Archive: Radio 5 Live

This is just a quick thought on digital radio, following my post about the BBC’s commitment to DAB.

Absolute Radio platforms

I was browsing the Absolute Radio website earlier today, and noticed just how much they push DAB. On the Listen live page, it actually highlights DAB as the most prominent option. You can see how important digital is to Absolute.

Contrast this with the recent Radio 5 Live campaign that treats digital as an afterthought.

Also, once again I was listening to Radio 4 this week when Eddie Mair mentioned people listening to cricket on longwave. But no mention of the excellent 5 Live Sports Extra service, which broadcasts the same as Test Match Special on Radio 4 longwave, just without the shipping forecast interruptions.

BBC Asian Network logo

The news that the BBC is considering reversing its decision to close down the Asian Network marks the corporation’s second major U-turn on a digital radio service closure. The first was the more high-profile threat to close 6 Music.

The dithering indecisiveness is enough. But what really annoys me about these decisions is the underlying reason behind them — ratings — and the story it tells.

Lacklustre awareness

Both 6 Music and the Asian Network had relatively poor ratings before the BBC announced that the services would close. In that sense, it was easy to see why the savings-seeking BBC was lining them up for the chop.

Then something funny happened. Ratings shot through the roof. After its closure was announced, the number of 6 Music listeners doubled from 600,000 a week to 1.2 million a week. It wasn’t just a flash in the pan either. Since 6 Music was saved from the axe, ratings have remained over the 1 million mark.

The problem is that beforehand, awareness of BBC 6 Music was extremely low. Only 20 per cent of UK adults had even heard of the station. No wonder ratings are so poor if four fifths of the potential audience doesn’t even know of its existence!

Similarly, ratings for the Asian Network have increased by a third since its closure was announced. The increase in ratings has been given as the reason for the BBC’s U-turn.

Publicity vacuum hurts BBC digital radio

The problem is that the closure threat was the most publicity 6 Music and the Asian Network had ever had. The BBC isn’t usually shy of promoting its own services, but it has completely failed to sell its digital radio stations to the public at large. In fact, it has completely failed to sell digital radio full stop.

Just look at the digital radio listenership figures — figure 3.34 in this Ofcom report (PDF) (via James Cridland).

Bar chart of digital radio listening figures

A measley 18 per cent of Radio 1 listeners listen over a digital format. The highest figure among BBC radio stations (excluding those available on digital platforms only) is 5 Live — 36 per cent. These listeners have a significant incentive to move to digital though, as otherwise 5 Live is only available on poor quality medium wave frequencies.

Meanwhile, over half of listeners to Absolute Radio listen over a digital platform. Absolute’s success in pursuing digital platforms is well-documented.

Skewed priorities

Considering that the BBC is supposed to be investing in digital radio, it is not doing a very good job of promoting it. Despite having great content on its digital services, the BBC is shy of actually promoting them.

In this department, it is being considerably outperformed by Absolute Radio, a commercial outlet that doesn’t have a chunk of license fee money set aside for pushing digital. The BBC seems to have lost all of its enthusiasim for digital, even when it is producing excellent digital services.

As James Cridland pointed out, fans following the Ashes earlier this year will not have missed a ball were they listening on 5 Live Sports Extra, as I did. Yet all over the news the following day was the fact that BBC radio listeners were deprived of the victorious moment because the shipping forecast was being broadcast on Radio 4 longwave at the time.

This provided plenty of good coverage in the shape of, “ha, that crazy old shipping forecast, eh?!” All very good. But why wasn’t the point driven home that an excellent digital service was broadcasting the cricket completely uninterrupted?

I am sure there are lots of avid cricket fans out there that rely on their longwave signal. But I have checked, and I don’t even own any equipment that can pick up longwave. I suspect if I were to go to the shops to buy a radio, I would have to make a special effort to find one that could receive longwave. Meanwhile, I could pick up a DAB radio for about £30 with no trouble whatsoever.

Where are the promos?

Why did the Radio 2 breakfast slot get a big push when Chris Evans started presenting it? The Radio 2 breakfast show is the most popular radio programme in the country, with around 10 million listeners. If there is one radio show that does not need promoting, it is this — whether it has a new presenter or not.

With radio, the BBC seems to have got its marketing priorities all wrong. Where are the big promos for stations like 6 Music, Radio 7 or the Asian Network? Why isn’t it pushing 5 Live Sports Extra harder at avid sports fans?

With radio, the BBC seems to have got its marketing priorities all wrong. Where are the big promos for stations like 6 Music, Radio 7 or the Asian Network?

It has just about the simplest and least imaginative channel name possible. But over the years the people behind Channel 5 have still managed to regularly get themselves ito a bit of a tizzy over what their channel is actually called.

So for years, the powers that be insisted that you should just call it Five. Or better still, five, without a capital letter. It was never ‘Channel Five’, and it was definitely not ‘Channel 5′.

You see, ‘Channel 5′ was associated with trashy TV movies and the notorious “three Fs” (films, football and fucking). This image worked in the pre-digital era of the first few years of the channel’s life.

But with 101 trashier other sides available to anyone with a posh new digital telly, Channel 5 had to go upmarket. Which meant spelling out the number 5 in full. But without a capital letter. Or the word ‘channel’ in front of it.

This was despite the fact that it was impossible to seriously talk about it this way. Saying to someone that you “saw a really good programme on five” would leave them staring at you in confusion — and not just because Channel 5 has no good programmes.

Still, I guess everyone just about got used to it after about nine years. That must be why new owner Richard Desmond has decided that it is better just to call it ‘Channel 5′ after all.

The branding brouhaha extends also to Channel 5’s digital channels. Even the relatively simple ‘Five US’ has been changed in the past to become ‘Five USA’. Now it is, of course, ‘5USA’.

Another week, another rebranding

5* logo

I noticed today that its other digital channels has changed its name yet again. It was originally launched in 2006 as Five Life. I guess that would be an all right name, if it wasn’t for the fact that it was extremely similar to the name of a certain high-profile BBC radio station. Whoops.

(Incidentally, BBC Radio 5 live is another station that would like you not to use a capital letter. The ‘l’ in the word ‘live’ is supposed to be lowercase. No matter that this looks really awkward wherever it is written.)

After a couple of years, Five Life became Fiver. It’s not clear why. It’s like a £1 note, but for the noughties! Perhaps £5 was the channel’s original programming budget.

Now it is called 5*, which is a bit awkward. The logo styles it as a nice five-pointed star, but in text materials an asterisk is used instead. Presumably you’re supposed to pronounce it “five star”, but it could as easily be “five pow” — I don’t know, and I am not prepared to watch for long enough to find out.

What does the asterisk signify? That this is just a temporary name and it might change again? Or is 5* a five letter swear word that you are provoked into uttering if you have to actually watch that garbage?

I am quite a fan of DAB radio. It allows me to listen to two of my favourite stations, Radio 5 Live and Absolute Radio, in crystal-clear quality as opposed to the duff medium wave frequencies they have historically used. Two of my other favourite stations, 6 Music and the World Service, are not available on analogue radio. So DAB wins for me on two key counts — sound quality and choice.

But there is no doubt that DAB is troubled. Its future is constantly being questioned. There are grumbles about poor sound quality and reception issues. The fact that car and handheld DAB radios are still thin on the ground is no help either. Take-up has been slower than anticipated.

Moreover, technology is beginning to overtake DAB. Having been developed during the 1980s and early 1990s, DAB uses old-fashioned and inefficient compression techniques.

I am considering buying a second digital radio for when I move. But given the continued niggles surrounding DAB and the uncertainty regarding digital switchover for radio, I am beginning to wonder if buying a second DAB set would be a sensible move.

Is the future of digital radio on the internet?

I was therefore interested to read about the BBC’s new high-quality system, which they are calling HD Sound (not to be confused with HD Radio!).

At first it will be offered for Radio 3, then Radio 2. But given that feedback of the trial as so far been extremely positive — even among the demanding Radio 3 audience — this is beginning to look like a promising system.

Only one thing. It will be available on the internet only. So should my new radio set be an internet radio?

I hadn’t seriously considered buying an internet radio up until now. But it has a massive wealth of choice. There is huge flexibility. It is more future-proof. This platform has widespread adoption (you don’t see the internet disappearing any time soon — although somehow the future of DAB always seems relatively uncertain). And now it seemingly the internet has the potential to have the upper hand in terms of audio quality.

Do any readers have any experience with internet radios? Are they worth a purchase?

About ten years ago I shunned music radio. It no longer reflected my musical tastes, so I turned to speech radio stations instead — all on the BBC.

After a while, I began to get into BBC 6 Music. I was still interested in the speech elements of the station more than the music. Adam and Joe became a regular listen, but I also began to appreciate the music output more. Programmes like the Freak Zone and Jarvis Cocker’s Sunday Service simply would not exist on another station — which is why there was so much outrage when it was suggested that the station would be closed down.

But when considering alternative options in the event that 6 Music closed, I realised that the outlook was perhaps not as bad is it might seem. As a commercial alternative, Absolute Radio wouldn’t be a bad option.

Shedding Virgin Radio’s dad rock image

In the space of just two years, the new owners of what used to be Virgin Radio have given the station a completely new lease of life.

I would never have considered listening to Virgin Radio. Its playlist was limited, repetitive and fusty. It was wall-to-wall dad rock.

Looking back, the transition to the new-style Absolute was quite steady. But the day it ditched the Virgin brand was the day it could move on from that albatross and the Smashie and Nicey image. Today, I think it is easily the most interesting commercial radio station around.

More than music

The key selling point of Absolute Radio, as opposed to Virgin, is that it is now not just about music. Now it’s an “entertainment” station. When you tune in, you are more likely to hear a comedian than a dusty old Status Quo song. Its current presenters include people like Dave Gorman, Iain Lee, Frank Skinner and Richard Herring — all much better known for being funny than being fanatical about what Virgin always called “real music”.

It’s a template that has been successful at BBC 6 Music ever since it started. Its original breakfast presenter was Phill Jupitus, while other high-profile presenters have included Russell Brand, Craig Charles, Jon Holmes and… Richard Herring. And it’s difficult to escape the feeling that Absolute’s weekend morning programming has been heavily influenced by the success of Adam and Joe on 6 Music.

The really impressive thing about how Absolute have gone about it is the fact that Dave Gorman appears to have more influence over the music that is played on his programme than Adam and Joe ever did. As a whole, Absolute is more accessible than 6 Music, but it is a station that is unafraid to step out of the mainstream on occasion.

Determined to try different things

But gradually, Absolute is becoming something more than a commercial 6 Music-lite. Its deal to broadcast English Premier League football matches is a bold move to for a music station to make, particularly since Radio 5 Live and TalkSport are so well established in this area. Apparently it is the first time a music station has broadcast top flight football since Capital Gold brought Jonathan Pearce to the world 20 years ago.

Absolute have launched some interesting spin-off stations as well. In addition to Absolute Classic Rock, there is Absolute 80s and Absolute Radio 90s (that is a way to make me feel old — my decade is now for proper nostalgia!). There is also Absolute Radio Extra. The best thing is that the latter three are all available on DAB.

There was also Dabbl, an experimental station where users chose the content. It has closed down now, but it is nonetheless a sign that Absolute is determined to experiment with radio.

Doing new things with radio

The people behind Absolute Radio have a great website, One Golden Square, which takes you behind the scenes of Absolute Radio. The openness of the website is wonderful. It is a great insight into what makes them tick, and it’s all very encouraging.

Absolute are always at the cutting-edge, thinking about the future of radio and different ways to listen to it. That is no wonder — the traditional 1215 medium wave frequency is very poor quality for a music station, so it helps them to investigate alternative ways of broadcasting.

One Golden Square Labs outlines some of the really interesting things they are up to. There is some nifty iPod Nano integration. They are also pushing ahead with HTML5 delivery.

Compare My Radio - comparison of Absolute and 6 Music

One Golden Square are also behind the wonderful Compare My Radio. This website is a heaven for radio and stats geeks — perfect for me.

It is a treasure trove of stats about radio output in the UK. You can see what tracks and artists are popular, search for artists to find out what stations play them, and even compare the output of two radio stations — with Venn diagrams and everything.

A lot of people turned to this website to learn about 6 Music. Many defended the station on the basis of statistics collected by Compare My Radio. You can see how 6 Music compares to Absolute Radio.

The website is a fascinating service that must take a bit of work to maintain. It’s great that a radio station can take a step back and fairly allow others to compare it with other radio stations.

All-in-all, you get the impression that the people behind Absolute Radio are seriously passionate about radio. As a bit of a radio fan myself, that is a big winner for me.

The country lurches back into its usual routine this week. But with the new year comes changes, and a vital part of everyone’s daily life — the radio — will seem very different.

My parents are concerned about what will happen to Radio 2 after the departure of Terry Wogan from breakfast. They were not happy to hear that his replacement will be Chris Evans. My parents originally stopped listening to Radio 1 when Chris Evans took over the Radio 1 breakfast show. (Quite how they tolerated Steve Wright before this is beyond me though.)

I get the feeling that they will stick with Radio 2. Chris Evans is a very different broadcaster to what he was ten or fifteen years ago and has apparently pleased most people with his performances on Radio 2 so far.

While Terry Wogan’s last show was the one that caught all the headlines, the end of two other radio programmes will be far more disruptive to my routine. I was not a listener of Terry Wogan’s, though I don’t suppose I am really part of his target audience.

The end of Adam and Joe

Much bigger news in my world has been the end of Adam and Joe’s programme on BBC 6 Music. They are raising the drawbridge at the Big British Castle for an indefinite period while Joe Cornish focuses on his new career as a film director.

This programme has been a core part of my week for the past two years. It is also unusual because due to its Saturday morning time slot, it has been the only thing that has managed to get me to wake up at a decent hour on a Saturday.

Adam and Joe have an excellent knack of doing a type of humour which is silly but not stupid — a balance that very few manage to strike. This made it ideal listening for the start of the weekend. It was perhaps something to gently lift you out of a mild hangover. The accompanying podcast was also excellent for lifting spirits during your journey into work.

Their gentle humour was mixed with sharp observations on popular culture. Increasingly, towards the end of the programme’s run, listener contributions were a larger part of the programme. Combined with the programme’s elite listening force Black Squadron and the STEPHEN! phenomenon, there was quite a tight-knit community feel to the show.

This was no doubt helped by the fact that it was on BBC 6 Music, jokingly referred to by Adam Buxton as “the secret station”. Even though it was the most popular programme on the station by quite a long way, due to its location in the outer reaches of select DAB sets, Adam and Joe’s was a cosy and understated programme. It is difficult to imagine Adam and Joe’s programme working so well on another, larger radio station.

Adam and Joe’s replacement will be Danny Wallace, who is not quite in the same league. It will leave a huge gap in my Saturday mornings. What else can I listen to? Saturday Live on Radio 4? Sorry, not for me. Jonathan Ross on Radio 2? Possibly. Or will I return to my old ‘default’ radio station, Radio 5 Live, for Danny Baker and Fighting Talk?

Changes at Radio 5 Live

Speaking of Radio 5 Live, that is the source of the other big change to my radio routine. Richard Bacon has vacated the late-night slot to take over from Simon Mayo, who is moving to replace Chris Evans on Drivetime at Radio 2.

I was a fan of Richard Bacon during his first stint on 5 Live in the weekend late-night slot, and he continued to delight when he returned to the station to do weeknights. Given his background, he is surprisingly good at dealing with big issues as well as light-hearted stuff.

He is also unafraid to use humour. It could be so embarrassing (and some would probably say it is), but I think it works well. The interesting bit after 12:30am was entertaining and brave. I can’t think of many other presenters who would get away with completely doing away with news for half an hour every day on Radio 5 Live.

I am greatly regretful that I never managed to get my hands on one of those badges. It was nevertheless an honour and a privilege to listen.

Richard Bacon’s irreverence is what makes him good as a broadcaster, but it’s difficult to see how he can leverage this in his new mid-afternoon slot, one of the most important in 5 Live’s schedule. Most disappointingly, it will be on during the daytime, meaning that I won’t be able to listen to it.

The replacement in the late night slot will be former Daily Sport editor Tony Livesey. I will reserve judgement until I hear the programme. I gather he is actually quite good. But if I don’t take to it, I might take the unusual step of switching to a commercial radio station during weeknights to listen to Iain Lee on Absolute Radio.

Richard Bacon’s move is part of a wider shake-up at Radio 5 Live, which also sees Gabby Logan getting a daily slot. With the day going from the Nicky Campbell Speak You’re Branes hour to Victoria Derbyshire to Gabby Logan, it’s not difficult to see why some people have started to nickname the station Radio 5 Lite.

It’s not quite the quality station I loved just a few years ago. Just now Radio 5 Live seems utterly bereft of ideas, aside from attempting to stealthily change it into a 24/7 Mark Kermode station. At least Up All Night is still good.

If I was being uncharitable, I might suggest that the presenters that remain at the station are the ones who are prepared to make the move to Salford when the station relocates there next year. The logic behind moving a radio station that covers news (most of which happens in London) to Manchester is still beyond me, I have to admit.

On the bright side…

It’s not all bad news on the radio front. In addition to his new daytime Radio 5 Live slot, Richard Bacon has a Saturday afternoon programme on 6 Music. He promises to take some of the jollity of his late night 5 Live show to 6 Music. But who listens to radio at that time? Not me.

I might make space in my Sunday afternoons for 6 Music though. Jarvis Cocker will have a new programme alongside the already-excellent Freak Zone.

But weekend mornings will still be a problem. And I’ll need a new comedy podcast to replace Adam and Joe. Does anyone have any suggestions? (Not Collings and Herrin — I tried it, and it was crap.)

Practice coverage

This is another aspect of the BBC’s coverage which is a massive improvement on ITV’s offering. Last year, practice was just covered online, on some infrastructure which was clearly pretty shaky. This year, practice is covered on the red button. Even if you opt to watch it online (which I often do), the BBC’s stream is much, much more reliable and the picture quality is better than ITV’s.

Moreover, while ITV provided just the raw World Feed, with no commentary, the BBC broadcast it with the Radio 5 Live Sports Extra commentary. The Radio 5 Live team have been covering practice for a few years now, so it was logical to use their commentary for the television coverage to do it cost-effectively.

I must say, I think the coverage of practice is great. It shouldn’t be the most captivating of sessions. But the 5 Live team use it as a chance to flex their muscles, and they simply chat about whatever is going on in the world of F1 in general, at a fairly leisurely pace. It is like Test Match Special with fast cars, and I love it. :D

David Croft and Anthony Davidson are a great partnership for Friday Practice 1 and Saturday Practice. Meanwhile, Friday Practice 2 is normally covered by Maurice Hamilton and Ian Phillips. This is much more like a pub conversation, but I love the chemistry between the pair, and their chats about the political goings-on in F1 are unrivalled for their insight.

Radio 5 Live

As I have touched on already, Crofty and Davidson are a great partnership. Even though I like to listen to Jonathan Legard, I personally like David Croft a lot even if he is perhaps not ready for the main TV job yet in my view.

I first came across him when he read the sports news on Fi Glover’s Radio 5 Live programme back in 2001. Even back then he was an engaging broadcaster who had great chemistry with his colleagues. He clearly has a deep knowledge of a lot of sports. He never struck be back then as someone who was particularly a fan of F1, which makes the fact that he is so good at covering it all the more impressive. You can see he talent in the way he is also comfortable commentating on darts and boxing matches.

Meanwhile, Anthony Davidson is a complete revelation in the commentary box. It is no surprise this year of course — he was already impressive in his previous sporadic stints commentating on Radio 5 Live and ITV. Davidson will be hoping he is racing in F1 next year (especially since there are six extra seats), but once F1 is off the radar for him, he is surely an ideal candidate for the Brundle role. Who knows — perhaps one day it will be Croft and Davidson commentating on TV.

As for Holly Samos, I still can’t tell whether I like her or not. Sometimes she seems to be doing a great job, while at other times I would be expecting better. She’s been doing the job for a few years now though, so I think the listeners should be able to expect nothing but the best at all times by now.

Like I say, though, I have not been listening to the Radio 5 Live race commentary as much this year as I have done in previous years, so I am basing my opinions on a mixture of practice coverage and what I remember of last year.

But for me, it says a lot about the BBC that is has two very competent commentary teams — one for TV and one for radio — when ITV couldn’t even scrape together one.

The Chequered Flag Podcast

Radio 5 Live’s podcast is still pretty much a must-listen. But for me it has noticeably decreased in quality this year, I am guessing as a result of budget cuts. Last year the post-race podcast would consist of decent post-race chat between David Croft, Maurice Hamilton and another major F1 journalist like Jonathan Noble, and sometimes Holly Samos.

Now it feels like Croft and Davidson just switch on the dictaphone for twenty minutes when they get back to the hotel. It’s still good, but in a year when coverage has stepped up in almost every other way, this is a noticeable exception to the rule.

Commentary

The BBC’s lead commentator Jonathan Legard has come in for a lot of stick on the internet. In my view, most of it is wholly unwarranted. Indeed, I am quite confused at the negative reaction he has been getting. I used to listen to him from time to time when he was on Radio 5 Live, and I was a fan of him then. In my view, it took years for the station’s Formula 1 coverage to recover from his departure. He has a good voice and is clearly passionate and highly knowledgable about F1. I like his tone and his sense of humour.

Most importantly of all for his job is that he almost never makes mistakes. The internet collapsed in a heap of laughter when he committed the heinous crime of mistaking a replay for live action during the Malaysian Grand Prix. Name me a commentator who has never done that? There was even a mitigating factor then, as FOM’s replay graphic was playing up during the race. Apart from that, I can’t think of any time when he has made a bad mistake, misidentified a driver (except for the odd mixed-up Red Bull for a Toro Rosso — we’ve all been there) or misread a situation. He has had a couple of bad race starts, but once the race settles in he is fine.

In contrast, Brundle has made a few errors this season, including a mega clanger when he spent half the race in Spain confusing the prime and option tyres, which actively ruined viewers’ understanding of the race. During qualifying at the British Grand Prix he spent an entire lap talking about Räikkönen even though we were watching Massa, a fact backed up by a FOM caption. He made a few mistakes during the German GP as well.

Some criticise Legard’s reliance on crutch phrases, which I would agree is one jarring thing about his commentary. But let us face it, at times Murray Walker may as well have had a drawstring coming out of his back, and everyone found that endearing. Why it should be different for Legard I don’t know.

It is true that the chemistry between him and Martin Brundle has not been very good, but that was inevitably going to take time to build up, no matter who Brundle was commentating with. Legard has a good conversational style which I like. It is a potentially great way to cover duller moments of the race without resorting to James Allen’s trick, "let’s listen to the engine [while I think of something to say]".

Unfortunately Brundle doesn’t seem to know how to deal with Legard’s conversational style. He seems not to know how to respond to Legard, often choosing not to respond at all.

A typical example of this happened during the German Grand Prix, when Brundle responded unneccessarily sarcastically towards Legard’s inquisitiveness over Brundle’s statement that it would be a shame to for refuelling to be banned. It was almost as though he felt threatened that his viewpoint was being questioned. Speaking personally, I disagree with Brundle’s point of view (strategy plays a role, but if you allow it to dominate is just replaces racing with mathematics), and the rude way he expressed it totally alienated me.

Sometimes listening to Brundle you think he deliberately sets out for a scrap. Maybe it is his way of spicing it up by playing devil’s advocate. But I get the feeling that being combative is the only way he knows how to operate. He did, after all, make his name by constantly correcting Murray Walker, and later James Allen. He never stops "correcting" people. You almost get the sense that, given the chance, he would "correct" Michael Schumacher on the subject of being a seven times World Champion.

It probably doesn’t help that he is now working with a commentator who doesn’t constantly need to be corrected, which means he now has to adapt his style to that of a colour commentator rather than encroaching on the main commentator’s role as he has always done before. This is new territory for Brundle, and I don’t think he is coping well.

Some people suggest that you could solve this problem by making Martin Brundle the main commentator. It might be worth experimenting with, but I can easily see Brundle’s ego soon dominating the entire show if he was to be given that role.

I have to admit that sometimes I wonder now if I would miss Martin Brundle. I spent most of last year listening to Radio 5 Live, sans-Brundle, and it didn’t affect my enjoyment of the races. Given that he is almost certainly the most expensive person on BBC F1 team, I wonder if it is not time for him to be given another role, because for me he is probably the least value for money.

He does have a good turn of phrase, and is an engaging talker on F1, so I wouldn’t like to see him go for good. Perhaps he could be given a smaller role such as that of post-race analyst. The colour commentator role can go to someone with more recent experience of an F1 car such as Anthony Davidson, because Brundle increasingly seems at a loss to explain some of the technical elements of team radio conversations.

And can someone explain to me why Brundle hasn’t been taken aside and politely asked to pronounce Sebastian Vettel’s name correctly? He must be the only person in the world who appears to mistake this ace F1 driver for some kind of telecommunications company, or a brand of bottle watter. Vett-tel? It’s ‘fettle’. Really, really annoying.

The interactive forum

The BBC have a lot of great points to their coverage, but this is possibly the greatest innovation they have come up with. For an hour or so after the BBC One programme has finished, they continue analysing the race on the Red Button. This is something that simply would never have happened on ITV, so this is another great reason why the BBC is the right home for F1.

ITV’s post-race programme always felt like a rush job. The BBC’s probably would too if I stopped watching when BBC One stopped broadcasting it. But that extra hour feels just right. An extra hour to immerse myself in F1 news, interviews, analysis, footage, insight and knowledge. And there are a few viewer questions thrown in for good measure. Great stuff.

Red Button extras

Here is something else that you couldn’t have got on ITV — extra material on the red button. There are the rolling highlights, which I have personally never used and don’t really see the point of. It seems like a waste of a stream to me, but then again the BBC probably don’t have anything else to put on this stream (I understand that they are not allowed to broadcast the official timing screens).

But the on-board channel is a great addition to the coverage. I always have my laptop open with the on-board stream running. For one thing, it often catches incidents that are missed by the World Feed. It is notable that a lot of the BBC’s post-race analysis consists of footage from this channel — it is valuable stuff. During the German GP, they even interrupted the World Feed on BBC One to show a replay from the on-board channel! It is also interesting to watch the on-board channel during lulls in the race. I’m sure it will come in handy for Valencia.

The BBC also provide a handful of alternative audio options, though I never make use of them. I like Jonathan Legard and Martin Brundle is still interesting to listen to even if he grates more these days. But for those who haven’t taken to Legard, it is no surprise that the Radio 5 Live commentary option with David Croft and Anthony Davidson seems to have gone down a storm.

CBBC commentary seems less popular. I wonder if it is used very often. I can’t imagine I would have used it as a child. It’s like Newsround. No-one ever watches it because if you’re too young to be interested in the news, you simply don’t watch it. But if you’re old enough to be interested in the news, you watch the proper news, not the kiddy patronising version. CBBC commentary seems like a waste of an audio stream to me.

Pit lane reports

There are some very noticeable changes in the way the BBC deal with reports from the pitlane as opposed to ITV. On ITV, whenever there was a pitstop they would throw to Ted Kravitz who would then commentate on it. It wasn’t good. Usually he would just say, "yes, the fuel hose is in. And they have put new tyres on. And he’s away, good stop!" It felt pointless, although I guess it punctuated the commentary in a way. But I prefer it when Legard and Brundle commentate on pitstops, and for Ted Kravitz to be used when something genuinely interesting happens in the pitlane.

Meanwhile, Lee McKenzie is doing a fine job for her first season in F1 full time. She has plenty of experience in motorsport, so there are no real issues with her there. There have been one or two hairy interviews, particularly when she clearly got at Lewis Hamilton who responded tersely after being asked how it felt to be lapped by Button. But in a way that revealed a lot about Lewis Hamilton’s mindset.

In fact, Lee McKenzie seems quite good at that. Rubens Barrichello completely opened up in an unprecedented way after the German Grand Prix, all as a result of a simple but carefully-worded question: "It was going so well, what went wrong?" You could argue that it was never really going well for Barrichello, but the question obviously confirmed in Barrichello’s mind that he was on for a good result, hence his amazing rant.

On ITV, Louise Goodman often got some very interesting quotes out of drivers, but normally of the post-watershed variety. Not good when Webber is talking about kids fucking it up on breakfast television.

Louise Goodman was certainly good at finding drivers very quickly after they had retired. At the start of the season, it was noted by some that Lee McKenzie appeared to be much slower at tracking down the drivers. It transpires that the BBC are choosing to pre-record these interviews, probably to save money.

I also wonder if there is a different approach among F1 journalists in general this year. For the first time, drivers are mandated to conduct interviews after they have retired. Perhaps the BBC are going for the safe option, remaining in the designated area for a 100% chance of getting an interview, albeit one that is slightly late, rather than taking a gamble by going on a hunt to get a quicker interview at the risk of missing the driver completely.

It is noticeable that Lee McKenzie isn’t getting much airtime during the races though. This is probably because there are very few retirements in F1 these days. Given now that Ted Kravitz doesn’t have to do the whole "they’re putting fuel in his car!!!" schtick, I wonder if there is really a need for there to be two pitlane reporters. I wouldn’t know, but it seems as though they are doing less work than they did on ITV.

Something I would like to see from the pitlane reporters is more input in terms of analysing strategy. ITV were always good at this, because James Allen is a genius at working out strategies. Even if he wasn’t a great main commentator, he was always excellent as a pitlane reporter, and always had the edge when it came to reading the strategic elements of the race.

But reading strategy now appears to be the biggest weakness of the BBC’s coverage. I would like to see Ted Kravitz try and think about strategy more. Or, if Ted is not up to the task, bring James Allen on board as a strategy analyst.

Even in this most interesting of races, at the most interesting of times, with all sorts of interesting rule changes and an interesting off-season, one of the most fascinating things about the weekend was the television coverage. After a gap of 12 years, F1 returned to BBC television.

Although ITV undoubtedly raised the bar, F1 fans were always frustrated by the need to interrupt the race to show adverts. So in this sense alone, the BBC’s coverage is superior. But apart from that given, how did the BBC do in their first race back? Very well in my view. They are not quite as slick as ITV were. But you would expect that in their first broadcast.

First things first. The title sequence. There was much rejoicing when it was confirmed that ‘The Chain’ would indeed be the theme tune. But on first viewing I thought the title sequence was a bit naff. However, it has grown on me a lot after repeat viewings. And as neiltc13 pointed out to me on Twitter, it’s not half as naff as ITV’s title sequence from the past few years.

It is no accident that the two people who seemed most at ease during the broadcast were Martin Brundle and Ted Kravitz. Both now have several years of broadcasting F1 on ITV under their belt, and it is very much business as usual. The only difference for them is the logo on their shirts.

I have seen a lot of complaints about the new main commentator, Jonathan Legard, which I think are completely unwarranted. The most ridiculous criticism comes from Planet Hamilton, which spat: “what do you expect from the BBC’s 2008 Football Correspondent.” Amusing of them to talk about someone being ill-informed, while spelling their name incorrectly throughout.

Jonathan Legard may have been the “BBC’s 2008 Football Correspondent” (actually, he was Radio 5 Live’s football correspondent from 2004 until getting the F1 gig). But before that he was Radio 5 Live’s motorsport correspondent and main Formula 1 commentator, a role he held for eight seasons. He has also written about F1 for newspapers. So those people assuming Legard does not know enough about F1 are saying more about their own ignorance.

The real problem with Legard’s commentary at the moment is that he is used to commentating on the radio, which requires quite a different style. Some rustiness was also to be expected since he hasn’t commentated on a Formula 1 race since 2004. But the fact is that he is one of Britain’s most experienced Formula 1 broadcasters. He was always going to be near the top of the list of candidates.

Legard was clearly nervous during qualifying, but this is perfectly understandable. This is a big gig, and the spotlight was on him. After the shaky qualifying performance though, Legard seemed much more at ease during the race.

It is true that there is a lack of chemistry between Legard and Martin Brundle, but this is something that will develop over time. The pairing will need a few races to get used to each other’s rhythm, then they will begin to gel much better.

At points Legard seemed strangely lost for words. Two such moments stood out for me. One was when it became clear that Heikki Kovalainen’s car was damaged, at which point Legard simply started repeating the driver’s name a number of times. The other was when Fisichella missed his pit box, when Legard just said, “Oh dear. Dear, dear.” That didn’t add much to our understanding of the situation.

But I felt that Legard read the race very well, especially when you consider he has not had to do it since 2004. He was very quick to spot that the soft tyres were simply not working. When Brundle said he thought that Kubica was managing the soft tyres well, Legard was instantly able to point out that Kubica’s lap times had actually become very slow, at which point the Pole peeled into the pits. Legard read this unfolding situation much better than Brundle did, which is no mean feat.

Lee McKenzie also seemed very good for her first live F1 television broadcast. She has plenty of experience in other categories of motorsport though. Jake Humphrey is a seriously good television presenter, and despite worries about his knowledge of the sport he actually seems pretty clued up. As an anchor, I find it difficult to see how he could be bettered.

David Coulthard and Eddie Jordan do not yet have the chemistry to cope with each other, though they both have plenty of opinions. Unfortunately, Eddie Jordan simply does not know when to stop gassing on. He was constantly interrupting his colleagues and, frankly, he hogged the airtime.

David Coulthard seemed almost intimidated by it, and seemed to give up even chiming in towards the end of the broadcast. Sometimes I thought Jordan made good points, but he does shoot from the hip a bit too much. Overall, he was an obnoxious presence, and I hope the BBC manage to rein him in.

DC needs to be encouraged to speak more. He is a good speaker, with interesting opinions and an ability to relay that to the viewers. But he’s not as natural as Martin Brundle and does seem slightly wooden for the time being. As the only person on the BBC television team with recent driving experience, he needs to be used more.

Whatever, it is good to have a couple of pundits with forthright opinions. This is a world away from ITV, where the post-race analysis was utterly bland in comparison. Steve Rider is a competent enough presenter, but he now seems staid in comparison to Jake Humphrey. Meanwhile, Mark Blundell’s punditry was seldom insightful, and he was often little more than Steve Rider’s yes-man. What a change, then, to see some energetic debate on the BBC!

As for the production of the programme, I think this is also promising. While ITV’s programme was nauseatingly biased in favour of Lewis Hamilton, the BBC seem to have struck a much better balance. In fairness, given McLaren’s woes, the BBC doesn’t have much space to hype up Hamilton, but the coverage of Button’s win didn’t seem overly patriotic either.

Some of the features were a lot more interesting than what ITV came up with. The piece about Mark Webber’s recovery certainly towers above “Cooking with Heikki”. I think fans will be much more comfortable with the BBC programme.

I was initially disappointed that the BBC decided to send Jake Humphrey, DC and EJ to the race, where they were left trying to scream above the loud cars and, at the worst moments, aeroplanes. This does not make for good viewing, and was one of the worst aspects of ITV’s coverage. I was surprised that the BBC did not try to avert this, particularly in light of ITV’s experiences. Rumour has it that the BBC has farmed off GP2 coverage in order to fund this, so I was not happy.

However, the programme absolutely came into its own during the ‘Interactive Forum’ on the red button. This gives enthusiasts the chance to indulge in an hour-long post-race discussion. I must say that I thoroughly enjoyed this element of the coverage. It is a very welcome innovation. It makes sending the pundits to the races worth it, as they were able to conduct interviews, and Martin Brundle was able to join in the conversation.

Unfortunately, the analysis appears to have been totally ghettoised to the red button. Lee McKenzie was hardly used at all during the race, and I felt we should have heard a lot more from her. Meanwhile, neither the race re-run nor the BBC Three highlights programme had anything in the way of post-race analysis whatsoever, and very very little in terms of interviews. This is one thing that ITV was much better at, and I hope the BBC will reconsider this approach for future races.

Another thing that was better about ITV’s coverage was the fact that their online stream switched away from the ITV1 feed to show the FOM World Feed. This option was nowhere to be seen on the BBC’s website, which meant that viewers didn’t see the full press conference or the FOM-produced highlights package.

The other interactive elements of the F1 coverage are what really brings the BBC into its own. All practice sessions are being shown on television (via the red button) for the first time, which is excellent.

During the race there is, for the first time in the UK (with the exception of F1 Digital+), the option to watch a dedicated on-board channel. This is the sort of coverage that a couple of countries in Europe get on pay per view. We are very lucky to get this stuff for free in the UK.

Unfortunately, the option seemed to be suffering from some technical problems. The caption telling you which driver we were on board with failed very early on, and never returned. The rolling leaderboard and news updates also did not display for a while. Meanwhile, the insert that shows the world feed was almost too small to be of any real use. Personally, I would prefer the on board channel to be full screen, but that is because I had two screens. It is true that I didn’t often watch the on board channel, but I may make more use of it in more processional races (so it’ll come in useful for Valencia).

The other interactive channel is taken up with rolling highlights. This seems to be a staple of BBC Sport coverage, but I personally don’t see the point of it. I won’t stop watching the race to watch highlights, knowing that I might miss something happening live. Presumably people use it though, since the BBC often offer it for many sports.

Another novel feature is the option to choose your audio. Those worried about the lack of chemistry between Jonathan Legard and Martin Brundle can opt to listen instead to Radio 5 Live’s David Croft and Anthony Davidson, who get on like a house on fire.

There is also a CBBC commentary, but I don’t see this lasting. There was one slightly amusing moment when the CBBC commentators pretended they had a microphone inside the Safety Car and decided to listen into the conversation:


Safety Car Mic
Uploaded by Stefmeister2008

(Via the people on the Digital Spy F1 coverage thread.)

It’s obviously designed to be used during a boring moment while the Safety Car is out, so it’s just a shame Fisichella’s pit lane mess-up happened while it was being played! A nice humorous touch though. I can’t help but think the CBBC commentary is a waste of money and bandwidth though.

All-in-all, the BBC’s coverage had a few teething problems, but this was absolutely to be expected. Most of the problems so far are quite minor and I envisage that they will be sorted soon enough. We really are very lucky to be getting such great coverage in the UK now.