With extra attention around the Indianapolis 500 this year, BT Sport spiced up their offering with studio coverage. We look at their coverage, positives, and misjudgements that the production team made.
Prior to BT Sport coming on the scene, Sky Sports aired every round of the IndyCar Series live. Typically, Sky’s presentation was studio based with Keith Huewen or David Bobin presenting, alongside the likes of Johnny Mowlem.
Sky’s acquisition of Formula 1 in 2011 meant that IndyCar fell out of favour. Sky dropped IndyCar at the end of 2012, with ESPN UK picking up the rights from 2013 onwards. ESPN UK in August 2013 turned into BT Sport, where the series has remained since.
BT Sport’s coverage of IndyCar for most peak time races has simply been a copy of the US feed, with UK commentary covered by Keith Collantine and Ben Evans more recently during the US ad-breaks. But the studio element that Sky maintained for many years disappeared upon the transition to ESPN.
The studio format returned in 2015 for the 99th Indianapolis 500, Abi Griffiths presenting from their studio under their ‘Motorsport Tonight’ branding. The format did not work for various reasons, one of which was that the team tried ‘too much’, with an unnecessary social media presenter and an inexperienced presenting team.
The buzz around Fernando Alonso’s Indianapolis 500 drive in the McLaren Honda Andretti meant that it was inevitable that BT would be more interested than a typical IndyCar race. Out went the usual production team, including Collantine and Evans, and in came Whisper Films, who currently produce Channel 4’s Formula 1 coverage.
Whisper brought Suzi Perry in as presenter, a role she very nearly had last year before BT made late changes to their plans. Mike Conway and The Guardian writer Richard Williams joined Perry in the studio. So, how well did BT Sport cover the race this year?
Disappointed if you are a regular IndyCar watcher, or not bothered if Fernando Alonso was the main draw for you. Certainly, if you were hoping that the Indianapolis 500 would be the ‘jump on’ point to start watching the IndyCar Series, there was little attention paid by Whisper to the overall series offering.
For me, there was too much focus on Alonso, to the degree that it detracted from the build-up. The first segment turned into a long, drawn out discussion about whether other Monaco Grand Prix winners, such as Kimi Raikkonen and Lewis Hamilton would attempt the triple crown. Conway and Williams did the best in the circumstances, but the segment felt unnecessary and a waste of air-time. A feature looking at the five-strong British contingent would have been more useful, especially considering Max Chilton nearly won the race a few hours later!
Huewen would have been a better fit as pundit instead of Conway given his previous IndyCar presenting, other possible pundits were in Monaco and Indianapolis. Three quarters of the build-up covered Alonso’s participation, with Gavin Emmett conducting a good interview with him. Also good was the comparison between the IndyCar and F1 car, nicely voiced over by Conway; and an overview of the season so far aired during the red flag period (admittedly this should have formed part of the build-up).
Whilst BT were discussing things in their studio, UK viewers were missing a lot of the pageantry that the Indianapolis 500 provides, a major oversight that Whisper should have planned into the UK broadcast, even if it meant airing the pageantry elements on a slight tape-delay around their own VTs. The organisers released minute by minute timings for the key events, so Whisper had no reason to omit the key anthems from their broadcast (Conway referenced the magic of hearing the national anthem later in the show).
BT took the World Feed commentary for the race with Allen Bestwick, Scott Goodyear and Eddie Cheever Jnr on duty for ESPN and ABC. The 500 appears to be Bestwick’s last covering the famous race, having announced his release from ESPN at the end of April. The problem for international broadcasters is trying to dip in and out of the World Feed, which is not always easy.
I thought BT coped okay without Collantine and Evans during the build-up, but as soon as the first caution period occurred, BT struggled to fill time with their studio team. BT badly needed their regular IndyCar pundits, who would have had the expertise and knowledge to refer to previous IndyCar races, giving their insight on the events that are unfolding, sadly Whisper thought otherwise.
Although the American commentary has far too much product placement for my liking, I appreciated that they let the action do the talking during the race. It helps that the sound is so distinct and raw as the cars flash past the static camera angles, meaning that the quietness was not ‘dead air’. Motor sport commentators do not need to constantly talk, and I wish others in the business learned from that.
The direction was good from the host director, with a mixture of on-board and external angles helping to capture the speed on offer. The visor cam has been one of IndyCar’s specialities recently, with it again used widely during the 500.
Overall, the coverage was okay, but the decision to leave BT’s IndyCar regulars out of their Indianapolis 500 coverage was a serious error from judgment from BT and Whisper Films. The mantra “hard work pays off” clearly does not apply in the BT hierarchy… otherwise they would have utilised the skills of those around them. An opportunity missed to bring more viewers to the overarching IndyCar product, in my view (we shall see what the Detroit viewing figures show).