The new kids on the block

It is fair to say that the biggest news heading into 2014 was the announcement that BT Sport would be broadcasting MotoGP, along with feeder series’ Moto2 and Moto3, exclusively live, ending BBC’s and British Eurosport’s commitment to the sport. The move was controversial for several reasons, as has been discussed before on this blog.

The first half of 2014 has not been the smoothest for BT, however is filled with both positive and negatives. Starting off with the positives, I think we can all agree that BT Sport’s coverage is in general the most expansive that any broadcaster has ever provided to UK viewers. From classic MotoGP races, to Moto3 practice and onto MotoGP Tonight on the Tuesday following the race, the channel has it covered. Admittedly, the weekend coverage is not too different to what Eurosport provided before them aside from the fact that BT are providing a bit more ‘colour’ to the coverage. Strangely, the one thing that they don’t cover is the warm-ups for all three classes, but apart from that, they show every other session live. Alongside this, the channel has also produced documentaries, such as the Mike Hailwood documentary that aired a few months back, to positive praise from those in the motorcycling world.

One other positive from me has to be the commentary line-up of Keith Huewen and Julian Ryder. I did admit back in February to being sceptical to Huewen being brought back into the fold, especially as it meant that they chose not to go for Toby Moody. In a poll on this site before the start of the year, results were mixed in relation to BT’s team: only 10 percent of readers thought the line-up was good with nearly 50 percent disappointed in the line-up. However, I’ve been happy with the commentary team, and they have been a joy to listen to throughout the first half of 2014, Huewen quickly settling back in I feel. That’s not to say that they were right to make the change, but at least it has not backfired on them. I’ve enjoyed too the contributions of Matt Birt and Gavin Emmett, BT definitely made the right decision in bringing both men on board.

BT Sport's balcony position at the 2014 Qatar MotoGP. As of writing, never to be seen again.
BT Sport’s balcony position at the 2014 Qatar MotoGP. As of writing, never to be seen again.

Whilst there have been some aspects that BT Sport have got right, there are very well publicised negatives, which the poll before the start of the season appears to foreshadow. If I’m going to review the coverage objectively, then I cannot sweep the terrible decision making of who they appointed as presenter under the mat. On February 14th, the channel announced Melanie Sykes as their MotoGP presenter, a move which surprised many at the time. It was clear early on that Sykes was out of her depth, and not suited to presenting live sport. Why BT chose Sykes as their presenter is anyone’s guess. After four rounds, the two parties posted company. Whether it was to do with her personal issues or not, we will never know (although she has since presented several weeks worth of Let’s Do Lunch on ITV, a live daytime programme), but either way I think we can say that this was BT’s biggest mistake of the season so far. Why did they hire a presenter who had no experience presenting live sport? Apparently Sykes was supposed to bring a new audience to MotoGP, obviously that never happened.

Since then, Craig Doyle and Abi Griffiths, their rugby and Motorsport Tonight presenters respectively, have taken over presenting duties. What is unclear is whether Sykes’s departure has had any knock on effect. Qatar aside, every race has had some studio presence. Was that the intention from the get-go? If so, one has to consider if going down this route was a second mistake from BT Sport. Jake Humphrey, BT Sport’s lead football presenter and former BBC F1 presenter blogged this week, and noted that “This job is all about being at the centre of the story, which is where the real thrill lies with being a sports broadcaster. It’s why I always press to be next to the pitch, track or court when I’m working. For me, studios can’t convey an atmosphere the same.” The same applies for MotoGP.

The picture a few paragraphs up show the balcony position that BT Sport used in Qatar. It was unique. It was different. It was something that neither BBC and Sky had used before in their Formula 1 coverage. So why did it disappear after Qatar? Again, maybe it was the intention for Qatar to be the only race fully on site (along with potentially Britain and Valencia, we shall see), but it seems like a completely wasted opportunity. The balcony position could have been fantastic at showing off the atmosphere in places like Barcelona and Mugello where grandstands are rammed on race day. I assume BT Sport will be looking for a permanent MotoGP presenter for 2015 onwards, and, as they’ve done with the Premier League coverage for this season, hopefully the coverage in 2015 will be fully on-site. What they are currently doing on-site is great, it just needs a fully uniformed approach, with the studio aspects being removed from their live coverage.

As the motto goes, “you learn from your mistakes”, and I hope BT Sport learn from what has gone wrong with the MotoGP coverage so far as we head into the latter stages of the year.

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Trying to justify unpopular decisions

It is fair to say that over the past few years, Formula 1 has made some strange and unpopular choices. Whether it is your odd stewards enquiry decision, or something a bit more extreme, such as double points, the poor decision making has been an undercurrent throughout. This ‘odd’ decision making has not been limited to the FIA and FOM though. Earlier this year, the BBC and Gary Anderson parted company, a move which surprised many readers at the time, and still does considering his role has never really been replaced. The only technical expert now in the UK Formula 1 broadcasting scene is Ted Kravitz on Sky Sports F1. Whilst Kravitz is great at what he does, having only one technical person across two channels is simply not good enough.

The role of technical analyst can be traced by twenty years in the UK’s Formula 1 coverage. Starting off with Jonathan Palmer on the BBC in the early 1990’s, James Allen took over the baton when ITV started screening Formula 1 in 1997. When Allen moved to the commentary box, Kravitz became the technical expert from 2002 onwards, a role he has maintained across ITV, then BBC and now Sky Sports. With the increase of air-time that the BBC’s coverage gave from 2009 onwards, the role of technical analyst has become a vital commodity. Several years later, and Kravitz is now doing his own Notebook’s over on Sky Sports. When Kravitz defected to Sky, Anderson was brought on board over on the BBC. Sadly, it didn’t last long. Less than two years later, Anderson and the BBC parted company.

There’s two ways you can look at Anderson’s departure. One is that he simply walked, and the second is that he was fired. The truth is somewhere down the middle. As Anderson noted, he was typing up a resignation e-mail, only to get a phone call about the subject! So the BBC wanted to get rid of Anderson, and Anderson, feeling he was being misused, wanted to leave. When blog readers were asked about this subject earlier this year, a whopping 5,000 people responded – and 95 percent of you thought that BBC and Anderson parting company was a bad move all around. In a request for comment from this blog, Ben Gallop, BBC’s Head of F1, said that the team had been adjusted in order to to bring the “best package for audiences across TV, radio and online”. Half a season on from Anderson’s departure, has the BBC product benefited from Anderson’s departure?

I think, if you’re going to look at what Anderson brought to the broadcasts, the answer has to be no. As mentioned above, the BBC have not replaced him. We can run around that point as much as we can, but that is the fact. Tom Clarkson and Allan McNish may bring a lot to the team, but again, neither are technical experts. They do not have the knowledge or expertise with thirty years and beyond in the field like Anderson does. You can’t replace that expertise just like that. One train of thought is that the new deal that began in 2012 meant that Anderson was more expendable. You can’t get rid of commentators, you need someone to interview drivers, you need a presenter and analyst. That leaves Anderson left for the chopping block. It almost feels like that the role of technical analyst was kept on for 2012 and 2013 as an ‘olive branch’. The BBC may also think that they cannot provide much technical analysis during a highlights show. I thoroughly disagree with that thought, as you are basically saying that you cannot provide technical analysis for a casual audience.

By not hiring a replacement for Anderson, are BBC saying that technical analysis is a dying breed? Does the general Formula 1 audience not care about the latest technical innovations? I would hate to think that the answer to those two questions is yes, although Anderson’s comments back in February certainly hinted that the BBC believe that the latter is true. If anything, the technical aspect has been even more important in 2014. Just ask Craig Scarborough or Matt Somerfield and I’m sure they would confirm this. Earlier this year, Formula 1 was facing a barrage of criticism, because apparently the ‘new formula’ was not up to scratch. A lot of that, you guessed it, concerned the technical aspects. But where was Anderson? Well he wasn’t communicating that to four million people because BBC had decided otherwise! Anderson would have been fantastic earlier this year in justifying the new technology to viewers and explaining why it is necessary for Formula 1 to move with the times.

Anderson leaving the BBC was a sign that he felt that he was being misused. Half way through 2014, do I miss Anderson’s contributions? If I’m going to be honest, the truthful answer is that the void left has not been as big as I expected it to be. Whether this is a result of them not using enough of him in 2012 and 2013, I don’t know, but I’m not left feeling that I miss his input in the coverage. Despite this, I do think it was a big mistake for them to part company. 2012 and 2013 were the same formula in essence, whereas 2014 was a complete reboot, and he would have been one of BBC’s most important assets for 2014 (or, should have been). Sadly, that didn’t happen.

Judging the current F1 Show format

Half way through the motor sport year, I tend to write several posts looking at BBC’s and Sky’s teams and programming in detail. In both 2012 and 2013, I went down this route, each member of each team was analysed one-by-one. For this year, I’m going to do things a bit differently. The main reason for this is purely because I haven’t watched as much of their broadcasts as in previous years, and also because I talk a lot about non-F1 motor sport now on this site as well.

As readers will know, back in April, I did not watch the Chinese Grand Prix live, and in addition to that, to be honest, not a lot has changed on the Formula 1 front. There are some things though, that have changed. Instead of focussing on everything, the next few posts will be limited to those points, and look at what should be changed going forward. The first two posts of the mid-season verdict I published last month, exactly half way through the Formula 1 and MotoGP seasons. The Formula 1 ratings piece can be found here, with the MotoGP article located here, both containing comments from the respective broadcasters.

The Sky Sports F1 team seen no departures over the Winter break and one addition in the form of Bruno Senna. Their programming slate has remained largely the same, the highlight no doubt being ‘Senna Week‘ from the beginning of May. Arguably, that was the channel’s best week since its inception in 2012. The main visible change for 2014 concerns The F1 Show. The show has been broadcast live from March to November on Friday’s since 2012. Previously, on non-race weeks, the show was presented from a studio, with no audience present. This was changed for 2014. After a successful trial pilot last Summer, the channel opted to switch studio’s permanently, with the studio audience a firm fixture for this season.

Every change has positives and negatives, and that is definitely the case here. Starting with the positives. The first, and I suspect there may be disagreement here, is social media. Sky promoting and actively encouraging social media involvement during the show with polls is a good thing. It is something that I have advocated in the past, and I am glad to see that Sky are doing live polls during the show. I can see the other arguments, for example “why are we wasting time on Twitter polls”, but in my opinion, the positives outweigh the negatives. Social media interaction is vital if you want the show to thrive and reach a new, bigger audience – across both Facebook and Twitter.

Another positive, in the words of Daniel Puddicombe who wrote about this in April, is that the audience brings an extra element to the show. It makes the show livelier with a studio audience, which was lacking a lot in 2013. The F1 Show in 2012 worked with Georgie Thompson and Ted Kravitz, because they bounced off each other brilliantly, however once Thompson left, the show fell off the rails. Last year, this was clearly evident, the Midweek Report with Anna Woolhouse was easily the more superior show, despite an infinitely smaller budget to play with thanks to the quality of guests and the discussion within the show. What Sky have done for this season is make the Midweek Report feel like The F1 Show of 2012, with The F1 Show becoming a lighter magazine show, rightly or wrongly with Natalie Pinkham now as one of the hosts. Pinkham works better with a studio audience, which is perhaps one reason why the format change was brought in for the first place.

Whilst there have been positives, one of the biggest negatives for me has been the quality of the guests on The F1 Show. In a few weeks time, MotoGP Tonight will be broadcasting live from BT Sport’s studios with current champion Marc Marquez as one of their guests. Unsurprisingly, tickets for that edition sold out fast. BT’s MotoGP coverage is five months old, and they’ve managed to get the world champion on. Two and a half years into The F1 Show, and I don’t think we have had one top-tier current racer in the studio. Having a studio audience is fantastic, but only if the calibre of guests live up to the standard.

Why can’t we have a member of the audience ask ‘a decision maker’, for example Christian Horner about double points? If Sky are to have a studio audience, they should exploit it. One of the biggest criticisms of Formula 1 this season is that the teams do not listen to fans; by appearing on The F1 Show, they have at least one avenue to change that perspective. The F1 Show may not be Question Time, and I wouldn’t expect it to be (after all, I’ve called it a ‘lighter magazine show’ two paragraphs above!), but guests with importance to modern day Formula 1 would be good. That way, Sky can quote the guests on the website over the weekend, which will only promote the show further. It is one thing Sky doesn’t do, promote their own shows after they have been aired, with quotes from X on relevant Y issue.

Sometimes their agenda is debatable, and focussing on the wrong areas. Again though, this is interlinked with the lighter touch and the quality of guests. The 2015 rules were a big focus at the end of June, but was treated as an afterthought on The F1 Show. One last negative concerns the scheduling, Friday nights at 20:00 does not work in my opinion, and may well hurt their ability to get top quality guests, unlike MotoGP Tonight which airs on Tuesday nights. Given that Midweek Report airs on a Wednesday, I don’t think the scheduling will change, however the Friday slot must take a chunk off its audience, and I would be surprised if many catch up with the show on the basis that the show is not ‘must see’. It should probably also be noted that the changes have not moved viewing figures, the numbers remaining below 100k, this despite the launch show in March 2012 attracting 200k to the channel.

Overall, have the changes to The F1 Show so far been for the better? I think this depends on what you are looking for. If you want just F1 discussion then you are better off watching the Midweek Report, however, if you want a bit of humour injected into it, then The F1 Show is your thing. Like I say though, Sky have to take advantage of having a studio audience for the format to work, and for that to happen, the quality of guests has to be better as we head into the latter stages of 2014.

UK F1 TV ratings paint mixed picture at halfway stage

Despite a British driver currently in the championship race, at the halfway stage of the 2014 Formula One season, viewing figures do not paint a rosy picture. Currently, according to unofficial overnight viewing figures, television audiences have dropped to their lowest level since 2008 – the year Lewis Hamilton won his first Formula One championship.

> BBC bears brunt of drop as Sky’s figures show increase
> Combined figures follow same trajectory as between 2011 and 2012
> BBC “very pleased with how the season is going”
> Does online growth muddy the water?

Before going into detail, it is best re-iterating what exactly the numbers are. All terrestrial television numbers are programme averages. Sky Sports F1’s numbers for 2014 are for their race show from 12:00 to 15:30 (or equivalent), and I have used the equivalent timeslots for their 2012 and 2013 shows where possible in order to give the fairest comparison. BBC’s programme average number will either be for the live airing or highlights airing irrespective of channel for European or the American-based races; for Asian-based races, the re-run is included where applicable. All comparisons are for the first half of the respective seasons only, in the event of an odd-rounded season, the number is rounded up (i.e. in a 19 race season, the halfway stage is after round ten). The viewing figures are for TV viewing only, hence, they exclude BBC iPlayer and Sky Go.

The 2014 story
Starting off with Sky Sports F1, their race day programme has averaged 746k across three and a half hours from 12:00 to 15:30, or equivalent. The number is up 3.0 percent on 2013’s mid-season number of 724k. It is, however, down on the first half of 2012, which across the respective three and a half hour slots averaged 779k. The main reason for the drop is because, in 2012, Sky Sports offered their channels across the German Grand Prix weekend as free, something that has not happened since. Removing this would bring their 2012 average into line with the 2014 number.

Any increase is good, but it needs to be remembered that we are talking tens of thousands rather than hundreds of thousands where Sky are concerned. Is that a good thing? Well, not really. It definitely does not help Formula 1, that’s for sure. A 3 percent increase for Sky is a meagre 22k. In the grand scheme of things, that is not a lot, when you consider that an average of over 4 million viewers watch Formula 1 in a typical season. Sky may argue that they are bringing in new viewers. I’d argue that they’re not bringing enough new viewers. Unless Sky market F1 as a completely separate channel, with a separate price structure instead of bundling it in with the Sky Sports pack, for those not interested in football, cricket and the like, that will not change.

Over on the BBC, their figures have dropped. Average audiences for Formula 1, in comparison to the first half of 2013 have dropped by 18 percent, and are now back in line to what they were in 2012. An average of 3.12m tuned in to the first ten races on the BBC, compared to 3.81m in 2013 and 3.16m in 2012. Even removing last year’s inflated German Grand Prix highlights programme, 2014 is down half a million currently on 2013. The figures do not look good, and as a Formula 1 fan, seeing declining figures is not a good sign, at all. The problem for BBC this year is that the scheduling has not been favourable. Let’s look at the races which have been shown on BBC Two so far this year.

– Bahrain > highlights – clash with Grand National and The Boat Race
– Austria > highlights – would have meant not picking Canada, so Austria lesser of two evils
– Britain > live – clash with Wimbledon final
– Germany > highlights – clash with final round of The Open Golf

As I mentioned in my British Grand Prix scheduling piece, some of the scheduling this year has been terrible by FOM and the FIA. The BBC say that the amount of people who have watched 15 consecutive minutes of Formula 1 in 2014 (the reach figure) has dropped 4.3 percent.

Reach vs Average
The combined average at the halfway stage of the year is 3.87m, the lowest since 2008. It is down on 4.53m last year, marginally down on 3.94m from 2012 and considerably below any average recorded between 2009 and 2011. In 2011, when Formula 1 was exclusively on the BBC, race programmes used to average 4.6m and peak in excess of six million viewers, which was fantastic to see. It’s worth noting that the programme lengths were just as long, if not longer then compared with what BBC offer now for live races, I remember a British Grand Prix programme back then lasting until 15:40 before another hour on the forum! The sizeable six million peaks does not happen as much nowadays. The drop between 2011 and 2012 was 16 percent, compared with 15 percent between 2013 and 2014 at the halfway stage, so a very similar drop.

A drop of only 4.3 percent for the reach (BBC only) versus a more extreme percentage drop in average is of potential interest, when also looking at the similar drop mentioned above. Because some race highlights are scheduled on BBC Two, therefore to a lower audience, it means that the overall audiences are lower, hence a bigger drop in average audience. However, those people are still tuning in to the live races on BBC One, for example Canada which was level year-on-year, which is why the reach figure has not dropped as much in comparison. Whilst I can understand why this deal started in the first place, I really do not like seeing programming moved to BBC Two. All it does is hurt Formula 1 in the long run. If the alternative was really pay-TV only, then maybe this was the best option.

Online and final thoughts
As always, BBC iPlayer, Sky Go and the such like are not included in the figures. Whilst they will make some difference to the overall totals, I do not believe that they will change the overall year-on-year trend, although it may well bring 2014 above 2012. I think it should be pointed out though that people tend to watch live sport via television. When you remove that ‘live’ element, you either choose to seek out highlights elsewhere, or just don’t watch at all. This isn’t Sherlock or Doctor Who, where people will watch at their own leisure. Live sport is not consumed like that. Sport has a second screen experience by all means, but it’s first port of call is the television. Live sport is what draws people together. Moving Formula 1, partially, behind a pay wall does not achieve that (irrespective of who did what, why, when etc), which of course brings us around to the ‘next generation’ argument again.

I find this year’s figures actually worser than 2012, because we have a British driver in the title race. Viewing figures should be higher. Logically, viewing figures should start to improve year-on-year if Hamilton remains in the title race. I think some of the figures already this year have been alarming, but we should see some improvements soon, especially when you consider that 2013 fell off a cliff in the latter stages. Also, at a time like this, with Hamilton in contention, you cannot in any way, shape or form gain momentum ratings wise when you are chopping and changing between live, highlights, BBC One and BBC Two. If every race in 2014 was live on BBC One, you could pretty much guarantee that ratings would build to a crescendo towards the end of the season. The current rights structure, in my opinion, does not allow for that. But, given the BBC’s current predicament, is the current rights deal better than having every race live and free on ITV? I’d argue it is, but from a Formula 1 marketing perspective, there is not much in it compared to three years ago.

A BBC spokesperson said: “The BBC has seen great audiences for F1 this year, with the highest peak for live being 5.2m for Canada with a 4.6m average, and the highest for highlights being 4m for Monaco with a 3.3m average. We’re very pleased with how the season is going, especially with such a busy sporting year. Overall reach is slightly down at this point compared to 2013 (down 4.3%) which is a very small margin and it is completely expected for there to be fluctuations in audiences through the year – some races are up, some are down which we see every season as the story unfolds. Fluctuations are also expected around other major events such as the World Cup and Commonwealth Games. Note that the BBC shows a different arrangement of live and highlights each year so figures are not directly comparable – the only comparable figure is the end of year reach.”

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MotoGP’s UK viewing figures halve year on year

Halfway through the 2014 MotoGP season, and the move to pay TV for live coverage is having a profound effect on the UK ratings, unofficial overnight viewing figures show.

> Half a million viewers across BT and ITV
> BT Sport “expect numbers to grow with time”
> ITV decline to comment

For the best part of fifteen years, BBC had screened every race live, with further more extensive coverage on British Eurosport. With an average of one million viewers every race, BBC’s coverage was motorcycling’s gateway to a new generation of fans, should a British rider rise to the top. In May 2013, it was announced that BT Sport would be taking over exclusive coverage of the championship from 2014 onwards, unsurprisingly provoking a backlash from fans. The exclusivity aspect failed to make it to the first race, just two weeks before the start of the 2014 season, it was announced that ITV4 would be screening highlights of the championship, a move aimed at appeasing a larger portion of the MotoGP fan base. And the viewing figures, in my opinion, back that up.

All the viewing figures below exclude BBC iPlayer for 2013, and similarly BT Sport’s app and ITV Player for this season. So far in 2014, BT Sport’s live race day coverage for the MotoGP portion of proceedings – from 12:30 to approximately 14:00 – have averaged 155k, peaking at just over 200k the majority of the time. ITV4’s highlights programming on Monday evenings have averaged 366k, this number including their +1 timeshift channel. The combined audience of 521k is significantly down on figures in previous years, when MotoGP was live on terrestrial television.

In comparison, BBC Two’s MotoGP coverage for the first half of the 2013 season, excluding Austin and Assen, which were not covered live by the channel, averaged exactly 1.00m, regularly peaking around 1.3m. In addition to that, an additional audience in the region of 150k watched on British Eurosport an hour later, bringing the combined audience is 1.15m. Traditionally, UK’s audiences have remained around that level for many years, with slight fluctuations about 100k either way depending on that season’s circumstances and other sporting competition in that calendar year. As mentioned above, audiences this year have more than halved in comparison to last year.

Looking into the figures, I maintain that ITV were brought on board to save face. BT Sport exclusivity would have been a catastrophic disaster for all concerned. Yes, they may be providing more in-depth coverage than BBC (albeit, with the use of a studio at every race weekend), but that in my opinion is meaningless if audiences are 10 percent of what BBC were getting. BT Sport’s coverage is not going to bring in new fans. If it does, it’ll be tens of thousands rather than hundreds of thousands as BBC’s coverage could have done if the likes of Bradley Smith get to the front of the field in the years to come.

I would be surprised if Dorna are happy with BT’s viewing figures, however it was them that made the decision to go with BT Sport’s money rather than BBC’s viewers. Whether ITV4’s highlights programming was a nice compromise, the jury is out. In any case, I’m not at all surprised about the drop. There is a valid point about the dominance of Marc Marquez having a detrimental effect on viewing figures. From BT’s perspective, viewing figures have stayed consistent (in fact, their Qatar programme only peaked with 230k), whilst ITV4’s highlights have dropped to around the 350k mark. Because of the football in the past month, there is no direct yes or no answer where the Marquez theory is concerned.

A BT Sport spokesperson said: “BT Sport is a brand new channel and less than a year old and MotoGP launched on the channel in March of this year. BT Sport show some of the most extensive coverage of MotoGP seen in the UK across Friday, Saturday and Sunday on a race weekend. We are pleased with the number of people watching MotoGP as well as MotoGP Tonight so far and feedback on our coverage has also been extremely positive. We expect numbers to grow with time.” ITV declined to comment.

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