Posts Tagged ‘television’

[Article originally written in July and posted here as a ‘how wrong can you get’ example, since the now-released actual news about Sky’s F1 coverage has revealed an almost compete buy-out of the existing BBC F1 coverage personnel. There’s a quick update review at the end.]

The deal is done, the papers are signed, and no matter how much weeping and wailing and rending of garments there is, pontificating further about the BBC/Sky deal over F1 coverage is rather pointless.

So let’s turn instead to the next phase of the fallout from the decision: what exactly will the coverage look like in 2012, specifically with regard to the presenting teams? There’s some interesting insider/background info to this on the blog of James Allen, who ironically knows all too well about this sort of thing having been the ITV lead commentator in 2008 when that channel walked away from the F1 contract and left him out of a job.

Allen’s insider info raises some interesting scenarios, specifically suggesting that the race commentary would be shared between both channels to ensure an overall consistency for fans and to stop it feeling jarringly “choppy” as races switch from BBC to Sky and back again. It will also make it easier to sign up the right people as there will be a full season to cover live and yet still with a BBC presence. Presumably this would constitute what till now has been referred to as the “world feed commentary”: whether it’s a BBC- or a Sky-produced affair is rather a distinction without a difference, although given that only Sky is proving all 20 races live I think it’s a given that it will formally fall under Sky’s auspices.

On the one hand that makes a lot of sense; on the other, you wonder what Sky gain out of it when for 100 minutes ten times a year they will be showing exactly the same sound and pictures as the BBC … and presumably getting totally hammered in the ratings. It’s not a great comparison they’re setting themselves up for, no matter how much it helps them pitch the other ten races they have exclusively live to potential subscribers. But still, if that’s the decision they’ve taken, it’s actually a good one for the fans I think.

And that leads us to the question of: who will form that commentary team? It’s a question with an obvious answer – of course they should sign up Martin Brundle and David Coulthard straight away, no brainer, and I suspect they will do just that. The only fly in the ointment is that from Brundle’s dry comments on the subject he doesn’t sound like he’s wild about what’s happening, and given that he was also reported to be disenchanted last year and close to walking away (until mollified with the departure of Jonathan Legard allowing him to step up to the lead role while also insisting on his mate DC taking up the shotgun seat) one wonders if he really has any desire to go through what would be for him the second media channel refugee migration in just three years. Perhaps he might just decide that doing this for 14 years is quite long enough and it’s time to move on, regardless of the inducements floated in his direction?

If Brundle does stay they he would almost certainly insist Coulthard stays as well as part of the deal; conversely, if he left, I’m not sure Coulthard has yet established himself well enough to be wanted by Sky and the BBC to stay without Brundle. That’s not to say DC has done a bad job – on the contrary, I’ve been very pleasantly surprised at how their pairing has worked out against my sceptical expectations. But they’re a job lot, both or neither.

If neither, then … who? Names from the past (James Allen and Jonathan Legard) can be discounted. The one exception to that ban – given his sparkling showing in a recent 5live Saturday practice session – is Murray Walker. If he was remotely feasible for the job then Sky would do literally anything to coax him back; but he isn’t, no matter the fond wishes of F1 fans, and we need to look elsewhere.

If this were a purely a Sky affair then it’s likely that they would be looking at the pairing of former F1 driver John Watson with Ben Edwards (the latter currently working on ITV4’s BTCC coverage and the nearest thing we have to a natural heir to Murray’s famous over-caffeinated style.) They provided coverage for the short-lived, ill-fated “enhanced” F1 Digital+ pay-per-view service from FOM in 2002, and were again paired up on Sky Sport’s coverage of the also short-lived wannabe F1 rival, the “A1GP World Cup of Motorsport”. They would be fine, and a reasonably safe and proven pair of hands. And personally, I’m a big fan of Edwards and reckon he deserves a shot at the biggest seat in motorsports commentary that there is.

A possible cost-saving tactic would be to simply use 5live’s David Croft and Anthony Davidson across both TV and radio outputs. They’ve demonstrated that they can make this simultaneous TV/radio commentary work impressively well with their years of providing coverage of the practice sessions that worked just as well on the red button visual coverage as well as on the radio. It’s not easy, but it would really help slash costs: the probable show-stopper is Davidson’s still very-active and successful racing career which means he is unavailable for all the season’s races, which is not a huge problem for 5live but might well be for the TV sporting jewel in the crown.

Outside the commentary team, however, what about the presenter? The Allen insider info suggests that BBC and Sky would each have their own, different presenting team (although interestingly they would share broadcast production facilities on-site.) Would this likely to be continue to be Jake Humphrey and Eddie Irvine?

I suspect not. It will be difficult to front a pared-down operation after the conspicuous success of the last three years without feeling like it’s a comedown, so I would expect Humphrey – far too much of a BBC man to want to move to Sky – to return into the heart of BBC Sport, his reputation greatly increased from his success on F1, to take a major, leading role in the corporation’s overall sports broadcasting and perhaps particularly in football which is still (one suspects) his true passion. Good luck to him, he’s earned it, and we certainly couldn’t begrudge it after the effort and enthusiasm he’s put into F1 since 2009.

Nor do I see Eddie Jordan staying – he’s just not the type to want to stick with a “day job” for too long. He probably took the slot with the BBC as a bit of fun in the first place and has stuck around because it’s a nice team – even though at teams he hasn’t seemed entirely uncomfortable with the joker role he’s been slotted into and expected to play. I doubt he anticipated still doing this job even beyond a single year. He’s certainly not main host material – he would surely hate that constriction – so I expect that he’ll take the opportunity to move on.

Which leaves the BBC with … Interestingly, Ted Kravitz, a man who is far too good as television presenter material to be stuck away in pit lane the whole time. That rather suggests than the optimum solution for the BBC would be to promote Kravitz to presenter of the cut-down BBC coverage while also acting as pit lane reporter in association with someone else like Lee Mackenzie or Jenny Gow, in much the same way that Matt Roberts now fronts the MotoGP coverage for the channel while also covering the pit lane alongside Azi Farni when Charlie Cox and Steve Parrish are doing the race commentary. Indeed, the very much pared-down MotoGP model might prove exactly the sort of thing the BBC are aiming for in their F1 coverage next year.

When it comes to the Sky presenting team, frankly anything goes – all bets are off. The channel has never had this sort of international series to cover before and it will be new ground for them. Usually their presence at overseas events consists of taking a home broadcasters’ feed and then having someone in the Sky Sports studios topping and tailing it with some studio guests, but it’s hard to see them getting away with that for F1 – or indeed wanting to. After the investment and opportunity that’s landed in their lap with this deal, they’ll want to be seen to conspicuously excel and at least match if not exceed the BBC coverage of recent years and the ITV coverage that preceded it.

So that means having a presenting team on the ground in whatever country the Grand Prix is from that week – and that’s a big commitment, from the channel (in terms of expense and production support services) and from the presenters. Normally Sky have Keith Huewen as their go-to guy for motorsports programmes, but having him jetting all over the world might (a) not be something he wants, and/or (b) would screw up all the other programmes he’s currently fronting for them.

Failing that it’s hard to know just where Sky will go for a presenter – anymore than we saw Jake Humphrey coming as the BBC’s main man in 2009. Sky Sports previously signed up Georgie Thompson as the anchor for their A1GP coverage, but she never really developed the gravitas or believability in the role. If having a female main host is important to Sky, then they would need to look to someone more credible – like ex-MotoGP host Suzi Perry, although her other filming commitments (for the Gadget Show on Channel 5 for example) would presumably be a problem with the international travel aspect.

Mark Blundell – tongue-in-cheek I rather suspect – put in a Twitter plea to be considered for the role of pundit in the new regime, picking up from his ITV days; Tony Jardine would be another obvious potential candidate, having popped up on Sky Sports in various programmes in such a capacity. Eddie Jordan would be an outside bet, but he would probably be rather expensive, definitely unpredictable, and most of all Sky will surely want to make their own mark on the team rather than take the BBC’s hand-me-downs as it might be unfairly seen.

Whatever team Sky decide upon and put together, it’s likely to be the best that money can by – but will nonetheless still find surprisingly stiff competition even from a radically slimmed down “Kravitz plus one” BBC presence, which many fans will stick to and show loyalty toward regardless of the merits of Sky’s offering.

It will be an interesting time in F1 coverage. Granted, it’s an “interest” that most of us could have done without and preferred not to have to contemplate, preferring instead the BBC status quo. But that’s not going to happen, and so we’re subject to the Chinese curse of living in interesting F1 times – for better or for worse.

Quick review – December 2011

So, did this piece get anything much right?

I probably underestimated Martin Brindle’s claim to be the ‘voice of F1’ – it’s clear that Sky really did see him as important to the package as ITV see Murray Walker back in the 90s. Brundle’s been getting a lot of flak for his ‘defection’, but fair play to him. I think his initially sour comments about the deal were more directed at the BBC keeping everyone in the dark and then dropping it on them during a race weekend were what really got to him, so in hindsight it’s less surprising to see him to Skywards after all.

I’m rather surprised that David Croft has gone too. I thought that Brundle would want the lead commentator spot (as he’s had this year on the BBC) but this development suggests that he hasn’t found it as much to his liking as he thought, and would prefer dropping back into his more familiar analyst role with Croft selected as the new straight man. I’m very sad to see Croft depart the BBC and I happen to really like him as a commentator – I frequently elected to listen to the Radio 5 Live commentary during the race for him and Anthony Davidson a the best pairing going – but I have to say this is a good move by Sky and that the Croft/Brundle line-up is a very good one.

And Davidson himself! More for the practice sessions – and I’ve always loved his rapport with Croft for those more laid-back broadcasts – leaving Brundle to step in for qualifying and the race, but that actually mirrors the way I’ve listened to the commentary in recent times anyway. It’s worrying how well tailored this commentary line-up proves to be for me.

I underestimated Sky’s determination to lure away Ted Kravitz as well – that’s a real loss to the BBC line-up, and I genuinely thought that they could have built up their on-site team around Kravitz but clearly the money didn’t work out. A shame, he’ll be missed, but he’s got himself a great gig including co-presenting a weekly magazine programme on the new Sky F1 channel.

Apparently the suggest to have the Radio 5 Live commentary feed work on TV as well as the radio was indeed considered, but ultimately discarded, which I feel is a lost opportunity to do something genuinely new while actually saving some money. And the joint commentary across BBC and Sky looks to have been a complete red herring (it always seemed to me a rather odd idea at the time, to be honest.)

The surprises on the BBC side are that Coulthard isn’t decamping with Brundle, and that Eddie Jordan is also sticking with the BBC. Are they bound by existing contracts or is this a genuine choice on their parts? Neither is cheap and you would have thought that the belt-tightening BBC would have wanted a change here, too. Maybe when the extent of the rest of the F1 talent raid by Sky became clear, they had to hold on to what they could of the old team.

It’s great that Jake Humphrey is staying on. He’s come a long way since his first days on the job, fresh out of Children’s BBC academy, trying to work out which way up F1 went. He’s now on top of his game and was clearly in Sky’s sights for the main presenting role, but I always figured he was too much of a BBC man (especially with the 2012 Olympics coverage coming up) to jump ship. The only doubt was whether a half share of F1 would be enough to satisfy him after the Bafta years, but I’m glad it is and that he’s not scarpering off for the halls of football coverage just yet.

Who will commentate for the BBC? I guess now they know who isn’t staying, they can get around to signing up a few people. I still would love to see Ben Edwards be the lead commentator for the channel, perhaps alongside Coulthard; and as for radio, it’ll probably go to the very likeable and extremely knowledgeable Maurice Hamilton, who would be fine if they can get him a good sidekick to spark some chemistry with. Jonathan Legard has also been mentioned as a possibility (it’s unclear whether for TV or radio, as he’s worked in both roles for the BBC in the past) but I would earnestly hope not, and given how he was bundled out at the end of 2010 I’d be surprised if he wanted to return into that fold quite so soon.

Will I be swapping to Sky? Well – if Virgin Media doesn’t have a massive falling out with Sky and not carry the new Sky F1 channel in the meantime, then yes, I probably will. But I’ll also watch the BBC coverage.

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My first reaction when I heard the news this morning that the BBC had lost exclusive rights to F1 and would show only half of next year’s Grand Prix events live, while Sky would show the entire season, was one of dismay and outrage.

Certainly when it comes to timing, announcing a deal which hands one of the currently most loathed media companies (News Corp, which owns 39% of BSkyB) one of the sporting crown jewels was spectacularly inopportune.

Now, however, I’ve calmed down a bit. At my emotional core I’m still seething, but the logical side of my brain is asserting itself and starting to point out: this could have been even much, much worse. And sadly, probably will be down the line.

The warning signs have been there for some time, ever since the Sunday Times had a story suggesting that the BBC wanted out of the F1 contract as soon as possible. We rather dismissed it at the time as being News Corp mischief making, but it turns out that they were nearer to the truth than we gave them credit for. Hey, even a broken media organisation is right twice a day, it seems.

I think it’s clear now that the BBC did come very close indeed to just returning the keys to the F1 paddock to Bernie Ecclestone and walking away completely, much as ITV did at the end of the 2008 season. The reason is totally financial and down to the high license costs charged by Ecclestone’s media rights company for the coverage (I’ve heard various figures estimates from this, but they seem to be around £40 to £60m per annum.)

Given that the BBC is being squeezed (by the government cutting the license fee on advice from, among others, the Murdoch family and businesses – funny cycle that, isn’t it?) for cash and looking for savings anywhere it can find up to and including any cash lost down the back of the sofa, it’s no surprise that they should see such a whopping expenditure line on the accounts and quickly come to the decision that it simply has to go: it’s not unlike Ford Motor Company looking at its employee wages and seeing Eddie Irvine getting paid more than anyone else, and deciding: this F1 thing must stop.

I suspect that even someone as business- and monetarily-inclined as Ecclestone realised that losing the BBC’s backing and prestige for F1 would be a disaster for him and for the sport from which he makes his living, especially as there was no one else to turn to in the free-to-air market to fill the gap. ITV certainly weren’t interested in returning, Channel 4 have their own money problems, and Channel 5 – well, it’s possible given their tie-up with Richard Desmond, but it’s still really out of the channel’s financial reach and not even their target demographic. Even if they had bid for it, it would be a surprise if they lasted two years before walking away themselves under the heavy load that F1 coverage responsibility now confers.

But Ecclestone had already said he wanted the sport to remain on free-to-air (and the teams and the key sponsors definitely had an expectation of this being the case to maintain the sport’s the and sponsor’s visibility – there’s even a suggestion that the all-important Concorde Agreement requires it, otherwise Ecclestone is in breach of contract himself) and so just throwing it open to the Sky Sports premium satellite/cable subscription channel wasn’t open either.

When it comes down to it, this emergency compromise that has been reached is probably the best that could be done in the circumstances: free-to-air retains half the live Grand Prix events and ensures fans will still get to see extensive coverage of the rest through highlights packages and radio coverage on 5live; while Sky presumably carries most of the financial load by virtue of being able to claim to be the only place to see the whole F1 season from now on. Sky would probably rather not be sharing the coverage of half the races with the BBC but they’ll see it as a “free advert on the BBC” for their product for the other 10 races that people will have to sign up for. It’s not a bad product placement deal for Sky, all things considered.

This sort of split coverage of sport is not in fact unusual. The football rights are fragmented across multiple networks, while even the international rugby union rights were split with Sky Sports having all the England Six Nations matches while the BBC had the remainder. In the US this is even more common, with IndyCar coverage shared between the ABC broadcast network and the cable channel Versus (and interestingly, fans seem to deride the ABC races and lament that Versus can’t do them all!) while NASCAR splits the 36 races of the season into three lots of 12 between three different networks, and there’s talks about come of those being further offloaded onto a cable channel such as SPEED next season. Again, it’s all because the broadcast rights in each case are simply too expensive now for any one single network to sustain and justify them across the whole year.

Truth is, though, that this BBC/Sky compromise deal is a classic BBC attempt at a solution to please everyone and answer all the critics, which will instead do exactly the opposite – leave them under attack from all sides and satisfy precisely no one. The F1 fans will be outraged and outspoken and pour scorn and vitriol on the Corporation; while the anti-F1 brigade will remain incensed that the Beeb is still squandering any money at all on a rich man’s plaything. Eventually the BBC will give up and walk away from F1 completely. Until then, the BBC has neatly positioned itself in the middle of No Man’s Land where both sides have equal opportunity to shoot and shell it to pieces – a familiar story for the Corporation.

It’s amazing that this decision should be announced when it has been, shortly after the BBC F1 coverage won a Bafta (ironically, ITV’s final F1 race coverage also won a Bafta before they walked away in 2009 …) and the recent Canadian race came close to a 50 share at times (that is, half the total number of people watching the TV were watching the BBC – unheard of domination in this day and age of fractured media.) So much for dismissing F1 as a “niche sport” it seems, but that argument has simply been muscled aside.

Probably the most depressing thought it what the BBC coverage will look like from 2012 onwards. They will hardly be able to afford the sort of quality of broadcast line-up when they’ll only be covering ten races live; will Martin Brundle and David Coulthard want to be involved in a half-arsed season coverage? Will Jake Humphrey want to continue fronting a show that is now overshadowed by Sky and little more than a shop window for the satellite channel’s fare?

Indeed, the BBC will probably want to cut costs still further – cut the preshow, and grid walks, the interviews and just fly over a commentator to do the job, leave the fancy stuff to Sky. Think of the cost savings on top of the licensing money they’ll save by no longer having to have dedicated camera crews and multiple presenters. In fact, surely the commentary can be done from a studio in London … ? (Actually, if it comes to that level, I hope they have the good sense to have 5live’s commentators David Croft and Anthony Davidson simply take over, since the 5live coverage continues under the new deal and hopefully they will be broadly unchanged and unaffected.)

What about Brundle, Coulthard, Eddie Irvine, Ted Kravitz and even Jake Humphrey? They now found themselves in the same situation as Murray Walker in 1996 or James Allen (and indeed Brundle himself) in 2008 when the decisions of their networks cast their own professional futures into sudden doubt. In Murray Walker’s case, ITV commendably realised very quickly that he was essential to the success of their new investment: while Murray had immediately thought he was out of a job and on the scrapheap, instead he suddenly found he was perhaps the most important and sought-after man in sporting journalism.

Martin Brundle, despite having been associated with F1 coverage since 1997, has only just stepped up to the role of main commentator and has no similar Murray-esque claims to be the “voice of F1” so he’s not going to have the same prospects of job security. Indeed he’s already tweeted that he’s out of contract at the end of 2011 and is “not impressed” by the news announced today so it seems he’s not keen either with the part-time season on the BBC or moving to Sky. But who knows – Sky may be as canny as ITV were 14 years ago and decide that some Brundle continuity is vital to securing the transition of the fans to the satellite broadcaster, and start to woo the former F1 driver with an offer he can’t refuse. Or maybe they’ll simply go with their in-house staff, some of whom are excellent (Keith Huewen for example has been outstanding hosting IndyCar and NASCAR on Sky Sport) but many of whom are really quite mediocre.

There’s no doubt that among the biggest losers in all this are the committed fans of Formula 1, or at least those who are unwilling or unable to take up Sky Sports subscriptions next season. But I fear the biggest loser of all is the sport of F1 itself, which has just crossed a rubicon of sorts that takes it on a one-way trip to the margins. In time, F1 fans will decrease, new generations of fans will not be exposed to the sport. It will weaken, and – driven by the costs of the sport – will then collapse under its own hubris, unable to fund its continuance as a minor niche interest on the sidelines.

Bernie Ecclestone may not be around by that time – not even he is immortal, we believe. But come that final Grand Prix, few will forget that it was his hand that set the stage and made the final demise of F1 possible and – indeed – inevitable.





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