More4. With Channel 4’s new drama Humans starting, it meant that Formula 1 had to get off the air quickly. As it turned out, the 2015 Mexican Grand Prix was a tepid affair, and Channel 4 presumably expected the same in 2016.
Unfortunately, the last lap and the post-race podium antics were some of the most dramatic in recent memory. What Channel 4 did was something that I would associate from ITV back in the mid 2000s, quickly coming off the air and not following it up with overtime on More4 or E4. Considering how much post-race reaction the channel have dedicated to other races, it was a frankly bizarre decision not to schedule extra post-race coverage on More4. This is the only blot on their copy book, it is a major blot for me given that Mexico did not end in any normal way.
The other races saw the best part of an hour’s worth of reaction and analysis on Channel 4, partly to compensate for no F1 Forum, as Channel 4 doesn’t have a Red Button service. Overall, I enjoyed Channel 4’s post-race offering this season, the channel making the best use of the voices available. Because the structure was different, there was no viewer interaction through the likes of Twitter, in the same way Sky has #AskCrofty. But I didn’t feel like I missed that either, it wasn’t something I was clamouring for. The format was relaxed and what I would expect out of a post-race broadcast.
The BBC’s early forum programmes were a sit down and chat affair, whereas Channel 4 this season walked around the paddock for the majority of their post-race coverage. I do think there needs to be some kind of differential between them and Sky because there is nothing immediately obvious that separates their offering from Sky’s post-race offering. Sky largely copied the BBC’s 2011 format and have stuck with it since. Given Channel 4’s target audience, I do wonder if a sit-down style post-race paddock show is worth experimenting with in 2017 for one or two races. You can only find so many people walking around, whilst sitting in the paddock allows you to soak in the atmosphere and review the key moments at the same time.
One element that does need to be captured more is the post-race pit lane celebrations – a staple of early BBC years but have disappeared in the past few seasons.
Channel 4’s live races were broadcast advert free for the duration of the race. This wasn’t the case for the highlights programming, which was broadcast with adverts every ten to fifteen minutes. As a result, some races had an extended highlights programme. Australia’s highlights programme was two and a half hours long, which allowed for ample pre and post-race build-up. The other races had two-hour highlights, which is good, until you account for the adverts.
All of a sudden a two-hour highlights programme is 95 minutes long without adverts. With a 50 to 60 minute highlights edit, this leaves you with around 15 minutes of build-up and around 15 minutes of post-race reaction, if you’re lucky. A two-hour slot was perfect for the BBC’s programming. On Channel 4, I’m not so sure. The pre-race section is fine, and had a few good features throughout the season, such as Lee McKenzie’s interview at home with Felipe Massa during their Brazilian Grand Prix coverage.
But their post-race coverage for their highlights show left a lot to be desired. The tricky business of fitting in adverts within a certain time frame meant that the post-race segment I felt was often left neglected. Again with the BBC, this wasn’t a problem as you have more air time to play around with, but with Channel 4, this was an issue and meant that viewers were short-changed by not getting all the post-race interviews and analysis. The highlights shows suffer without a proper wrap-up. A further 20-minute analysis segment on the website would suffice (the BBC notably tried this in 2012, but only tried it once).
Overall, the message for Channel 4 in 2017 is simple: evolution, not revolution. There is a lot in 2016 that worked. Undoubtedly a lot of what they did in 2016 followed the BBC mould. It is in 2017 where we should really start to see Channel 4’s new ideas breathe further life into their programming as Formula 1 heads towards a new era.