Thursday, 20 March 2008

Back on the Beeb

There was a fair bit of shock this morning when it was announced that F1 will be returning to the BBC after a 12 year stint at ITV.

ITV have shown remarkable commitment to the sport throughout these years, even when things were at their lowest ebb during the years of the Ferrari/Schumacher strangulation of the sport. It must be particularly galling for them to hear this news greeted with unbridled rejoicing throughout the F1 world. After all the millions they've pumped into the sport they have somehow ended up universally resented by Formula One fans in Britain and beyond.

There are two obvious reasons or this. One - constant advert breaks throughout the race, sometimes missing as much as 15 minutes of any given race. Two - the personnel, in particular lead commentator James Allen, but also the likes of irritating half-witted pit reporter Ted Kravitz. Obviously the first of these problems is automatically solved by the move to BBC. We can only hope that the second of these will be solved by getting rid of Allen, Kravitz, Goodman and co. Martin Brundle needs to be kept on of course, he's the best in the business (and you can sign an online petition for his services to be retained here - ), and I personally don't mind Steve Ryder. He was the presenter of 'Grand Prix' on the BBC throughout the nineties and I would have no problem in him returning to that post.

So what else can the BBC do to improve things? People have often complained about what is shown by the live director during the race, when in the past we have seen endless footage of Schumacher/Alonso/Hamilton cruising away by themselves at the front while we miss some good racing behind them in the midfield. However, the feed that ITV show, and indeed every other TV company in the world shows, comes directly from Bernie's FOM TV company. They employ a different live director for each race in each country. The actual broadcasters have no control over the feed that they receive. The camera angles, the replays, the onscreen graphics etc are identical in every country, so the BBC will be powerless to improve the coverage in that respect.

One thing that F1 fanatics will be keen for them to do is tone down the sickly, over-zealous promotion of Lewis Hamilton. Yes he's British; yes he's a nice guy; and yes he's ludicrously talented. That doesn't mean we want it shoved down our throats from the very first minute of the broadcast to the last. Some of us are interested in a little more than just Lewis. But what about the casual, drop in and out F1 viewer? Whilst many aficionados complained about the Hamilton-heavy coverage, the fact is that ITV received their best viewing figures in years. The season ending Brazilian Grand Prix was the most watched sporting event in Britain last year, even more popular than the Champions League Final. This was mostly down to the media hype around Stevenage's finest. So whilst it may have riled a few F1 die hards, the focus on Lewis Hamilton was in retrospect the right move in terms of drawing in the viewers, and in increasing the interest in the sport. For me that's no bad thing, and as such I doubt that the BBC will choose to tone down the coverage of Hamilton-mania too much, especially if he wins the title this year.

My big reservation over the BBC getting the rights to the coverage is the fact that they simply don't have that much money. They used to do a damn good job back in the eighties and nineties, but TV sports coverage has moved on enormously since then. People want ever more hi-tech production values, TV graphics and interesting features. ITV was able to do these things to a certain extent with the likes of Martin Brundle's "Inside F1" features, where he would analyse certain aspects of F1 car handling and the technology that impact upon it. These were very well put together, well produced pieces, utilising some sophisticated graphics and even gaining use of Red Bull and Williams F1 cars for Brundle to illustrate his points with. Will the BBC be able to commit the resources to producing features as good as this? I have my doubts.

So whilst the immediate reaction of the F1 fraternity seems to be a big sigh of relief, and even celebration in some circles, for me the jury is still out...

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