Sky High


For decades Formula 1 was, and always looked like being, a mainstay on major free-to-air, terrestrial channels. But when the announcement was made back in 2011 that Sky Sports had won the rights to broadcast all 20 races of the 2012 season, 10 of which exclusively live, I think it came to as a shock to many. The shock not so much being that the BBC was cutting its coverage, but that the rights had been sold to a commercial station. Budget cuts at the BBC were widely reported and known of, and Formula 1 was seen as a way of reducing the bills. After all, covering races live from across the globe for nearly 9 months of the year is a costly process, and one that all licence payers may not be happy for "Auntie" to fund.

The decision at the time didn't please all. In fact, it probably didn't please many; myself included. I've admired Sky's work in sport for a long time; their coverage (particularly of football, rugby, cricket etc) is second to none in the UK and arguably anywhere in the world. But it was one phrase in particular that caught my eye, and made me quiver a little inside. "Sky Sports treatment". I had visions of completely revamped (and not always brilliant) looking graphics, a team built up of in-house experts and too many advert breaks, possibly during races. Thankfully my worries of advert breaks in the races was quelled quickly, with the confirmation that races would be ad-free. After past incidents with commercial stations and badly timed adverts (Imola - Alonso/Schumacher anyone?), I think the decision to go with no breaks during the race was a wise, yet brave one.

The next of my worries to be expelled related to the team that was being assembled to front and present the coverage. If you'd ever managed to catch a glimpse of their coverage of F1 in the past, and by coverage I mean race result, then you'd have been forgiven for questioning whether anyone there actually knew anything about the sport. Incorrect driver names, team names, drivers racing for the wrong team etc etc. It really did make me wonder who was in control of the F1 segments, and who they'd hired to 'cover' the sport on a semi-regular basis.

Thankfully though, and this is where I believe Sky really have got it absolutely spot on, they recruited a team of proper F1 people. People with years of experience, both on the driving and reporting side of things, enabling them to function as a well oiled machine from the outset.

Martin Brundle is a man I've admired for many a year, both as a driver and more recently a commentator. My memory of him goes back to the Murray Walker days, but I don't think it was until he became the lead commentator for the BBC alongside David Coulthard that I really began to realise just how knowledgeable and interesting he was. You can tell within five minutes of listening to him that he was, and by and large still is, a racer. He knows Formula 1, he knows Formula 1 cars. He knows what he's talking about, something which makes a huge difference when on commentary. It's actually a pleasure listening to Martin for an hour and a half on a Sunday, something I can't necessarily say about a whole host of other people.

To work alongside Martin Sky again recruited from the BBC, this time David Croft. Personally I prefer television commentary to radio and as a result never heard too much of Croft when he was working for 5 live. But what I have experienced before, particularly when watching football, is the difference in commentary styles between television and radio. It's a transition that not many seem to be able to make, but he has. Without a good, hard working and knowledgeable commentary team the viewers are going to lose interest, and lose it quickly. Brundle and Croft are exactly that. They know what they're talking about, can provide an interesting insight into what is and what may be going on, and complement each other's style well.

Ted 'The Notebook' Kravitz (definitely should be his darts name) is yet another example of employing the right person to the right job. His knowledge and access to all things pitlane and pitstops is unrivalled. Natalie Pinkham's arrival, also from 5 live, has again been a wise one. She provides good interviews, works well on camera and most importantly, knows her stuff. With her role seemingly being increased ahead of the 2013 season, it seems the decision makers at Sky were also impressed.

I truly believe that whoever Sky had chosen to be the lead presenter was always going to have a tough time, largely because of the work done by Jake Humphrey for the BBC since 2009. He built up a rapport with the fans and connected to them like very few before (and possibly after) him. Presenting live television for several hours at a time, in a hectic environment like a Formula 1 paddock, was never going to be easy. However, I believe that through the whole team that Sky have built up, from commentators right through to ex-drivers like Damon Hill, Johnny Herbert and Anthony Davidson (who's pre and post-race analysis really is fantastic), that they've done it in the best way possible. The whole team appear to work well together, making the viewing experience an enjoyable and pleasant one.

Right, let's move on to a different part of the coverage. One of the reasons that I and so many others had enjoyed the BBC's coverage was that they tried harder than anyone or any time before them to bring Formula 1 close to the fans. Driver and team access in Formula 1 is possibly like any other sport, especially when you consider that drivers will talk to reporters just a matter of minutes before setting off for a 300km race. The video packages, interviews and quality of discussion, particularly through an after show, were just some of the reasons why so many millions in the UK tuned in for the whole 3 hours the show was being broadcasted. It's something that I had hoped Sky would follow suit in doing, and that they did. They didn't just follow, but expanded on and improved. Yes budget probably played a part, but so did the quality of the team they'd built up on and off screen.

Possibly the most significant addition to Formula 1 has been their dedicated F1 channel. Not only does it enable them to air all the action from a race weekend, but extra things like team-by-team season reviews, full length interviews with teams and drivers, historic races (2013 onwards) and most importantly, the GP2 and GP3 races. For a first year in the sport you can't deny that they haven't gone full out in as many areas as they could think of, whilst still keeping extremely high standards in all.

These standards were clearly recognised by those within the F1 fraternity; as Sky went on to win the 'Best TV Broadcast Award for Outstanding Coverage' at the annual FiA Prize Giving Ceremony in Istanbul in late 2012. Even for the most avid BBC fan can't deny just what a good job Sky did in their debut year. As I stated at the top of the piece, I initially had my doubts as to whether the decision to sell the rights to Sky was the right decision, but I'm more than glad to say that any doubts I had have been well and truly extinguished.

Now I realise that I'm in a lucky position, as the cost of Sky will price many fans out of the coverage. The decision to move Formula 1 in the UK to commercial television will never be popular with all, as it isn't and wasn't with any other sport or show. But I think what it has done is bring a new level competition into the broadcasting of the sport. I can't personally comment much on the BBC's coverage in 2012 as I tended to stick with Sky, but from reading people's thoughts on forums and Twitter, it seems that despite only having half the races live, the coverage still reached the excellent levels of previous years. So it seems that despite the changes to when and what they can broadcast, very little in terms of quality has changed. Do the arguments that were thrown at Sky's and Bernie's door 18 months ago still stack up? Have Sky done enough to show and prove that Formula 1 can exist and work on commercial television? Yes.

I look at it a bit like Lewis Hamilton's debut season. He started strongly, impressed many and instantly started competing with his far more experienced team mate. He then came back the next year even stronger and took the World Championship. Does it work? Well, sort of. Better than I thought it would anyway. You get the picture. Hopefully?

Overall you'd have to say that Sky must be pleased with the job they've done. There's been no dreaded "Sky Sports Treatment" (in my eyes at least), but instead just a well crafted and rounded team producing high quality television about a sport they love. 2013 looks set to build upon on the successes of 2012, and by the looks of it a lot of that will revolve around the fans. Fan interaction could be critical this year as they try to convince more fans to switch. If you follow their various accounts on Twitter you'll see the range of competitions, prizes and opportunities that they're offering to fans. People appreciate being listened to and I think it's something that Sky are only getting better at, not just through the main accounts on Twitter, but through the accounts of their commentary and reporting team. All are willing to listen, offer advice and feedback and come across as genuinely nice, caring folk. Success can be achieved just as easily off-screen as it can on-screen. Congratulations Sky on a very impressive first full year in Formula 1.

Paul Godley - 08/03/2013

Sky F1 team - via Daily Mail.

Top Drivers

Driver Points
Hamilton 252
Rosberg 211
Vettel 203
Raikkonen 107
Bottas 101
Massa 97



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