Looking at NBC’s Road to Mercedes

The F1 Broadcasting Blog tends to only focus on the programming that BBC Sport and Sky Sports produce in relation to Formula 1. Given that the blog is UK-centric, that’s perhaps not surprising. However, over in the States, one broadcaster produced some top quality content in 2014 that is definitely worth reviewing on the blog. Enter NBC Sports.

It was announced in October 2012 that NBC Sports would be taking over the rights to cover Formula 1 in America, succeeding the SPEED Channel in covering the sport. NBC’s coverage, plus the return of the United States Grand Prix, has meant that viewing figures have surged in the States. Whilst numbers are still relatively small, and have yet to break into the millions, the rise can only be seen as good news for the sport, which looks to exploit the American market further.

One aspect outside of the NBC F1 team’s control is the number of commercials, however what they produce is of course in their control. Alongside its usual Off the Grid programme, which goes behind the scenes during a race weekend, NBC have also produced two documentaries under the Road To strand. This began with the Road to Ferrari, and has since been followed by the Road to Mercedes. The Road to Mercedes documentary premièred on NBC Sports during the 2014 United States Grand Prix weekend and, as with Off the Grid, it was presented by Will Buxton and producer Jason Swales. Immediately this is a striking difference compared to other Formula 1 programming that readers may have watched: Swales is normally a producer, yet he presents some of NBC’s programming alongside Buxton.

Will Buxton and Jason Swales at Reims for the Road to Mercedes documentary.
Will Buxton and Jason Swales at Reims for the Road to Mercedes documentary.

The title of the programme might give a clue about what it is about, a journey from Silverstone, the home of the British Grand Prix to Hockenheim, the home of Mercedes and home to the German Grand Prix (for 2014, at least). The journey, done aptly in a Mercedes GL63 AMG, takes Swales and Buxton through several motor sport hotspots. After going over the ferry (which was not Buxton’s favourite point!) from England into France, the two take a trip to Reims, the first of several trips down memory lane. The imagery at this point is simply stunning, looking down the old, disused pit lane at Reims. Some of the shots really help put things into context between the modern and ancient. It beggars belief that the old pit lane is still standing after nearly fifty years, but it is.

As night dawned, France turned into Germany, and quickly Reims turned into the Nürburgring. “When I think of the Nürburgring, I don’t think of this,” says Swales. Of course, Swales is comparing the current Grand Prix circuit to the Nordschleife. Before going around that beast though, Buxton and Swales take the Mercedes road car around the modern Nürburgring along with a visit to the Kiemele museum in Ditzingen. The Kiemele museum aims to restore old Mercedes cars back to a usable state. Buxton notes that it takes the museum 3,000 hours to restore one car, a mammoth effort just to get it into working condition. It was not long before Buxton ended up behind the wheel of one of the many cars that Kiemele had restored!

Will Buxton as a passenger. Going round the Nordschleife. In the rain...
Will Buxton as a passenger. Going round the Nordschleife. In the rain

Next up, Buxton and Swales head to a Mercedes factory, in which we learn that producing a V8 engine takes only three and half hours – simply ridiculous and shows how sublime the work that Mercedes do is. A programme called the Road to Mercedes would not be complete without heading to Mercedes’ homeland: Stuttgart, which is where the Mercedes-Benz Museum is located. Buxton describes it best as “heaven”, with many classic motor racing cars on display. It was simply amazing to see the wide range of machinery. If you ever go to Germany, I get the impression that this is one place that must be on the ‘bucket list’ of places to visit.

The journey concludes at Hockenheim during the 2014 German Grand Prix weekend, in which Buxton gets a rare interview with Dieter Zetsche, the Head of Mercedes-Benz Cars. Following a recap of the race, it was clear that Hockenheim was not the final stop. Instead, it was back to the Nürburgring, except this time it was the Nordschleife in a Mercedes SLS. In the rain, with Nico Bastian driving Will Buxton around the monster of a track. Typically, Flight of the Valkyries can be heard in the background as Bastian tackles the beast and Buxton hangs on as best as he can! Again, like at Reims earlier, this produced some fantastic imagery as the Mercedes SLS snapped sideways on a few occasions.

“I feel sick,” Buxton exclaims as he gets out of the SLS. The programme is just one of many excellent programmes that the NBC Sports have produced in the past two years, showing that it is not just BBC and Sky that produce good Formula 1 programming.

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Looking ahead to 2015

2014 has been a fascinating year in the world of motor sport broadcasting, from the launch of BT Sport’s MotoGP series to the launch of the Formula E series. 2015 looks like it will be another intriguing year with plenty of news lines heading into the New Year and beyond.

Something I was expecting to be announced last week did not happen. Normally, the BBC and Sky 2015 picks are revealed before Christmas, as has been the case previously. Presumably, the reason for the delay is because neither broadcaster expects Korea to appear in the finalised calendar. I would be surprised if there was a separate reason, but we shall see. The picks will need to be confirmed in the first few weeks of January, so that both sides can start publicity, in particular Sky where their exclusive races are concerned.

Another story that will be followed throughout the first few months of 2015 are the Premier League highlights rights, which went out to tender recently. The Guardian reported in November that ITV are going to bid for the highlights contract. It goes without saying that the Premier League highlights, through their Match of the Day brand, is the most important contract that BBC Sport currently hold. Any attempt to destabilise BBC Sport’s portfolio could have major consequences. The early rumour was that Wimbledon could be split between BBC and BT Sport, although this has been denied. Let us hope that any change does not effect the current BBC F1 package…

Formula One Management’s social media expansion is set to continue into 2015, with the relaunch of Formula1.com. What exactly will the new website bring? Furthermore, based on Marissa Pace’s recent comments, we may well see an official Formula 1 channel on YouTube in 2015. Elsewhere, BT Sport’s MotoGP coverage enters year two, and Formula E will be entering year two in September. From a UK perspective, I hope year two remains live on ITV, but we won’t know the answer to that question for many months yet. 2015 looks set to be another intriguing year on and off the track as Formula 1 heads into its second season with the V6 power units.

The best and worst of Sky’s F1 coverage in 2014

Sky Sports F1’s ratings have increased 23 percent on 2013, according to unofficial overnight viewing figures. Alongside this, the consensus amongst blog readers is that the product has improved on 2013, suggesting that things are definitely heading up for the team.

As with the BBC, there are areas of Sky’s product which have been superb. However, there are still a few points in my eyes which could be tweaked, or should be changed altogether.

Best
Revolutionary features
When it was announced that Sky Sports would be launching their own Formula 1 channel, they promised to push the boundaries of what would be possible with the coverage. That did not happen, in my eyes. Some of the features produced were longer in length than BBC’s, but not necessarily better (Martin Brundle driving a Ferrari one of the early examples). 2013 was not great for the team, but this season, they have taken a significant step forward where the quality of features are concerned. Normally, Sky’s pre-race build-up contains Martin Brundle’s grid walk, but Sky went down a different avenue at Monza.

For Italy, Sky went behind the scenes with Williams, tracing their every step from garage all the way to the starting grid. It was something that I had never seen before, it was superb television viewing. Sometimes, a viewer does not appreciate just how much effort goes into the start procedure, the feature with Williams and Brundle really brought the build-up into the viewers home and gave the viewer a perfect insight into what happens before the race begins. I hope we see more features like this during 2015.

Ted’s Notebook
Rain or shine, Ted Kravitz’s Notebook continues to be a cornerstone of Sky Sports F1’s coverage, both on TV and online. Kravitz’s Notebook began when he was with the BBC, although the quantity has increased in the past few years on Sky Sports F1. You could argue that quality is more important than quantity, normally, I would agree with that statement, but the Notebook is a different kettle of fish.

I don’t watch the Notebook for the best technically produced product, I watch it to see Kravitz going up and down the paddock giving the viewer information along with a mixture of gossip and behind the scenes information. It is completely different to the rest of the output on Sky Sports F1 which makes it stand out from the rest of the channel.

#AskCrofty
A great way of creating debate on social media, #AskCrofty has once again been an interesting read in 2014. Sometimes I laugh and despair at the questions asked, however I appreciate the openness of doing something of that nature over social media. In some instances, the questions have influenced their live TV broadcast, as the reaction to Adam Parr’s tweet in September showed. #AskCrofty led to David Croft doing a live show based on the hash tag at the end of the season, which was brilliant to watch, generating more reaction on social media than your typical episode of The F1 Show.

Worst
US Grand Prix build-up
I wanted to make this point a separate blog at the time, but sadly time constraints meant that I was unable to. The US Grand Prix build-up was probably Sky’s worst of the entire year. The actual features in a standalone context were good, with Johnny Herbert and Damon Hill trying out NASCAR and a selection of sports stars focussing on the psychology. The problem was that both features were completely out of place on a weekend when only 18 cars lined up on the grid. 90 percent of the programme was focussed on the Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg title battle.

The entire race programme was simulcast on Sky Sports 1, in an attempt to capitalise on a Super Sunday football game prior to it and to bring some casual fans into the picture. You can understand from that perspective why Sky developed features to cater for those who may not be regular Formula 1 fans. I know they talked about Formula 1’s issues in the qualifying show, but even so, the issues facing Formula 1 on race day were brushed under the carpet as a result of the simulcast.

Punditry
With financial issues being a key talking point throughout the season as a result of the new formula, Sky have not been helped by having too many pundits that are former drivers. Whilst the Brundle piece with Peter Windsor debating potential changes for 2015 was a good feature later in the season, not having any ex team bosses or ex team personnel in their programming hurt them. Johnny Herbert and Damon Hill may be okay to talk about driver issues, but when it comes to issues off the track, the programming is hurt as a result of not having enough variety.

A separate issue to do with the punditry, but under the same banner concerns the bias surrounding Lewis Hamilton, which was noticeable during the US Grand Prix build-up as mentioned above, however the bias that Sky may have shown pales in comparison to that displayed in other countries in recent years.

VT’s
Sky have made some fantastic improvements, their programming feels more ‘fluid’ than it once did. Their features overall have improved as well. But there is something about the majority of their VT’s that does not click. Some of the VT’s come across as a ‘cartoon’-like in nature whilst the poetry aspect in the end of season VT seemed out of place. This is one area for me where Sky still languishes behind the BBC. I don’t feel as much connection with the VT’s that Sky Sports produce compared to the VT’s that BBC produce.

There are a few other points worth making, such as the scheduling, it would be great if GP2 was more integrated into the programming, but I think that boat sailed a long time ago. Overall, Sky Sports F1 has made some major strides forward in 2014, which has been reflected in the viewing figures. If there is a British driver in the 2015 championship race, there is no reason why the viewing figures cannot continue to improve, with the quality of Sky’s broadcasts improving alongside it.

The best and worst of BBC’s F1 coverage in 2014

The ratings picture that I published a few days ago showed that BBC’s Formula 1 viewing figures have dropped 5.9 percent on 2013, despite Formula 1 crowning a British World Champion.

But, why has that happened? There are several reasons why people have tuned out of BBC’s product in my opinion. However, on the other hand, there are some areas where the BBC continue to excel in. Instead of doing a blow-by-blow review of each individual member of BBC’s F1 team, and then again with Sky, I’m going to pick out the best and worst parts of their coverage this year, mainly to keep the content fresh, but also because of time constraints on my behalf. As mentioned previously, I’d like to cover NBC’s Off the Grid and The Road to Mercedes in the next few weeks, if time allows.

Best
Suzi Perry
Yesterday, I was having a quick flick through the BBC’s 2013 F1 Preview magazine. In it was a section with Ben Gallop, BBC’s Head of F1, who explained that, when picking Jake Humphrey’s successor, they did not want a “Jake 2”, but rather someone who would bring something fresh to the table. I said that Suzi Perry’s 2013 season was mediocre, also noting that there should be big improvements in 2014.

For me, Perry has been much better on the microphone this season, and has built great rapport with David Coulthard and Eddie Jordan throughout the course of the season. I think it has helped significantly that a British driver has been in the championship race instead of having one driver dominate proceedings, as this helped bring a new spark to proceedings, which no doubt spurred the team on. With Perry recently confirming that she would be with the BBC team for 2015, things should continue to improve as next year progresses.

Commentary
As in 2012 and 2013, I have again enjoyed the commentary of Ben Edwards and David Coulthard. Edwards is still the best motor sport commentator there is out there, whilst Coulthard is a good analyst alongside Edwards. I don’t think Coulthard has had any stand out moments this year, however he is still a very valuable asset to the BBC that they cannot afford to lose. The only blot on their copy book for me is Japan, when both Edwards and Coulthard both failed to realise that Jules Bianchi had dropped down the timing screens. I think it was about 10 minutes before both realised that Bianchi was involved in the accident.

Over on 5 Live, Jack Nicholls was a revelation for the four races he did, as I noted earlier this year. I imagine that his role as Formula E lead commentator will limit what he can do – if anything – for 5 Live in 2015, but I hope we do hear him commentating on a Formula 1 race again in the near future, whether it is on TV or on radio.

VT’s
Once again, the quality of the VT’s that the BBC have produced has been top notch. From the Hamilton sky dive at Silverstone to the Jenson Button career retrospective, the VT’s produced have always delivered. There is not much more to say here, except that it is important to recognise that fact. Despite the reduction in content with the new deal, in year three, the VT’s are as good as ever.

Worst
Forum
Between 2009 and 2011, the BBC F1 forum used to be the highlight of any Formula 1 weekend. Even if the race was as dull as dishwater, you could always rely on the forum to have some great discussion with a selection of guests discussing the current issues in Formula 1. Sadly, in the past few years, the forum has fallen off the cliff, and Sky’s improvements in their post-race programming only serves to highlight this further. I understand the need and want to convey the pit lane atmosphere, especially now they only have ten forums in a year, but I also think that something needs to change.

It may be worth going back to the ‘motor home’ setting like they did in the early days of the coverage, interspersing that with Tom Clarkson and Lee McKenzie roaming the paddock. Furthermore, there really should be a short forum for the highlights shows (20/25 minutes long) to wrap things up, and to show the interviews that did not make the main show. Again, I point to the 2012 Bahrain Grand Prix forum, that being a highlights race, as one of the best, but simplest, pieces of TV in that year. When the forum is at its best, it is the best in the business by far, before that can happen again, it needs to be steered back onto track.

Lack of Gary Anderson
Normally when 95 percent of your audience agree that a mistake has been made, chances are that it means you’ve made a catastrophic error of judgement. According to Anderson, the BBC believed that their viewers were not interested in technical analysis, hence the mutual decision to part company. The void that Anderson left was filled by Tom Clarkson, although no one was brought in to directly replace Anderson.

2014 began with a barrage of criticism directed towards Formula 1 because of the new V6 power trains. The BBC needed someone like Anderson to explain to the viewers why the new power trains were brought in, and what the key technical innovations were compared with 2013. As good as Clarkson and Allan McNish are, neither of them have the technical experience and expertise that Anderson has. I maintain now, nearly a year on, that BBC made a huge mistake in parting company with Anderson. Their loss was Formula One Management’s gain.

Scheduling
I know this is not a problem that the BBC F1 team can solve, but rather a problem for the wider BBC scheduling team. If you are having to schedule a highlights programme on BBC Two, that is not good for Formula 1 as it automatically reduces the reach. Bahrain was a stunning race, but was shown in highlights form on BBC Two, as was Austria. I know that Sky probably sometimes take the self interest approach, but both broadcasters when scheduling should work together to bring the best possible product to the viewer – which means having highlights programming on BBC One and preferably with consistent timing.

In my opinion, BBC’s product went into reverse during 2014, even when considering the fact that they only screen half the races live. The forum is an easy fix with some simple tweaking. Whether they could bring Anderson in on an ad-hoc basis again, I don’t know. But I hope their product improves again during 2015 back to how it once was. Coincidentally, 2015 will mark the half way part of their current contract with Sky which runs until 2018.

UK F1 viewing figures record slight year-on-year drop

Lewis Hamilton’s championship victory may have brought joy to both BBC and Sky Sports F1’s ratings in the latter half of the season but despite this, viewing figures are down year-on-year according to unofficial overnight viewing figures. Whereas 2013’s figures dropped sharply after the Summer break, the 2014 season has seen the opposite occur.

> BBC average figures drop year-on-year
> Sky record highest figures since channel launch
> Numbers still down on 2009-11 figures

As always, for those that are new to the blog, it is best stating what figures we are comparing here. For Sky Sports F1, all the viewing figures are for the three and a half hour race day slot: one hour before the race and approximately 45 minutes after the race. I have used the equivalent slots for 2012 and 2013 to present a fair and complete picture, there would be little use in presenting a skewed picture, so all data is for the equivalent timeslots. Over on BBC, I have used their programme averages, whether it be live or highlights, irrespective of whether the highlights were shown on BBC One or BBC Two, as was the case for Bahrain and Austria this year. Repeats are taken into account for Asian-based races that the BBC showed live. As always, viewing figures are for TV only. iPlayer, Sky Go and the such like are not included.

The 2014 story
It is worth a reminder that, in my Summer post, I stated that the UK’s audience for Formula 1 had “dropped to their lowest level since 2008.” Luckily, that has not happened. Thanks to a British driver winning the championship, numbers have increased. Crucially though, have numbers increased as much as expected, and has the scheduling hit the numbers badly?

Sky Sports F1’s race day programme has averaged 790k from 12:00 to 15:30, or equivalent across 2014. That number is up a massive 23.4 percent on 2013’s figure of 640k and up 11.1 percent on 2012’s figure of 711k. Whichever way you spin that, for Sky, those are very positive numbers. Things were not looking good for Sky during 2013 with numbers falling, but this year, they have turned it around, and then some more, to record an average higher than both 2012 and 2013. Back in the Summer, I was taking about a “meagre 22k.” The numbers bandied around above are much bigger than 22k, and in my opinion is definitely something worth recognising.

So, why the increase? Better picks? Absolutely. Having both USA and Brazil exclusively during the title run in would have done the average wonders. But even then, it is more than just that. In fact, 14 out of 16 races recorded increases between 2013 and 2014 on Sky Sports F1 (the other four didn’t take place), so even the races where Sky shared coverage with BBC did the numbers increase. That suggests to me that viewers are liking the product that Sky are putting out, otherwise they would not be tuning in to their pre and post-race shows. The substantial increase correlates with feedback on this blog to suggest that people are liking Sky’s race day show more than previously. Sky’s figures are no fluke, in my opinion.

The BBC’s figures dropped year-on-year by 5.9 percent, recording an average of 3.22m versus 3.42m in 2013. Numbers are up slightly on 2012’s average of 3.21m, although those two numbers are within the margin of error to be statistically insignificant. Scheduling was not great. Bahrain and Austria were both screened on BBC Two in highlights form, USA and Brazil, two races bound to draw big audiences if shown live, were shown as highlights. Under this current agreement, I feel that there will be a yearly discussion about what things could/could not have been done differently as a result. With USA, Brazil and Mexico back to back in 2015, BBC will not be able to screen all three live, although at least one of the three will be screened live.

Still down on BBC only days
The combined average of 4.01m is up 2.3 percent on 2012’s 3.92m, but down 1.3 percent on 2013’s average of 4.06m. What is fascinating to me is the closeness of those three figures despite the complete parallels that each of those three seasons faced. 2012 had a battle between Sebastian Vettel and Fernando Alonso until the end. 2013 arguably peaked in Malaysia from a fan perspective, with figures tumbling in the latter half of the season. In contrast, 2014 started with backlash from the wider media over the sound, or lack of, developing into a rivalry between Hamilton and Nico Rosberg, inevitably helping the British figures in the final half of the year due to Hamilton’s involvement. I would suggest that it is a coincidence that the three years line up next to each other, although astonishing at the same time.

However, the 2011 season averaged 4.5m, a 10 percent drop. In fact, 2009, 2010 and 2011 all averaged higher than 2014. It will be, for me, an age old question of whether figures are really down 10 percent versus 2011, or whether more people are now watching Formula 1 via tablets, smart phones and as thus not being included in those figures. I don’t know. I’m not sure whether FOM even know the exact answer to that statement. For some people, 2009 through to 2011 will always be the barometer of Formula 1 coverage in the UK. Whether a group of fans bailed out of watching every race live at the end of 2011, I don’t know. I think it should probably be noted that a lot of shows have dropped year-on-year (the majority of ITV’s schedule is just one example), so in comparison, F1 has done well to hold onto the majority of its existing audience.

My own opinion is that viewing figures are down versus the BBC only days. That is an undeniable fact. When you include other devices, I think 2014 would close the gap in on 2011 slightly. Not significantly, as it seems clear to me that people have moved on. Sadly this is something that you cannot prove statistically, but anecdotally. If you were to grab a few people who have watched F1 at some stage in the past few years, chances are they would tell you that they are watching less F1 than when every race was live on BBC One, because it is not as readily available now as it was previously.

Heading into 2015
Whilst the overall picture is not exciting, the movement of viewers between BBC and Sky is somewhat interesting. There has been a 10 percent shift from BBC to Sky, although whether these are new viewers watching Sky’s coverage, or returning viewers to the channel from 2012, it is impossible to tell. It will be intriguing to see if Sky can continue the upwards swing heading into 2015, or whether BBC can claw back a few viewers off Sky that they have lost during 2014.

A BBC spokesperson said “In what has been a fantastic year with a wealth of sport available to watch on the BBC including the Winter Olympics, World Cup and Commonwealth Games we’re delighted with our F1 coverage this season which reached an impressive 26.1m people. This was undoubtedly helped by a brilliant season finale – Abu Dhabi was the most watched race of the season, with 6.5m people tuning in.”

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