Sky Diving: Digging into Sky Sports F1’s Launch

It’s upon us, Sky Sports F1 (HD) has launched. Sky Sports is now the Primary broadcaster of Formula 1 in the United Kingdom, a position of considerable prestige and an enormous responsibility and legacy for Britain’s biggest Broadcaster to live up to. Sky is a controversial company, notably owing to its ownership by unpopular media giant News Corp, so their coverage will sink or swim on its quality. Sentimentality will not help them. So how are they doing so far? Well…

The Channel kicked things off with a grandiose two-hour Season Preview. This was hosted by the Sky Sports F1 anchorman, Simon Lazenby. He was joined by the assembled poached BBC Talent of Martin Brundle, Ted Kravitz & Anthony Davidson. Along with them were Sky Sports’s own Georgie Thompson and newbie Damon Hill, the 1996 Formula One World Champion. Further poached BBC Talent in the forms of David Croft, the new Lead TV Commentator (Formerly of BBC Radio 5 Live, where he has been replaced by James Allen), and Natalie Pinkham were featured in inserts. As was the resident “lighter side” of Sky Sports, Fenners. More on his “pivotal” role later.

Podium Worthy Performances

The standout feature of the new channel is the in-depth technical coverage provided by the two men who started their F1 Careers as the few beacons of good on F1’s buttmonkey broadcaster, ITV. Martin Brundle and Ted Kravitz both presented some decent packages looking more in-depth at technical features of the cars and the act of going racing (Or rather, testing).

Their performances were of the high standard F1 fans have come to expect of them, and both were and are clearly huge gets for Sky. Both men were at-ease on camera, they were clearly engaged and knowledgable and their features on the show were definitely the best segments.

Ted gave a fascinating look at some of the changes made to the cars aerodynamically using a 3D model which was superimposed in front of him on the set in an area known as the “Skypad” (More on the set and Skypad in particular later). He also anchored a decent Winter Testing Highlights package, which doubled as kind of a tease – fans are left to salivate at the prospect of Ted hosting all-day live coverage of the winter testing next season. Sky hasn’t promised this, but considering their resources, they’d be shortchanging fans enormously if it’s not at least being considered.

Martin, meanwhile, joined British Number 3 & 2011 Rookie of the Year, Paul di Resta, for the initial shakedown of the new Sahara Force India car, and was able to talk to di Resta over the Pit-to-Car radio as the new Flying Scot put the new challenger through its first minutes. It was a very cool bit of television and something a bit special – its rare for a broadcaster to get such privileged access to a car right as it debuts.

Anthony Davidson also impressed on his switch from radio commentator to expert TV pundit. He was totally at ease on camera, and he was clear and evidently well-informed. There was no talking-down to the audience from him, but he still managed to present things in an accessible manner and maintained a throughly pleasant demeanour throughout his time onscreen. He was also, along with Ted, one of the most natural feeling voices on the show – more on that shortly.

Scoring a Handful of Points

Damon Hill, always a thoroughly personable sort, did well enough on his debut as a pundit that his prospects look good. He was clear, his knowledge was evident and he was extremely friendly. There were a few slightly stilted interactions (Notably with Lazenby) but for the most part, Damon himself was impressive for a first-timer. With a few races under his belt, he will undoubtedly be right at home.

Natalie Pinkham didn’t get a massive amount of time to do her thing, but what she did do she did relatively well. She was called upon to conduct an interview with Mark Webber, which Sky took the questionable decision to conduct at a football match. This nakedly shallow attempt to connect with Sky’s pre-existing customer base almost ruined the segment, since it was hard for die hard F1 fans to take it seriously when the first half of the segment spent more time talking about Chelsea and Manchester United than it did Red Bull Racing and McLaren.

Pinkham managed, just about, to claw it back to relevance in the second half though. And her performance was decent enough, her genuine enthusiasm coming across well in the interview. Natalie isn’t the blockbuster hire that Kravitz and Brundle were, but she’s probably about as worthy of inclusion as Croft and Davidson. Certainly, she did a much better job justifying her pay check on launch night than Sky’s existing talent.

The show’s set is mostly functional, but it’d be a lie to say certain aspects of it aren’t a bit…Rubbish. The animated backdrop is fairly decent, generally showing a selection of old F1 cars rotating slowly but also able to show other things if need be (It notably changed at the close). The sofa and desk area though could probably use work. Thanks to Sky’s (baffling) insistence that on air talent wear suits, Lazenby, Hill & Brundle all looked slightly uncomfortable perched awkwardly on the edge of their seats. Ditching the ties did not do enough to make suits suitable attire for sitting somewhere other than at a desk.
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The “Skypad” section of the studio is also a mixed bag in terms of quality. The name, to begin with, is utterly and completely stupid. Every time on-air talent mentions “The Skypad” without a hint of irony, you can just about feel the entire viewing audience roll their eyes. The name is a (bafflingly moronic) reference to the giant touchscreen that powers the (In isolation, much more impressive) superimposed 3D car models and the highlights footage and statistics graphics the talent reference and analyse. It’s basically a giant iPad which lets the presenters and pundits call up statistics, video footage and so one by pressing onscreen icons.

This is, to be blunt, completely stupid. It’s pseudo-hip technological redundancy. There is nothing the Skypad touchscreen can do that someone in the Gallery could not do more efficiently without part of the screen having to be taken up by navigation controls or parts of the footage being covered by various parts of Anthony Davidson’s (Or whoever else has been stuck with the unenviable task of trying to make using the Skypad not seem preposterous on any given occasion) anatomy. The BBC sensibly did this the old-fashioned way. But Sky apparently want to convince us they have more whizzy cool technology. It’s twee and it’s stupid, but it’s a minor thing.

Toiling in the Mid-Field

The ad breaks are what will concern a great many of Sky Sports F1’s prospective customers. The broadcaster has promised uninterrupted coverage of the races along with the practice & qualifying sessions but commercials during the buildup and other content are a newfound nuisance. In this respect, it’s a little hard to judge based on the launch show. The first ad break came surprisingly late in the show, around 20-25 minutes after the start. Later on though, it seemed as if the breaks were longer than the parts of the show they were bookending.

So far then, no huge problems have emerged with the ad breaks in the launch show or the channel’s filler content, but judgment should be reserved until we see how much they hurt the build up etc. Particularly, how much of the 90 Minute Race Buildup is ads. 90 Minutes is the new record, but if more than half an hour is ads, the BBC still provided/provides more buildup than Sky.

The channel’s filler content so far has been pretty good. There seems to be a heavy rotation of Marmite-esque interview programme Legends of F1 (It’s well-liked by some, if considered too short, but I refuse to have anything to do with it because it’s anchored by Steve “The Lettuce” Rider, a man who actually managed to give the terribly produced Commentary of James Allen on ITV a run for its money as the most hateful part of their pitiful final years on air as the F1 broadcaster).

Also on offer is plenty of archival stuff for diehards to relive the glory days. Some of this is presented in a packaged documentary style, some is simply highlights – of note, the channel is playing the Official Formula One 2011 Season Review (And, presumably, will play others) which was previously only available on DVD and Blu-Ray. The prospect of being able to watch (And, on Sky+HD, record) these previously optical media-exclusive Season Review packages on TV is certainly a pleasant one. From watching the 2011 Review, it does seem like the ad breaks are well distributed in these. The review has been split up into four programming segments. I watched the first two, covering the first half of the season, in a back-to-back block. It works well.

As I said, so far the filler content seems good. If it continues to be this enticing, it will undoubtedly be worthy of positioning higher up the rankings than I’ve placed it here. I have kept it in the mid-field section primarily because it remains to be seen if Sky can keep the channel fresh and exciting for a whole year.

Getting Lapped Three Times

Just like in anything though, there are always aspects of any given broadcaster’s F1 coverage which leave a lot to be desired. The BBC’s post-ITV era spoilt fans by having fewer of these major niggles than ever – primarily, they were limited to Jonathan Legard’s grating commentary style and a distinct systemic Red Bull bias. There were other minor flaws with the BBC’s coverage (Eddie Jordan is a love or loathe prospect as a pundit – not because some people love him and some people loathe him but because sometimes he is contemptibly awful, while others he is extremely good) but for the most part it was lacking in deal breakers (Whether this continues to be the case in the new era remains to be seen, but is unlikely – the lack of 100% live coverage is already a huge minus point).

Sky, considering the act it has to follow and the fact it is the first primary F1 Broadcaster in the UK to demand payment from fans, had few excuses for weaknesses in their lineup. Unfortunately, they have two whacking great problems already, and we haven’t even seen their race coverage yet. However, it does not bode well that one of these flaws is the anchorman himself, Simon Lazenby.

Indeed, it is perhaps indicative of just why the BBC were so good at Formula One that Lazenby and Thompson, the only two human parts of Sky Sports F1 which are bespoke Sky components, are its weakest. Indeed, extrapolating that further, everything about Sky Sports F1 which is more Sky Sports than it is F1, is thoroughly in need of retooling. The set and baffling suits-only dress code – both Sky Sports mainstays – are equally dragging the show down. Formula One in suits, and Formula One on a set, just do not feel natural. ITV used a set for a number of years, but discarded it because it was isolating the buildup and analysis from the action – one of the few changes made later in their coverage which was an improvement.

Luckily, the set in question seems to be intended to be used primarily for The F1 Show, the weekly magazine show, and will not be involved in the race coverage.

UPDATE 11/3/2012: Alas, it seems Sky is planning to use a Studio for the race coverage, with their Insider Twitter account Tweeting a picture of its container being unpacked today. Whether or not it is a duplicate remains to be seen, but I will certainly be giving my thoughts on its role in the race coverage after Melbourne.

Lazenby and Thompson (Alongside, presumably, those damned suits) on the other hand, willbe involved in the coverage of Grand Prix weekends. And if that’s the case, they need to step up their game enormously from what they demonstrated on launch night. Lazenby was awkward, false and grating. His enthusiasm seemed fake, his questions for Brundle & Hill were frequently asinine, he was clearly lacking in knowledge about F1 and he even managed to cut off Brundle a couple of times. Cutting off the jewel in the coverage’s crown? Not a good move.

Yes, it seemed Lazenby had been plucked directly out of the rugby coverage and dumped onto the F1 set without a moment’s preparation. And considering we know he had plenty of preparation, that’s appalling. Lazenby’s performance is particularly atrocious compared to Jake Humphrey on the BBC. Humphrey is a BBC Lifer, he is Mr BBC, they have been grooming him to be their most significant talent for years. And yet, his presence in the F1 coverage always felt earned, right from the start. You never feel like Jake is just there because he’s the BBC’s golden boy. His enthusiasm is clearly genuine. Lazenby…Not so much.

Lazenby’s biggest crime though is probably his ill-informed nature. He provoked widespread face palming when he referred to drivers & team personnel changing teams and positions over the winter as the “transfer window”. This was also an example of another problem with bespoke Sky aspects of the show.

They’re dumbing the coverage down hard if the launch show is anything to go by. Yes, they’re offering some cool in-depth technical stuff with Martin & Ted, but the general presented segments are being approached the way Sky approaches football. Sky needs to learn – fast – that F1 fans are generally significantly better informed & engaged with their sport than football fans, who tend to be more casual simply by sheer force of numbers.

The worst part is that two different people are competing to be the poster child of Sky’s dumbed down coverage. One the one hand, we have Georgie Thompson nodding moronically as Antony Davidson speaks and asking Jenson Button preposterously vague and pointless questions along the lines of “so are you a good driver?”. It’s not lost on me that Thompson is an attractive lady. I like good-looking women as much as the next straight guy, but I also like women who are intelligent and I like on-air talent to come across as well-informed. Thompson seems to be setting about to single-handedly undo all the good work done by Suzi Perry or Lee McKenzie (And to a lesser extent, Natalie Pinkham) in raising the profile of women in motorsport broadcasting. Thompson’s presence smacks of being part of a Sky Sports “viewers are morons” policy which requires eye candy to keep the LADS interested.

Further evidence that Sky just doesn’t seem to get F1.

And if you want some more proof, it comes in the form of the other person trying to be the poster child of Sky dumbing down the coverage, Fenners. Fenners is, apparently, some dickhead who used to be slightly popular on Soccer AM and has since enjoyed a minor resurgence as a “lighter side” personality on Sky Sports’s Football coverage. I’m not a football fan, so I had no idea who he was or why I should care. I found out later – they didn’t bother explaining what he was doing there.

Evidently Sky felt the need to provide a touchstone for the dullards they (Apparently) take football fans to be in case they decided to check out the Sky Sports F1 channel (Terrifyingly, we were promised he will be back throughout the year). His whole schtick was wandering around during testing being uninformed. Not becoming more informed I hasten to add. His taped segment focused entirely on him being an uninformed twat and making an idiot of himself. If this is how Sky sees sports fans they need help. It was particularly grating having to put up with this nonsense in the launch show.

Who, aside from F1 fans, was really going to watch the launch show? You’d have to be at least a little engaged with F1 already to care about watching the launch show. So what was he for?

Anyway, there you have it. Those are my thoughts on Sky Sports F1 (HD) so far. I’ll be checking in with more thoughts on the F1 coverage throughout the year – including taking a look at the new BBC packages on TV & radio and comparing them to Sky’s offerings – so keep an eye out for more.