Looking back at Channel 4’s first Formula 1 broadcast

Saturday 19th March and the 2016 Australian Grand Prix weekend will now be etched in Formula 1 folklore for all the wrong reasons. In the broadcasting world, it marked the day that Channel 4 hit the air with their first Formula 1 highlights programme.

The day had been prepared for. It has been three months in the making since it was announced in December that Channel 4 would be taking over the television rights from the BBC. Channel 4 have been interested in Formula 1 for a long time, dating back to at least 2011. Over the past weeks and months, the channel alongside production partner Whisper Films, have been assembling a team that, according to Channel 4’s Chief Creative Officer Jay Hunt, is “the greatest, extraordinary and most dynamic line-up yet for Formula 1.” What are the early impressions?

In Melbourne we have Steve Jones, David Coulthard, Mark Webber, Ben Edwards, Lee McKenzie and Karun Chandhok covering the action. You are never going to learn everything in one show, but the product that Channel 4 produced today is a sign of the direction that they plan on taking (minus the shambles in the middle).

> June 2012: A look back at ITV’s first live Formula 1 broadcast in 1997
> July 2012: A look at BBC’s [2012 German Grand Prix] Qualifying highlights programme

Structurally, the 105-minute show from 12:30 to 14:15 had 30 minutes of build-up and 15 minutes of reaction. The qualifying edit was 60 minutes long, excluding adverts. Out of the 45 minutes of on-track timing, only around one minute was edited out. Normally you would have 45 minutes, plus a further four or five minutes combined after the chequered flag, necessitating the need for some edits. Because that was not the case here, it meant that Channel 4 viewers received qualifying in almost all its glory. There were five internal breaks, at around 12:40, 12:55, 13:18, 13:40 and 14:05. The show lasted 82 minutes in the 105-minute slot.

Channel 4's graphics set, as part of their debut during the 2016 Australian Grand Prix Qualifying programme.
Channel 4’s graphics set, as part of their debut during the 2016 Australian Grand Prix Qualifying programme.

The post-qualifying round-up was okay. We got two in-depth pieces with Lewis Hamilton and then Toto Wolff and Christian Horner in one. Hamilton aside, there were no driver interviews from within the top eight: we had no reaction from the likes of Sebastian Vettel, Nico Rosberg and Max Verstappen. On a normal day, I think that would have been unacceptable, but today was not normal circumstances. Editorially, a decision would have been made on whether to cover the fiasco in the wrap-up, and Channel 4/Whisper Films made the right decision covering it, even if meant losing some driver content, in my opinion.

I thought the graphics were visually stunning throughout the show. Simple, but effective. The integration of the C4F1 hashtag works for me as well to drive conversation through to social media, which is critical if they are in turn going to draw viewers towards their programming. I’m surprised that proper graphical integration has not yet worked its way through to either Sky’s or FOM’s graphics set. MotoGP, even in their new graphics set, have done this to perfection but Formula 1 seems to struggle to integrate the social element.

Channel 4 have also integrated the social media element into their break bumpers, with different styles depending on the content that is coming up. Quirky, different, distinctive, which is what Channel 4 wants to be. The dubstep music may grate sometimes (not my cup of tea), but the differing backgrounds and hashtag integration is significantly better than your standard break bumpers with a generic background. Seeing Daniel Ricciardo try to play The Chain on a guitar falls under the quirky category, but remember: this is about showing personalities, something Channel 4 are committed on doing. It keeps the viewer engaged instead of a generic VT piece for the sake of a VT piece which does not add something to the end product.

Fernando Alonso being interviewed by Lee McKenzie during Channel 4's coverage of the 2016 Australian Grand Prix Qualifying session.
Fernando Alonso being interviewed by Lee McKenzie during Channel 4’s coverage of the 2016 Australian Grand Prix Qualifying session.

Speaking of The Chain, Channel 4’s new opening titles are significantly different to what we have ever experienced before for Formula 1. The new titles are a collaboration between Whisper Films and Framestore. Less colourful and flashy were the first thoughts that came to my mind. First off, the titles are distinctive in that they will be radically altered for each race, with the lettering changed depending on round. They feel like a 2016 version of ITV’s first effort from 1997 to 1999. At the moment, I’m neither here or there with the titles. The first half of the sequence works really well but the latter half once The Chain properly breaks out into its element, not so well. It is one of them which needs multiple viewings, the titles may look better on the big screen and in clearer quality rather than on the laptop.

Impressions of Steve Jones on screen are good. As I’ve mentioned previously, Bahrain will always be the acid test being Channel 4’s first live Grand Prix. But today, I didn’t get the impression that Jones was floundering around. He did what you expect a presenter to do, comfortably led the show, also having a joke along the way with Coulthard and Webber, both of whom were excellent in the build-up. Jones did not look like someone who was making their Grand Prix presenting debut. Was it perfect? No, of course not. Did it look a tad stilted in places? Yes, it did. But give Jones time and I can see him transforming into a very solid Grand Prix presenter. Bahrain can “make or break” the show, but Australia is as good preparation as you are ever going to get.

Channel 4’s first main interview was Lee McKenzie grilling Fernando Alonso. This is a prime example of why McKenzie is vital for Channel 4, as her interviewing techniques are second to none, to dig below the surface and gather more information. An insightful watch. The only person Channel 4’s viewers did not hear much from was Karun Chandhok, who was probably a victim of the new qualifying format. It is probably worth noting that viewers around the world in multiple countries hear Channel 4’s commentary: Chandhok commentated with Ben Edwards on both practice two and three. I’m hopeful we will hear Chandhok more in their race day coverage as strategic decisions unfold.

Overall, for Channel 4’s first show, it was a positive starting point going forward. Now, to the race! And hopefully Channel 4 will have something more positive to chat about.

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11 thoughts on “Looking back at Channel 4’s first Formula 1 broadcast

  1. I think C4 did a superb job. in my opinion, there was too much build up and too little analysis. Steve got heavily bashed on twitter, but in my opinion, he didnt do too badly at all, and is already a far better presenter than Simon Lazenby in my opinion. I wont be bothering to wake up at 5am tomorrow. I shall keep myself away from social media until 13:30 where i shall once again watch Channel 4. It seems so much better so far.

    • I wonder if they gave more time to build up than they would have liked for this particular race. There were a few critical rule changes and those were needed to be discussed. I have to admit though, even for me who followed off season news closely it felt a bit boring and confusing. Hopefully it didn’t put the new audience off from giving it a chance.

  2. David please stop banging going on about Channel 4 and social media as if it’s the be all and end all.

    For example, the other day (before C4 had even shown a single programme), you said “I really can’t see many people venturing away from Channel 4’s live programming later in the year to try F1 on Sky Sports Mix”. The casual viewers, I would agree, but the tone of your reporting suggests that Sky’s coverage is boring/stale/less innovative than C4 – despite you not (at that point) having seen a single second of output from C4.

    Now it’s true that Sky isn’t as good as in 2012, mainly due to cutbacks – but having watched both sides today, Sky are still ahead of C4 by a country mile.

    I can also confidently predict that the ratings this year for C4 will be a lot lower than anything previously seen on BBC/ITV. Even with the recent promotion by C4 – which will soon fade away like it did with ITV, then BBC, then Sky – again the casual channel flickers tend to avoid C4 and a lot of viewers will be lost because of the prominent position of BBC1. Look at the figures for the Grand National, Derby, etc. as proof.

    Things are not all rosy in the C4 garden.

    • The only way I see people moving away from Channel 4 to Sky Sports Mix is if the latter promotes their Mix service extensively. Otherwise I don’t see it happening. Once viewers have established patterns, it is incredibly difficult to break them. In the four years that the BBC/Sky combination was going on, the fluctation for live races was always small – the split always between 85/15 and 82/20 in BBC’s favour.

      About Channel 4 and social media. Given that this is a broadcasting blog, Channel 4 have got more words in the past few months because they are the new broadcaster, there is more to talk about and I’m sure the same will be said for the next few months. Social media splits people 50/50, but each to their own.

      I do agree on the ratings front, and this is something that will need to be tracked throughout the year. Both broadcasters need a great season. I fear for Channel 4’s viewing figures if this year is a Mercedes walkover, the drops versus BBC may not be pretty…

  3. Really interesting to note that Channel 4 only edited out one minute of the allocated on-track time, with adverts in the quali breaks. If, as you predict, they adopt an “as ITV” format, with breaks strategically placed over the boring parts of the race, I will be fully switching over to Channel 4 rather than continuing to faff around with – er – “free” methods of watching Sky.

    A couple of bugbears with catch-up on All 4:

    (a) The frame for watching Formula 1 is embedded into C4F1’s homepage, which is also where F1 news will be found. Somebody who hasn’t watched quali/race yet would not want to go near F1 news by a bargepole for fear of spoilers. All 4 needs to be separated from the F1 main page.

    (b) All 4 doesn’t seem to support HD for Formula 1.

  4. A lot to learn – Steve seemed to go a lot to Mark at the expense of David the only one on the team with experience. Lee as usual was brilliant in her interview’s and surely it would make a lot of sense to use her much more. Of course far too many adverts we are paying a high price with demise of the BBC! I read somewhere that CH 4 wanted to attract more young viewers – I got the feeling at times I was in a disco just slow it down a little. Surely Mark can learn to speak in a slightly lower gear!

    This is the first time that I have watched a race on a commercial channel so maybe I’m prejudiced but I suppose the only alternative is good old 5 live radio commentary along side the pictures!

    Sorry my age is showing ( 87 ) but I did attend the first GP in 1950 and have been a fan ever since.

    • In general I liked C4 effort. Almost up to the BBC. Just spoilt a little by the inane voice of Steve Jones. Can’t you better than SJ C4? I would like to see someone a little more serious. James Allen would be my ideal chouce. Karun Chandhok was excellent with his ‘informed’ comments, I’d like to see his role expanded. Webber was good, David Coultard was OKish, never thought he was quite in the same league as Martin .Brundle. I din’t quite see the point of dear old Murray with a guitar on his lap. They could use his experience and personality better I think.
      I look forward to C4 stretching it’s wings on this project. Eventually, with the right tweaks, it could easily eclipse the BBC

  5. The interest in F1 has been dwindling as the results are controlled by tactics from the pits and from the home counties HQs .and have of late appeared like slot racing on an a grand scale , especially some of the desert based circuits , no trees , no grass , just different colours of sand. Channel 4 will have added to the decline by the use limp front man and many awkward scenes [ Mark Webber looking lost during the pit walk ]. The coverage is quite difficult to watch . Personally , in the future I will only tune in to the European races where the fantastic and historic circuits help make the viewing bearable .Come back Beeb , please .

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