After an underwhelming first season covering the sport, Channel 5’s Formula E coverage has started its second year off on a fine note, with a little help from the electric series’ new production partners.
For the first four seasons, Aurora Media Worldwide produced Formula E’s World Feed, with UK broadcasters ITV and Channel 5 left to their own devices. As regular readers are aware, both broadcasters opted for studio-based coverage, although Formula E filmed features on-site on their behalf. All of that changed for this season.
Strong UK production…
Whilst Aurora remain involved, the addition of North One Television has bolstered Formula E’s UK presentation. Alongside their World Feed responsibilities, North One are also producing Channel 5’s programming, meaning that for the first time ever UK viewers get tailored, on-site coverage at every round.
North One have experience in this field: historically they produced ITV’s Formula 1 coverage until 2008, and have produced BT Sport’s MotoGP coverage since 2013. The production company relied on their two-wheeled personnel, led by British Superbikes director Richard Coventry, to produce Channel 5’s Formula E output.
In front of the camera, Vernon Kay replaced Andy Jaye as lead presenter. Kay’s appointment generated unnecessary criticism across social media, even though he has presented sporting events before on Channel 4. As I remarked at the time of his appointment, Kay is “enough of a veteran for me to feel that he will be just fine in the role.” Four races in, and I stand by this viewpoint.
Kay has interviewed drivers and team personnel, alongside his own miniature grid walk, something he looks like he has been doing for years. It helps that the Formula E grid is sparser than Formula 1, nevertheless you cannot help but be impressed by his work so far. Importantly, Kay has done his research, and is clearly passionate for Formula E on-screen, and has done his research, a vital asset for a series in its infancy.
Because of the changes behind the scenes, Channel 5’s programming has felt significantly more polished than last season’s output. The build-up has contained a mixture of pre-recorded segments, such as the track guide, and a grid walk. The pre-recorded segments add to the programme, with Kay interviewing drivers prior to qualifying.
There is a tendency to focus on the British contingent of racers, but considering the stage Formula E is at within its life cycle, this is an understandable directive. The commentary team, consisting of Jack Nicholls, Dario Franchitti and Bob Varsha also have their own segment with Kay, helping viewers put a face to the voices.
Commercials have generally been well-timed, a vast improvement on the early offerings in their first season. Impressively, despite airing the race on a tape-delay, Channel 5 covered the whole of the red-flag period during the Hong Kong E-Prix broadcast.
…but poor scheduling lets down Channel 5’s coverage
If I gave the production standards a first-class rating, then the scheduling fits into the lower second-class category. Short-term pain, long-term gain should be Channel 5’s motto here, but I worry if Channel 5 are in this for the long-term.
On-site coverage is fantastic for Formula E. But, was that a decision by Formula E, or did Channel 5 influence the decision? Who is paying for the extra expenses in producing on-site coverage? If the answer to that question is Channel 5, then surely that would have served as an incentive to broadcast races live on their main channel…
And there is the crux of the problem. Both Hong Kong races aired on tape-delay, so whilst the production was excellent (by Formula E’s UK TV standards to-date), the races were not live. Arguably, it did not matter as much in Hong Kong, a tape-delay meant that the races aired at a more sociable hour.
Marrakesh was live on Channel 5, but Santiago less than a month later aired on sister channel 5Spike, as the time difference meant that the race flowed into prime time. According to overnight viewing figures supplied by Overnights.tv, Channel 5 averaged 604k (3.1%) from 18:30 to 20:30 on Saturday 3rd February, not a great number considering a quarter of that covers the relaunched Blind Date.
The Buenos Aires E-Prix from February 2017 averaged 426k (2.2%) on Channel 5 in a similar time slot. Last weekend, the Santiago E-Prix struggled on 5Spike (even compared to 5Spike’s own numbers), averaging just 86k (0.4%), with Eurosport 2 adding a further 32k (0.17%), down on the combined Marrakesh number of 245,000 viewers.
In other words, viewing figures dropped by half the moment Formula E lost any sort of coverage on Channel 5’s main channel. Furthermore, Channel 5 failed to air a repeat of the Santiago round on their main channel, a strange decision. Mexico City is also airing on 5Spike, and Punta del Este is likely to follow suit.
How can Formula E gain momentum with inconsistent scheduling? If you are going to produce coverage on site, at least give the series a chance and air Santiago on the main channel. Airing the European phase of the season on Channel 5 is not enough, by that point the attention of the motor racing world is on the traditional season.
New broadcast package for season four
A new season, a new graphics suite. In their fourth season, Formula E are already on their third graphics set, a ‘throwing the kitchen sink at the wall and seeing what sticks’ approach.
The first set lasted for two seasons, however the broadcast package introduced at the start of season three only lasted for one season, despite being a vast improvement on their opening effort. I can forgive this change with North One coming on-board, but Formula E needs to build an on-screen identity, and you cannot do that by constantly changing the graphics.
The third graphics set is an evolution of the second set, moving away from a sky-blue suite and more towards a blue and purple style (claret and blue might be the right phrase here). The major change for fans is that the timing tower now updates frequently at every sector, as opposed to once a lap.
Formula E has taken inspiration from MotoGP with their timing tower. MotoGP ‘groups’ the riders together based on who they’re battling with, however Formula E has gone a step further, grouping drivers but spreading them down the tower based on the size of the gap, a nice innovation. The tower also displays when a competitor has jumped ahead of their rival by switching colour, and shows progression (or lack of) for a driver.
For the opening races, an “activate start” VT sequence aired immediately prior to the start of the race, however did not appear in the Santiago show. Frustratingly, the World Feed direction remains troublesome. With Formula E in its infancy, it needs to knuckle down to hook new viewers.
Switching between battles constantly, yet failing to capture this information on-screen only serves to confuse the audience. On a new street circuit with no history, the viewer is unfamiliar with the layout so will be unaware if the director has jumped ahead or behind on the circuit. A simple caption ‘Battle for 8th’ for example, listing the drivers involved would solve the problem.
A second problem with the direction is the length it takes to react to incidents. In Santiago, the graphics indicated that reigning champion Lucas di Grassi was dropping out of contention, but the production team was far too slow to pick this up. You get the impression that no one in gallery is monitoring the timing graphics, otherwise the director would be faster in reacting to such developments. As social media demonstrated days later, further on-track incidents were unnoticed by gallery.
There are other smaller problems on the production side: too many reaction shots, arguably worse than F1 in this respect (use picture-in-picture where possible); and the pit lane car swap still disturbs the flow (but is no longer a problem from season five onwards).
Overall, Formula E’s coverage of season four in the UK has started promisingly with major strides compared to previous seasons. Elsewhere, the World Feed is not terrible by any stretch, but I feel tweaks are necessary moving forward.