Reflecting on BT Sport’s Indianapolis 500 coverage

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.

2017 Indianapolis 500 - BT Sport.png
BT Sport’s pundits analyse the potential ‘triple crown’ contenders.

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.

2017 Indianapolis 500 - Josef Newgarden visor.png
On-board with Josef Newgarden’s Penske in the visor cam position.

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).


13 thoughts on “Reflecting on BT Sport’s Indianapolis 500 coverage

  1. There is one point you missed out here: adverts during green flag running. Never sits well with anybody, and something BT has not done with IndyCar during a sociable hour race in a long time.

    Ultimately the build-up was nowhere near long enough and the team they had was not strong. It should have been on their Showcase channel, and should have been much, much better in general.

    ESPN’s commentary was shocking as always, but there isn’t much BT could do about that.

  2. Collantine was not missed in my opinion. He has the knowledge but his delivery is terribly stilted. I’d rather have just engine noise during u.s commercials

  3. I have to say that I found BT’s coverage pretty disappointing last week, as their Indycar coverage is usually very good. I fully agree that Ben Evans and Keith Collantine should have been part of the team as usual, I missed their input and am glad they’re back for Detroit. That said, I felt the driver insight from Mike Conway was okay. I actually thought the host commentary was better than ABC’s usual efforts, but I would still have preferred the NBC commentary team to have the rights to the big race.

  4. I cannot say enough how disappointed I was with the pre race coverage during this year’s coverage of the race.

    As one of your more veteran readers, I recall the BBC airing a 1 hour package of the 500 in the mid 80’s (when I was getting into the sport). This would be a week after the event on Grandstand. Within that package, the inclusion of the singing of “Indiana Home”, along with the instruction to drivers to “Start Your Engines” left the viewer in no doubt that this is An Event. I also liked the driver introductions by row (all included in BT Sports 2016 coverage).

    Totally understand the interest generated by Alonso to a casual motor racing viewer… however to all but ignore the pageantry diminished the output in my view for 2017. A more balanced approach was surely possible.

    I didnt have an issue with the studio pundits as they added context and series experience. However once the race started, greater analysis was required and the absence of Collantine & Evans was detrimental to the viewing when compared with a regular IndyCar race.

    Overall better than 2015’s output but falling short of 2016 which is a shame given the additional interest this year.

  5. It’s the first time I couldn’t watch the coverage on BT Sport and that I found a stream for the American coverage. As at least ABC go side by side when they go to adverts. Something which BT Sport didn’t do.

  6. Once again, I reiterate the fact that they had enough prior warning that Alonso was going to be doing the Indy 500, Channel 4 missed a golden opportunity!

  7. Ok..If you know of me you will either scroll away rapidly or read with interest on a subject that is close to my heart.
    First of all, in general, I commend BTSport for broadcasting the Indycar series in a manner that does the racing proud.

    However, the Indianapolis 500 is an event that transcends ‘sport’. It is also a cultural gathering that surpasses mere automotive competition and is a mirror of Americana which is ingrained in our being for over 100 years – that’s a long time for our young country- . For a broadcaster to do it any kind of justice they MUST understand and relay to the viewer this fact. As BTSport refused to show the build up and ceremony leading up to the race my initial feeling was one bordering on benign xenophobia. It was as if to say ‘This is all too American and it’s embarrassing to our self-effacing ethos so we will ignore it and chat amongst ourselves in our dismissive, inane way that makes it seem that we are peripherally bemused by this peculiar display of pride…. or whatever this is’.

    I watched a Nigerian stream of the ABC broadcast while this churlish disavowal took place.

    Then the race..

    More disappointment.
    Suzi Perry was, to be kind, like observing to a disinterested and skeptical contributor on Mumsnet.
    I was waiting for her to Tut-Tut over the unfathomable reason drivers would do this odd form of racing at all.

    Richard Williams is a fine writer indeed. He is NOT someone to be on a panel talking about a series that he obviously has not paid attention to since Nigel was there.

    Tilda Swinton…WHY?
    Yeah, he’d driven in the race and had spectacular crashes…But lord above talk about taciturn ?!?!?
    His every utterance was “yeah,…blah blah blah”.

    Ok ,so I had a mute button and IndyCar Radio to stem the mediocre.
    At least they won’t litter the race with adverts when we are GREEN….right?
    WRONG..Ad placement was woeful and they actually used a split-screen to show us the panel discussing what flavour currant bun they preferred with the race was blazing away on a little corner of the screen. Unfrickin’ believable.

    In the end I gave up and only used the BT broadcast if BOTH the radio and ABC were in simultaneous adverts.

    Whisper Films should be ashamed for this piss poor production.

  8. was the same thing that is wrong with formula e. Some obscure people in a studio having a boring conversation. They should have just showed the whole show going on in the US and talked over what they saw.

  9. Radio is a crucial part of US motorsport commentary. Allen Bestwick (who could be on NBC’s short list for full-time INDYCAR if they acquire the entire INDYCAR schedule), NASCAR commentators Mike Joy (who has previous INDYCAR experience) and Adam Alexander have extensive experience in the radio booth, as each worked with with the late Barney Hall at the Motor Racing Network, which does NASCAR and in the 1970’s did some USAC Championship Trail (what is now INDYCAR) races and even did F1 at Watkins Glen. Paul Page, best known for television internationally, worked INDYCAR’s radio network for years.

    Since sectional commentators have to work without a video monitor and often need to get scoring from a spotter or assistant because of their positions, that experience is calculated in finding a new lead commentator. Mark Jaynes, who is the current lead INDYCAR radio commentator, worked many years around the track before moving up to the lead booth. In fact, during the Texas INDYCAR/NASCAR combination weekend, Vince Welch is the lead television commentator and son Dillon is the radio Turn 2 sectional commentator for the Truck broadcast after working years as both a driver and public address presenter for dirt sprint cars.

    Even a Fox Business presenter (Dagen McDowell) admits radio is better for motorsport than television.

    As for the “xenophobic” issue, there was a case in 2011 when US television aired live the Bathurst 1000. The NASCAR commentators that worked the broadcast aired the primary portion of the pre-race, down to Advance Australia Fair. They didn’t miss a beat.

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