The 2016 Formula One season is Sky Sports F1’s fifth year on the air. The channel, launched in 2012, features the likes of Martin Brundle, David Croft, Ted Kravitz and Anthony Davidson at the head of its line-up. Along the way, there have been relatively few changes and additions: the only major story was in early 2013 when Georgie Thompson left her presenting duties for pastures new.
Sky fill in the hole left by Davidson and Brundle
The Canadian and European rounds of the 2016 season signalled, temporarily at least, a changing of the guard for Sky. Both Davidson and Brundle were absent due to their 24 Hours of Le Mans commitments, whilst Brundle also had a medical procedure following the Monaco Grand Prix. It was the first time Brundle had not commentated on a Grand Prix since 2008, on that occasion Damon Hill deputised for him in the commentary box for ITV.
The absence of Davidson and Brundle resulted in a significantly weaker line-up for Sky. Simon Lazenby and Rachel Brookes headed up the various presenting duties, with David Croft in the commentary box. Paul di Resta substituted for Brundle as co-commentator and lead analyst, with Johnny Herbert, Damon Hill and Ted Kravitz on-board as usual.
More interestingly, we got to see what Sky Sports F1 would look like without Martin Brundle. A great team is one that still looks and feels the part, even when one of its main casting members have disappeared. Unfortunately for Sky, you had the impression that without Brundle, the team looked distinctively “second class”, as if it was a two tiered system previously, whereby the likes of Herbert and Hill were one or two levels below Brundle. And the same applies for a Sky without Davidson.
The commentary duo of Croft and di Resta was not that bad. But, it wasn’t great either. Di Resta in isolation was good filling in for Brundle, but he is not someone I would want to listen to on a regular basis. That is not a criticism of him, instead it is a reflection of how much we have come to appreciate Brundle’s commentary over the years. Furthermore, Brundle’s absence meant that most discussion segments contained Lazenby, Herbert and Hill. The problem here is a trio that is growing increasingly stale as time progresses.
Back in 2012, I said that Herbert was a fantastic addition to Sky’s team. The problem is Herbert has since turned into a shadow of his former self on-screen. There are more comedic segments or bizarre opinions as opposed to actual analysis from him – stating on multiple occasions that Lewis Hamilton’s head is not “in the game” or that Fernando Alonso should retire. Both of these appear like attempts to generate headlines for Sky as opposed to a genuine thought. Opinions like these have started to, as of late, leak towards other members of Sky’s team, with Kravitz and Croft talking about Mercedes “conspiracies”. If that direction is coming from the production team, then it needs to be reined in, in my opinion.
Elsewhere, Davidson has been brilliant analysing the events so far this season, irrespective of the role he is placed in. The events of Spain and Austria placed greater emphasis on Davidson’s analysis, which was fantastic to listen to as he dissected the collisions between Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg. Sky Sports F1’s coverage without Brundle and Davidson would be a significantly weaker television programme, and the programming that Sky produced in Canada and Baku only serves to demonstrate that point (the highlight of their Canada coverage came thanks to a seagull, which to be fair to Sky did go viral).
Should Sky head towards a “rotating team”?
A twenty-one race season is a major undertaking for everyone within Formula 1: teams, drivers, media, mechanics, you name it. From a fan perspective, seeing the same faces on-screen fronting each of the 21 races means that the opinions you get are repetitive. That is not Sky’s fault, in fact they’re probably happy that there are more races in 2016, as it means that they will reach more viewers. But, at the same time, have Sky failed to adapt to the changing dynamic?
When you look at the proposed 2017 calendar of 18 races, maybe not. Sky air every session live, as they themselves are keen to emphasise. With that, there should also be an emphasis on exploring, experiment, trying something different and changing personnel. Fresh faces are needed, in the same way that Channel 4 have brought in voices that the UK audience had previously never heard as pundits, such as Karun Chandhok and Alain Prost. Both men were not ‘obvious’ choices for Channel 4, but have been well received.
Sky should be looking at a similar strategy going forward if the long-term intention is for the F1 calendar to remain around twenty races. Marc Priestley has joined their team which is all well and good, but why are they using him in an off-air capacity during race weekends and not a regular on-air capacity? I’m hopeful the changes Channel 4 have made compared to the BBC will mean that Sky will try to push the boundaries where their own team is concerned. However, I’m not sure how likely a “rotating team” is for Sky though, a wider variety of faces during the season team means a bigger pay bill overall…
The F1 channel feels the effect of Sky’s “efficiency savings”
When the Formula 1 channel started in 2012, there were a lot of positive vibes about what could be done to make the channel look and feel like an ‘F1 channel’. 2012 was a learning year, but it was 2013 and early 2014 when the schedule started to mould into one with classic races, F1 Legends, journalist specials, studio editions of The F1 Show. On top of this, Sky produced special material: ‘Senna Week’ remains the best ever week for the channel from a content perspective.
The hope was that Sky Sports would continue to improve and refine the output. But, focus turned elsewhere. With big money being splashed on Premier League rights, efficiency savings had to be made across the board. So far in 2016, Sky Sports have not produced one documentary about Formula 1. Not one has made the air (yet). The classic races that are airing are not new, and are simply now being repeated on a loop as and when each evening. The last new episode of F1 Legends (or Architects of F1) to make the air was November 2015. No new episodes of Tales from the Vault have been produced. The F1 Show in its 2015 form was essentially axed in favour of the weekly, recorded F1 Report shows. The F1 Report tends to be good but the quality of the guests varies massively with a shoe string budget.
Sky have aired several features this season that could have also been edited into stand-alone documentaries. The channel produced two short films focussing on the Spanish and Monaco rounds of the 1996 Formula One season, the latter in particular was excellent in my opinion as a variety of characters were interviewed. But, the problem was that both features were too short at less than 5 minutes in length when both could easily have been thirty minute documentaries to flesh out the two stories, adding to the content on the channel. Sky are not maximising what they have in the F1 channel, in my view.
So, as a consumer, let me ask the question. Why should I (or you) pay the same amount of cash that you do to Sky if the content being produced at the end of the production line has been reduced? Because that is what has happened. It is clear to me that the Sky Sports F1 channel currently exists as a contractual obligation, and nothing more. Sky (and BT Sport) are spending a ridiculous amount of money on rights acquisition, meaning that they have less money to produce supplementary material.
How will Sky’s attitude towards this change as we head towards 2019, I don’t know.