Lockdown life: How broadcasters handled the COVID-19 pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic has meant that all of us have had to adapt our working practices, some more so than others, everyone adjusting to the new normal.

For me, I am a public sector worker, with this site also one of my priorities. During a typical year, the site content would write itself to a degree: reacting to the action, giving my thoughts, and going behind the scenes, the list goes on.

During a pandemic, that becomes more difficult, and the enthusiasm wanes along the way. Balancing both the day job (where COVID-19 is a key focus), taking time out to do other things (gaming), as well as looking myself and my house (I live on my own) has meant that Motorsport Broadcasting did fall down the list of priorities.

Now, three months after the lockdown restrictions, motor racing is back on the agenda, and we are less than two weeks away from the start of the Formula 1 season. “Lights out, and away we go,” is not far away…

On the broadcasting front
Given my work priorities, I did not consume masses of motor sport content during the main lockdown, sticking to what I am familiar with, primarily in the UK space.

From a pay TV perspective, BT Sport and Sky Sports took different, but equally valid positions over the past three months.

BT focused on quality rather than quantity with their main MotoGP offering.

‘The Greatest Race’ aired on Sunday’s in a four-hour time slot, whittling down 16 of MotoGP’s best races to a final four, with BT’s viewers voting the 2009 Catalunya MotoGP battle between Valentino Rossi and Jorge Lorenzo as MotoGP’s best race.

Intertwined in the race edits each week were live interviews from an impressive calibre of MotoGP legends, such as Valentino Rossi, Sete Gibernau and Max Biaggi. BT’s own presentation team, led by Gavin Emmett, Suzi Perry, and Neil Hodgson, were on hand to ask the questions.

The new content presented a new spin on old classics, generating both social activity during the show, and news stories in the week following.

BT’s remote production model during the pandemic was a major success, not just for MotoGP but across their entire portfolio of shows, including their Early Kick Off football show, and we should applaud the whole team both in front and behind the camera their efforts.

In contrast, Sky opted to air a plethora of material during the pandemic for fans to digest, some hitting the mark perfectly.

At first post-Australia, the broadcaster aired little content, but quickly built it up into April, a wise decision in hindsight to avoid burn out straight away.

The F1 channel has since aired the Sky F1 Quiz, many Vodcasts, classic races in watch along form, as well as other content on the side, such as The Notebook feat. Ted Kravitz with a selfie stick.

Given the amount they aired, I doubt Sky expected everyone to watch every Vodcast and F1 Show, but from what I watched, they do exactly what they say on the tin, with a wide variety of guests from across the F1 landscape.

Irritatingly, the Vodcasts never turned up on Spotify, which was an opportunity missed in my view for those who go on post-work walks and would like a podcast to listen to (others are available, naturally).

A fixture on Wednesday evenings on Sky Sports F1 has been their Classic F1 watch along programming. Unlike their cricket and football counterparts, the F1 team went down the pre-recorded route, opting also to trim the race into a smaller edit.

The decision to air on Wednesday’s in my view was short-sighted: clashing with F1’s in-house classic races on their YouTube channel. Despite these forthcomings, like BT Sport with MotoGP, Sky’s decision to air these helped present a new spin on classic races, with guests relevant to that race.

For example, Sky re-aired the 2008 Brazilian Grand Prix, but with Felipe Massa and Rob Smedley as guests, getting their view on the events of that weekend.

I hope the channel repeats these over the forthcoming months: for reasons described earlier in this article, I did not watch all the classic races that Sky aired in watch along form.

Over the past few months, Sky have also released features that were due to air during the early pre-race build-ups, releasing interviews between Toto Wolff and Lewis Hamilton, a Hamilton feature on Monaco and segments filmed for the Australian Grand Prix (also At Home with Sky F1).

In the circumstances, we should be thankful for the content all parties have produced recently, irrespective of quality, to keep us going through this period.

…but what does it mean for the future?
Inevitably, broadcasters have had no choice but to speed up thought processes because of the pandemic.

As this site has covered for years, the industry has begun transitioning to remote broadcasting (or at least thinking about), without any loss of service or quality to the end viewer.

COVID-19 has resulted in the reprioritisation of long-term business objectives into immediate deliverables for the likes of F1.

In January, F1 touted sustainability as part of their Strategic Plan, wanting to “‘minimise the amount of equipment and people sent to each race.” A strategic vision has become a short-term reality.

If you are a broadcaster, who needs to save money (and quickly), why would you not go with the cheaper option if quality is unimpacted?

On an operational level, it may mean motor sport companies begin working on a much smaller footprint than before, with smaller offices, remote working, fewer flights, video conferencing, and so on.

Of course, it is bad news for those in the industry who like the travel associated with the job.

Unless there is a major shift in ideology, it is highly unlikely that broadcasters will revert to the 2019 ways of working, when the past few months has taught the industry that remote production can work.

From a broadcasting perspective, the ‘new normal’ is here, and it is here to stay…

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6 thoughts on “Lockdown life: How broadcasters handled the COVID-19 pandemic

  1. Hi David, You completely forgot about the venture into eSports. Our show Isolation eRacing on BT Sport live on Monday nights has gone down extremely well, and after an initial run of five weeks was recommissioned for another three. Hosted by Gemma Scott it has been packed with racing drivers past and present, many of whom have embraced the major advances in sim racing. In fact it has been said that sim racing has moved on two years in just two months, and the pure joy of seeing father and son Rubens and Dudu Barrichello in the same race has been pure joy. Cheers, Nick

    1. I didn’t watch it Nick, which is why I didn’t add it. There was a piece early on during lockdown about eSports on this site. Was this a BT initative?

      1. Yes it was partly. I was approached by Chris Harfield and Enzo Mucci of eRacing Leagues. They were already doing a championship called “April Isolation” featuring drivers from right across the world of motor racing. From there we developed it for TV, and BT Sport liked the the model. We made three test programmes during April Isolation and started broadcasting in May. It comes to the end of its run tonight, because so many drivers are now testing and not necessarily near their simulators. It’s been received very well, and I am optimistic this will develop into more than just a lockdown entertainment in the long run. BT sport have been very bold in taking an idea and helped shape it for TV. We have many plans as to how to move this on.

  2. I know F1 is worldwide but IndyCar presenters are still presenting from the tracks; when the BTCC returns will ITV4 personnel be at the tracks?

    1. As I understand it, ITV4 have yet to decide whether they are going to be at the tracks, nor have they decided if or how they will cover the Saturday program given there are no fans at the track.

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