The British Grand Prix marked the half way stage of the 2017 Formula One season, in a championship that is shaping up to be a classic between Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton and Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel. The race from the famous Silverstone circuit also heralded the ‘notional’ half way mark of Channel 4’s current Formula 1 contract. In just a year and a half, Sky Sports in the UK will have the exclusive television rights to Formula 1.
Whilst the change is significant in that Formula 1 will not air live on free-to-air terrestrial television for 2019, the change is also significant because it is the first time that a group of talent has ‘disappeared’ from the UK scene. Yes, ITV’s coverage finished at the end of 2008, but some of their talent headed to the BBC.
Behind the scenes, and in front of the camera, ITV’s television talent moved to the BBC to cover Formula 1. Louise Goodman and Steve Rider may have stayed with ITV to cover the British Touring Car Championship, but the likes of Martin Brundle, Ted Kravitz and assistant editor Steve Aldous moved from ITV to the BBC. There was a natural decision made, no one was axed by the BBC as it was a new talent line-up.
The same happened when Sky appeared on the scene in 2012: talent moved around, talent appeared, but no one vanished. In 2008, there was a total of nine on-air personnel with ITV and BBC Radio 5 Live. Nearly a decade later, and that figure has swelled to around 23 personnel, depending on who you wish to count. In recent years, Gary Anderson, and the BBC parted ways in 2014, with the two parties disagreeing on the future direction of the BBC’s technical output, whilst Georgie Thompson and Sky separated at the start of 2013.
The remaining separations on the UK front have been amicable: Jonathan Legard and the BBC at the end of 2010, Legard since continuing radio and television work with the broadcaster. Jim Rosenthal and Tony Jardine left ITV’s F1 coverage at the end of 2005, but again that was a natural separation having both been part of their coverage since the very beginning.
It is rare in the sporting area for television bosses to bring multiple people in at once at the expense of others. However, if Sky want to make a good impression on new viewers ready for 2019, and bring in the largest possible audience, is it in their best interests to make some tricky and difficult decisions over the next 18 months?
As it stands, talent such as Ben Edwards, Karun Chandhok and David Coulthard will have no Formula 1 television work from the 2019 season onwards, assuming no free-to-air terrestrial television highlights package is available to the large UK broadcasters. This expands to all the Whisper Films crew who are currently working on Channel 4’s Formula 1 coverage, who arguably deserve to still play a part in Formula 1’s post-2018 output.
Sky’s Formula 1 executive producer Martin Turner recently retired, and one might assume that the new executive producer, whoever they are, will want to start planning for 2019 early. The growing opinion amongst fans, including myself, is that Sky’s television team is becoming tired and dated, with very little change since 2012. There might be an opportunity to start the changes from 2018. It is difficult game of chess, while the current line-up goes about its race-by-race business, it should not be destabilised.
The combination of Ben Edwards and Martin Brundle is one that remains in the eyes of many fans, a ‘dream’ commentary line-up, one that for reasons unknown did not come to fruition in either 2002 when Murray Walker retired or 2009 when Formula 1 returned to the BBC. Personally, I think it would be a mistake for Sky not to bring over anyone from Channel 4’s on-air team over for the 2019 season, but I do not know how likely that is.
The bigger loss will be behind the camera. The majority of Channel 4’s team through Whisper Films, bring with them a wealth of knowledge and experience. Their portfolio of staff includes ex BBC and ITV staff who have worked on programmes such as Top Gear, whereas on the other hand Sky has been in efficiency saving mode in recent years. It is plausible that some of Channel 4’s F1 talent might move onto an over-the-top service through FOM, should that opportunity arise.
Sky Sports is possibly one of the best F1 broadcasters’ worldwide. However, even the greatest can go stale if they fail to reinvent themselves and their output on a regular basis to stay ahead. Sky’s F1 coverage is falling into this category and actions should be taken, including looking at the personalities involved in their coverage.
Sky can bridge the best of both worlds in 2019, by taking the best talent from both rosters, creating a ‘dream’ line-up. Do they upset the apple cart by creating a fresh new line-up, mixed with the old and the new, or will they stick by their current talent? We shall soon find out…