Earlier this week, news broke that Whisper would continue to produce Channel 4’s Formula 1 free-to-air coverage in 2020, as the broadcaster enters a new three-year deal with Sky Sports to air the sport.
2019 was a year of change for the UK’s free-to-air viewers of F1, as fans accustomed themselves to life without live action. Only the British Grand Prix aired live on free-to-air television, with every other race airing exclusively live on Sky.
Across the year, Whisper produced highlights of every qualifying session and race, as well as live coverage of the Silverstone round. Including commercials, Channel 4’s highlights package consisted of 90 minutes for qualifying and 120 minutes for the race. Slicing off commercials takes both totals down to around 72 and 96 minutes respectively, giving fans a chance to view the action.
John Curtis led Whisper’s F1 production team for the first-time, replacing Mark Wilkin as their producer.
How well have Whisper managed to manoeuvre the obstacles placed in their way this year? We look at how their F1 coverage has fared…
A variety of vantage points on offer…
Although Channel 4 did not air live coverage throughout 2019, Whisper played to their own storytelling strengths with high quality VT’s.
The opening vignette for their Abu Dhabi race day coverage featured a powerful voice over of six-time Drivers’ Champion Lewis Hamilton telling his story, as viewers watched Hamilton tackling the final lap of the US Grand Prix from his helmet-facing camera angle. It was simple, yet innovative, unusual, and effective.
Whisper’s VT’s stretched across the full grid, meaning that fans still saw the personalities behind the helmets even if Channel 4 were unable to offer live coverage outside of Silverstone. Steve Jones’ sit-down interview with Alfa Romeo driver Kimi Raikkonen in Canada helped get beneath the bones of Raikkonen’s character and was one highlight of their year.
There is no doubt that losing Karun Chandhok to Sky hurt Channel 4’s coverage on the technical front. But, with only Silverstone airing live on Channel 4, his loss was not as significant as it could have been. Channel 4 and Whisper covered up his departure through rotating their punditry throughout the season (a possible result of restrictions from a personnel quota perspective).
Pleasingly, Whisper utilised their complete cast of on-air talent during their pre- and post-race programming (including new for 2019 podcast On the Marbles), from Mark Webber, through to Billy Monger, and onto Ben Edwards.
Edwards’ own post-race segment, aptly titled “Ben’s Bible” helped shine a light on the midfield teams, wrapping up stories from pit lane. It was awesome to see Whisper use Edwards more – his broadcasting talent extends far behind the commentary box, and it is only right that we see him utilised more on-screen.
Monger excelled in his first season with Channel 4, gelling straight into his role with the team. As a fan, you could feel a natural on-screen connection between the likes of Monger, George Russell and Lando Norris, all young Brits, and that made the interview segments much easier to watch in my view.
Throughout 2019, Whisper strived to show viewers more than just the paddock, taking advantage of the fact that they were not live on-air, whether through choice or not is a different question.
For example, Whisper presented the Chinese Grand Prix qualifying opening segment from the smog of the Shanghai city, taking viewers to the heart of the city. Sky do not have the same luxury for good reason, they need to be in the paddock surroundings for their live broadcasts, airing their live programming outside of the paddock would make little sense.
…but inflexibility hampers programming
For all the effort that Whisper went into to make their programming distinctive, and they did a good job at that, the restrictions in their contract meant that things were perhaps not as great as they could have been.
The race edits were generally slick across the season, but inflexibility did not help. Each race had a 45-minute edit allocated to it, meaning that the likes of France were on an equal billing as Germany, even though the latter was far more exciting than the former.
Over on the BBC’s weekly Premier League football highlights programme Match of the Day, highlights of a game can vary from anywhere between five to ten minutes, although admittedly that is within the context of one show. But it shows that flexibility does exist within the remit of a highlights-based sporting contract.
Is there a world where Sky require Channel 4 to air an average of 45 minutes per race across the season, but ‘flexed’ that so that they can air between 35 and 55 minutes each race?
This would allow Channel 4 to air a 55-minute edit for Germany and a 35-minute edit for France. Each would still need to fit in a 96-minute slot (excluding commercials), but it at least gives Channel 4 flexibility. And, if Channel 4 make a wrong decision and the last few races of the season turn out to be more (or less) exciting – tough.
Two other aspects that would improve the highlights edit itself would be the ability to play out interviews in a picture-in-picture format during the race. If a midfield driver retires from the race, it makes sense from a storytelling standpoint to play out the post-race interview there and then, as opposed to after the race.
The spoiler previews prior to each ad-break did not sit well with me either, although I understand the logic in it to keep the audience hooked for later in the race.
At several races in 2019, Whisper opted to present their commentary off-tube, but not as you would expect. Whilst co-commentator David Coulthard remained on-site, Edwards stayed back at Whisper’s base in Ealing, which feels like an odd way to deal with the situation. If you want to commentate off-tube, fine, but at least go the full way instead of a 50/50 approach.
The Canadian Grand Prix weekend saw this scenario unfold, but the delay between Coulthard and Edwards was significant, leading to disjointed commentary, as if someone stitched it together from two separate sources. Whilst of some frustration, if the alternative was having no Edwards at all, then maybe this is the best of a bad situation.
I could criticise Whisper for other elements of their highlights programming: no grid interviews, and few post-race driver interviews. But, as a broadcaster and production company, you can only do what the contract stipulates. And, as we well know (Silverstone aside), Channel 4 were banned from the grid, and forced to take Sky’s post-session interviews from the interview pen.
Channel 4’s Formula 1 viewing figures may have dropped significantly on 2018, but that in my opinion is not a reflection on the quality of programming that Whisper have aired this year.
There are things that could change, both inside and outside of Whisper’s production contract. But overall, free-to-air viewers of Formula 1 in 2019 have had a high-quality highlights package that they can rely on.
The situation is not ideal for those without Sky, but it also serves as a reminder that, without Whisper on-board, the package on offer could be significantly worse.
For the next few years, expect the status quo to remain – with Channel 4 set to remain in the F1 fold until at least 2022.