Comparing Channel 4’s and Sky’s Bahrain Grand Prix qualifying build-up

There is an old adage that if you were to give two people a piece of paper and asked them to draw or design something, the outcome would be different. One may choose style over substance. One may go for a simplistic approach. One may choose to focus on a different portrayal in order to tell the viewer a different story.

The same can be said for the UK television coverage of the 2016 Bahrain Grand Prix qualifying session. Sky Sports F1 is led by Martin Turner, who has been producing their Formula 1 programming since the broadcaster started showing the sport in 2012. On the other side is Channel 4. Bahrain was Channel 4’s first ever live Grand Prix, picking up the television contract that the BBC surrendered at the end of 2015. Channel 4’s team behind the scenes is largely made up of former BBC staff. The likes of Mark Wilkin have moved over to Whisper Films to oversee Channel 4’s Formula 1 operation.

Both Sky and Channel 4 dedicated 55 minutes of build-up to qualifying until the World Feed kicked into gear, starting their respective broadcasts at the top-of-the-hour. This writer has watched both build-up programmes since the original airing, and the statistics make for fascinating reading.

Content Channel 4 Sky Sports F1
Live 19 minutes, 12 seconds 20 minutes, 25 seconds
VT (Video Tape) 22 minutes, 46 seconds 23 minutes, 56 seconds
Commercial Breaks (including break bumpers) 13 minutes, 02 seconds 10 minutes, 39 seconds

The structure from a high level is similar with both broadcasters dedicating more time to pre-recorded material than live discussion. The only major difference surrounds advertising. Channel 4 spent around two and a half minutes more time in commercials than Sky. Channel 4 would have used their entire advertising usage in the Formula 1 build-up, with the additional time coming from break bumpers and sponsorship stings. Sky either cannot sell the ad-time, or choose not to given that they have revenue that comes from elsewhere (subscriptions).

Whilst the length of the pre-recorded material is similar for both broadcasters’, the make-up is significantly different. Sky’s 24 minutes of pre-recorded material was made up of 12 video packages coming in at an average of 1 minute, 50 seconds each. Only one of these pieces was over three and a half minutes in length: Ted Kravitz’s interview with Bernie Ecclestone was the longest VT that aired on either Sky Sports or Channel 4 during the Saturday programming. In comparison, Channel 4’s 23 minutes of material was made up of eight video packages. The average VT length for Channel 4 was 2 minutes, 50 seconds, a minute longer than Sky.

So, why the difference? When analysing the material, it is clear that Sky’s VT’s are reactionary and arguably more relevant to current events. Broadcasting every Grand Prix live means that you have to prepare more material, and Sky do this with shorter pieces that may not take as long to edit as Channel 4’s material. In contrast, Channel 4 can afford to spend time refining their content to ensure that the perfect package goes to air. Furthermore, based on the material from Bahrain, Channel 4’s packages are more memorable, whereas Sky is churning out material that may be forgotten in a few races time. It is almost certainly a budget issue too, as Sky have recently spent significant money on acquiring rights, meaning that they are trying to make their coverage as efficient as possible without losing the leading edge.

The longest five VT’s broadcast on either channel were:

Channel 4 Sky Sports F1
4 minutes, 15 seconds
Red Bull Racing at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya
5 minutes, 35 seconds
Ted Kravitz with Bernie Ecclestone
4 minutes, 02 seconds
Murray Walker with Jenson Button
3 minutes, 18 seconds
Advances to open-wheel racing (Martin Brundle)
3 minutes, 55 seconds
Eddie Jordan with Bernie Ecclestone
3 minutes
Fernando Alonso’s future (Rachel Brookes)
3 minutes, 52 seconds
Lee McKenzie with Nico Rosberg
2 minutes, 10 seconds
The evolution of qualifying (David Croft)
3 minutes, 30 seconds
Qualifying (Lee McKenzie)
2 minutes, 03 seconds
Australian Grand Prix re-cap

All five of Sky’s pieces that are listed would have been conceived and edited on the back of events that transpired during the Australian Grand Prix weekend. Three of those pieces would have been voiced within 24 or 48 hours of the Bahrain qualifying programme airing. On the other hand, three of Channel 4’s pieces would have been planned well in advance of the Australian Grand Prix. The Red Bull film in Spain was shot as soon as testing ended, whilst their two key interviews (Walker and Jordan) would have been planned around their respective schedules.

It is no coincidence that all of Channel 4’s films are around four minutes in length. For them (and Whisper Films), four minutes is probably a ‘sweet spot’ for television: you can tell a story of substance in that time frame without losing your audience. It is also, to a degree, personal preference: one producer may prefer longer shoots, another producer may prefer shorter, snappier pieces. As long as Sky have been airing Formula 1, they have always gone down the shorter route, again this is an editorially driven decision. Readers may remember the Max Verstappen film that the BBC aired in its entirety last year, coming in at eight minutes long, an extreme example of a longer TV piece.

Both broadcasters started their qualifying show talking about Fernando Alonso, who was undeniably the key subject heading into the weekend. The alternative was to talk about elimination qualifying and what may or may not happen, but given that qualifying had not yet happened, it made no sense to start the qualifying show with a prolonged discussion about the subject (although Sky did touch on it in their opening speech). It was at this point though where broadcasters veered into different editorial directions.

Throughout Channel 4's Bahrain Grand Prix qualifying programme, the team positioned themselves at different vantage points. Here, Christian Horner talks to Steve Jones and Mark Webber from Red Bull Racing's hospitality.
Throughout Channel 4’s Bahrain Grand Prix qualifying programme, the team positioned themselves at different vantage points. Here, Christian Horner talks to Steve Jones and Mark Webber from Red Bull Racing’s hospitality.

Channel 4 spent around two minutes talking about the Alonso incident, interspersed with clips, before conducting a live interview with Alonso later in the show. Sky went for an alternative stance, instead looking at Alonso’s second McLaren stint as a whole and questioning whether Alonso should retire. Eventually this led to a debate between Johnny Herbert and Martin Brundle about Alonso’s future. This was a strange stance to take, and I stand by that thought now given that Alonso had escaped a near 200 mph accident two weeks earlier. But either way, something led Sky down that editorial train. Was it sensationalist? To a degree, yes. It felt like creating a controversial opinion for the sake of a controversial opinion. Sky is not the first broadcaster to head down this path, and they will not be the last either.

Around both the Alonso accident and the derided qualifying format, Sky created some good VT material, including a look at how qualifying has evolved over the years. At just over two minutes in length, it was also one of them which could easily have been double in length with the opinions of those in the paddock about which system has worked the best. But, it was good for what it was, as was Martin Brundle’s piece looking at the advances to the open wheel racing car, again on the back of Alonso’s accident. Given Channel 4’s stance towards the human element in order to attract the casual viewer, I could not imagine them producing the piece that Brundle did, or for that matter the Sky Pad analysis that Paul di Resta and Ted Kravitz conducted.

Sky Sports F1's team of Martin Brundle, Johnny Herbert and Simon Lazenby in pit lane before qualifying for the Bahrain Grand Prix.
Sky Sports F1’s team of Martin Brundle, Johnny Herbert and Simon Lazenby in pit lane before qualifying for the Bahrain Grand Prix.

One aspect that Channel 4 have not taken from Sky is what I call ‘redundant’ pre-recorded material. Sky lead into ad-breaks with a VT of around 30 seconds to a minute: in the Bahrain qualifying session the VT’s focussed on ‘A to Z of World Champions’ and Paul di Resta’s Track Bites. I wish attention was paid elsewhere instead of on bite-sized VT’s of that nature. You could spend those 90 seconds of airtime extending and refining the other material already produced. In my opinion, the pieces mentioned in this paragraph are an invitation for the viewer to fast forward onto the next segment.

Evidence of Channel 4’s human element, which was emphasised during their media morning, was on hand throughout their qualifying programme. The material produced needs to be relatable to the viewer who is watching at home, whether they have been watching Formula 1 for ten years or ten days. I thought Lee McKenzie’s interview with Nico Rosberg struck this cord, as activity on and off the track was covered. Shots from Rosberg’s Instagram were shown on-screen in Channel 4’s house style, which worked brilliantly well and is a great example of how broadcasters can integrate social media into their product. The segment with Murray Walker and Jenson Button has been uploaded to the Channel 4 website in its raw 30-minute form, something that I love to see broadcasters doing. Sky have also done this with Ted Kravitz interviewing Bernie Ecclestone.

If Channel 4 remains committed to Formula 1, it will be fascinating to see their live programme evolve over the next three years. At the moment, we should count ourselves lucky: we have Sky who provide technical analysis and have their take on current events, and then we have Channel 4 who aim to dive into the human element and produce stunning visuals. We currently have the best of both worlds.

As the past few weeks, have shown: savour it, while you can.

For a full plan of Channel 4’s and Sky’s Bahrain Grand Prix qualifying output, see the image below.

2016 Bahrain GP - Channel 4 and Sky qualifying plan

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4 thoughts on “Comparing Channel 4’s and Sky’s Bahrain Grand Prix qualifying build-up

  1. The main priority for me is that I watch the race live, plus all of the sessions including the Press Conferences. Sky has this, plus better commentators in my opinion, and then there’s Ted Kravitz.
    Whether a Broadcaster has VT’s of 3,4 or 5 minutes doesn’t make any difference to me. Sky have their bad points, as all Broadcasters have/had, but they are consistant. I dislike Channel 4’s approach with their ever changing line up, and then there’s Steve Jones.
    As an example, I always watch Eurosport’s coverage of Snooker when they simulcast with the BBC, yes Eurosport are incompetent when it comes to ads and they often miss the break off shot, but I prefer their commentary.
    It’s all down to personal choice. It seems clear to me from what you write and post on Twitter, that your own preference is clearly Channel 4’s coverage. I’m not criticising, it’s difficult to hide your own personal preference when commenting on such subjects, as much as you try to be impartial.
    It may be better to say, “Sky do this, C4 do that, but I prefer….. because…”. Just a thought.

  2. Im guessing CH4F1 best work will be in the third year, hailed as the best yet, then it will be gone.

    (ps any chance you can use the Disqus plugin for comments?)

  3. Brilliant piece. Thanks for your work. Very interesting analysis and detailed background information about F1 TV coverage. And MotoGP, WEC etc.. 🏁

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