On Thursday I woke up too early. Having had a little over three hours of sleep, I stumbled out of bed to prepare for the day. I have outgrown the days of getting up early on my birthday, but this time it happened by accident. And I was brought a rather good birthday present by Bernie Ecclestone — it was announced that the BBC had regained the rights to broadcast Formula 1 from 2009. I couldn’t get back to sleep after I heard that.
Obviously there was much celebration among the Formula 1 fans of Britain. ITV has won few fans for its coverage. From the very start it was bad news due to the realities of commercial television meaning that races would be routinely interrupted.
This very fact is probably what, in the end, made ITV give up their contract two years early. Bernie hinted that it was ITV’s decision when he said:
It’s not that we are unhappy with ITV but I think maybe they will have their hands full with other things.
Sure enough, ITV confirmed that it was “a straightforward commercial decision”. And it probably isn’t a coincidence that on the very same day ITV won the rights to broadcast the Champions League.
But what made ITV pull out of the deal with two years of their current contract to go? ITV have been broadcasting for 12 years and if anything it had appeared as though their commitment had increased.
In the past year or two ITV have been much less likely to drop their live coverage of qualifying or shut it to another channel. And just days ago ITV announced that they had won the rights to broadcast practice sessions on the internet — the first ever time that UK viewers have been able to watch free practice.
It makes sense that ITV would up the amount of coverage given the success of Lewis Hamilton. Surely they will be able to increase their revenue now that there is a successful British driver. But ironically, I think it might be the arrival of Lewis Hamilton that was the final straw for ITV. Let me explain.
In the off season, along with the car launches and testing times, there is one story that seems to be an annual occurrence. Almost every year, ITV struggles to find someone to sponsor its coverage. This year, they even had to reduce the amount they were asking for — even following the success of Lewis Hamilton.
Honda pulled out of their £2.5 million deal after just one year. I seem to remember that was a last-minute deal, just as this year’s Sony one was. And the year before, ITV could only do a deal with Swiftcover to start sponsoring coverage four races into the season.
Why do ITV constantly have so much trouble finding a sponsor for their coverage? Simple. Each brand that sponsors the coverage becomes associated with interrupting the race. Instead of appealing to the millions of ITV viewers, sponsors simply piss them all off.
Andrew MacKinlay MP may believe that F1 coverage “could be provided, and should be provided, on commercial television.” He obviously doesn’t know much about the sport. Because if there is a sport that is wholly unsuited for commercial television, it is Formula 1.
Try as I might to think of another popular sporting event that may last as long as two hours plus without a single interruption, I have drawn a blank. Every other sport I can think of has some kind of break where commercials may be shown on television. (If anyone can think of a popular sporting event that may last for two hours uninterrupted, please leave a comment.)
It is a truism to say that, when the BBC and ITV jointly own the right to broadcast the World Cup final, everyone prefers to watch BBC. This is said to be mostly because the BBC does not have adverts. But at least when ITV broadcast a football match commercials are run at half time, well out of the way of the actual action. If adverts obscure the match, it is by accident, and only for the first few seconds of the second half.
With F1 though, ITV systematically, deliberately, routinely interrupt the action to bring us some words from their sponsors. There have been campaigns against this behaviour. It has been pointed out that 17 minutes and 15 seconds of the 2007 Canadian Grand Prix (Lewis Hamilton’s first ever F1 victory) were missed by ITV viewers. In total for the entire season, viewers lost 4 hours 6 minutes and 4 seconds — the equivalent of well over two average-length Grands Prix.
Moreover, several pivotal events have been missed by British viewers. Ironically, the moment when Lewis Hamilton effectively lost the 2007 Drivers Championship happened just seconds after ITV had gone to a commercial break. British viewers missed it, and the moment wasn’t even shown in the highlights package because James Allen and Martin Brundle were having their brief break (before resuming for other broadcasters who receive their commentary), so there was no commentary for it.
The year before, the pivotal moment also happened almost immediately after ITV went to a break. When Michael Schumacher’s engine blew in Japan, effectively handing the 2006 Drivers Championship to Fernando Alonso, British viewers were completely unaware. If football fans had to endure this sort of thing, there would probably be riots in the streets.
Yet, it is a commercial reality. ITV simply cannot afford to let two hours’ worth of televisual real estate go by without screening an advert. ITV were probably waiting for someone like Lewis Hamilton to come along to let them make more money. This would partly explain their fawning coverage of Golden Boy. But the opposite happened. As the viewership increased, it simply increased the amount of people who were pissed off by the adverts. When they struggled to find a sponsor even at the height of Lewismania, it was probably the final straw.
It is fair to say that the vast majority of fans will not be sorry to see the back of ITV. Their coverage has become laughably one-sided, with all of the commentators unashamedly obsessing over Lewis Hamilton to the extent where some viewers might be surprised to find that when the race started there were 21 other drivers.
It is, of course, understandable that ITV would concentrate on the British hope. But the sheer obsessiveness, to the point where Hamilton’s father and brother have both been elevated to the status of minor celebrities in their own rights, utterly grates. Imagine if football broadcasters started every programme with a hour’s worth of, “Well, we really hope Manchester United can do the business today,” and interviews with Cristiano Ronaldo’s brother and Wayne Rooney’s father. And all without a mention of any of the other teams in the Premier League. You would be thoroughly sick of it.
Whenever they weren’t stalking Lewis Hamilton, viewers were treated to patronising fluff of the lowest order. Who could forget ‘Cooking with Heikki’ or the tour of Jarno Trulli’s vineyard? Just one race into the season, ITV delivered a gem presented (sic) by Tamara Ecclestone. She “interviewed” the Ferrari drivers going skiing, but all she could say was, “That’s wonderful. Amazing. Just incredible.”
Then, of course, there is James Allen. You don’t have to dig deep to find swathes of people on the internet criticising his coverage, often in rather rude terms. He is a good writer, but his contrived excited style really grates and he is constantly putting his foot in his mouth. Murray Walker made plenty of mistakes as well, but that was more endearing. James Allen has an air of smugness about his commentary that most people cannot abide.
It is strange because James Allen is a really good writer, and I thought he was a fine pit reporter as well. But he simply isn’t suited to the role of main commentator. ITV’s inaction over this matter — this is Allen’s seventh full season as ITV’s main commentator — earned them a major black mark in most F1 fans’ minds.
It is not all bad news though. It is easy to forget that ITV truly have revolutionised coverage of F1 since they won the rights in 1997. Even though the preview show is often annoying, at least it exists. The BBC used to do the bare minimum. A bit of competition is healthy, and no doubt the BBC will up their game. It certainly sounds like it from the little hints we have been hearing already. But I will write a separate post about that.