The British Grand Prix this weekend marks round nine of the 2014 Formula One season. Realistically, two men walk into the race with any hope of winning this year’s Drivers’ Championship: Germany’s Nico Rosberg and Britain’s Lewis Hamilton. In one corner, you have RTL. In the other corner you have the BBC, whilst on both sides there are the respective Sky broadcasters. In two weeks time, we head to Nico Rosberg’s home land for the German Grand Prix. Traditionally, having a home driver performing well does boost viewing figures. The UK’s viewing figures jumped significantly from 2006 to 2008, and Germany’s ratings hit a crescendo in the early 2000’s thanks to Michael Schumacher’s domination.
Steve Rider was presenter of ITV’s Formula 1 coverage during that time period before coverage switched to BBC. Rider seen Fernando Alonso win his second championship, followed by Lewis Hamilton’s rise in 2007 and championship winning year in 2008. In his biography, Rider talked about the logic behind ITV taking a more patriotic approach when Hamilton came into the fold. “The growing attention on the sport was, of course, very welcome for a British broadcaster, but over the months to come ITV, and probably myself in particular, were accused of becoming obsessed with Hamilton, so that television coverage simply revolved around his prospects and performance. There was never an obsession and hopefully I never lost sight of editorial balance, but I would certainly plead guilty to arguing for Hamilton to be the dominant story, and enjoying the fact that he was driving the audience so strongly,” Rider explained.
As a commercial broadcaster, it should not be surprising to see Sky Sports in the UK getting behind Hamilton, just like ITV did. Sky would say that they are just reflecting the views of their viewing audience – although perhaps interestingly, a poll on The F1 Show last Friday suggested a split of 50/50 on who will win the championship. ITV were just as patriotic in 2007 and 2008, and were widely derided for it at the time across various outlets, as Rider alluded to above. In some instances, it was amusing and accepted, Ted Kravitz unravelling the British flag in front of the Brazilian crowd in 2008 will always remain a highlight for me, and a lighter moment. As a whole, I do not want Sky’s coverage turning into a mini version of The Lewis Hamilton Show. Despite my reservations, I can see the editorial stance for that happening, a British driver winning brings in higher audiences and potentially more advertising revenue, hence the change of focus that may occur. BBC tends to be more neutral where the programming is concerned, and I don’t think their coverage is an issue.
Whilst Rider’s point is valid, switching back to 2014, @SkyF1Insider‘s tweets from Canada came across as a little obsessed, to use the same word as Rider. @SkyF1Insider is an official, verified feed from Sky Sports. Early on in the race, showing their patriotism, or bias, the feed tweeted: “Come on Lewis. Turn it up – lets get this race ON!” Now, the question is, do we mind or care about that? Is @SkyF1Insider the views of someone on the Sky team being aired on an official channel to add to their coverage. It may be harmless, but it’s not exactly a neutral message halfway through the race, although it does add a human element to the feed, which is a popular subject at the moment in another part of the forest. The latter message was looking for a conspiracy theory, in my opinion, especially coming off what happened in Monaco: “I’m confused. A radio message went through to Rosberg telling him both cars were unfixable…. Lewis retired, Rosberg still leads…”
Aside from the Twitter messages, the other major grate where Sky is concerned surrounds Johnny Herbert, and feeling the need to refer to Hamilton as ‘our Lewis’ in Sky’s coverage. Rider, in his book, goes on to explain that, had ITV’s pre and post race coverage been broadcasting to the entire globe, the stance would have been different. “Certainly if our audience was global you should expect to hear more from Nick Heidfeld and Jarno Trulli, but the British story was Hamilton; ITV had the access, and after all those years standing on the sidelines politely applauding the relentless genius of Michael Schumacher, they were determined to deliver the story as comprehensively as possible,” notes Rider. I think it is worth concluding by saying that in reality the patriotism that the UK coverage provides is nowhere near as nationalistic compared to other countries, for example Germany.
Whilst I don’t live in Germany, nor consume any of their coverage, reading comments on various sites leads me to believe that Sky Sports F1 is actually quite mild in comparison to RTL’s over the top reporting for Schumacher, Sebastian Vettel and Rosberg. In a piece last month that I wrote, one such comment, left by Lukas, suggested that RTL’s coverage is significantly worse than Sky’s, with heavy bias towards Vettel and Rosberg. Different audiences perhaps willing to tolerate different amounts, and different emotions perhaps, the German audience may well appreciate the patriotism whereas the UK audience wants a wider variety from their coverage. I don’t know, but it is an interesting and emotive subject nevertheless.